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Bike History 2Thousands of people taking to the streets on bicycles. Companies setting up shop and making innovative two-wheelers. New transit facilities designed with cyclists in mind.

Sound like Massachusetts today? It is . . . except that these events took place in the 1890s!

While the annual Bay State Bike Week celebrates the most recent resurgence in bicycling in the Commonwealth, Massachusetts has long been at the forefront of the bicycling movement in America, dating to when the cycling craze first swept the country after the invention arrived from Europe – before Boston South Station opened.

Boston’s Albert Pope first glimpsed the bicycle at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, and by the following year he had opened bicycle importer and maker Pope Manufacturing Company at 45 High Street in Boston. Two years later, Pope introduced the first American made bicycle, the Columbia. Dozens of Columbia models would follow over the next 20 years, many built at the company’s plant in Westfield and sold through the Pope showroom at 211 Columbus Avenue.

Bike HistoryOne of Pope’s rivals, A.H. Overman of Chicopee and the Victor bicycle line, is credited with the advancement that really boosted cycling’s popularity. In 1885 he created and patented the “safety” bicycle, which positioned the seat on the frame in the middle of two nearly equal-sized wheels. That design attracted many new riders who were leery of riding early “penny-farthing” bicycles with their huge front wheel and small rear wheel.

 Massachusetts took to bicycling for its practical, recreational, and social benefits. The Boston Bicycling Club, the first in the country, was founded in 1878; the next year, Harvard became the first American college to host a bicycling club.

Pope, a leading promoter of the bicycling industry and also the effort to improve America’s roads, co-founded the Massachusetts Bicycling Club in 1879 and helped launch the national League of American Wheelmen in 1880. In 1882, the Springfield Bicycle Club began holding an annual bicycle meet, highlighted by a 25-mile amateur bicycle race.

As were the social norms of the day, participation in bicycling clubs often was segregated by race, class, gender, and ethnic lines. Lorenz J. Finison explores many of the societal elements of bicycling in this era in his book, “Boston’s Cycling Craze, 1880-1900.” For example, in 1893, the Riverside Cycling Club became the first black cycling group, with members largely from Boston and Cambridge who were excluded from other clubs. Finison also profiles Kittie Knox, a biracial seamstress known for her prize-winning cycling costumes, who challenged the League of American Wheelmen’s “color bar,” and others who rebuffed challenges in a time of segregation, increased immigration, and debates about the rights of women.

By 1896, the Boston Herald estimated the city’s bicycling population at more than 100,000, nearly one-fourth of its residents. In 1899, a new law required Boston cyclists to carry a light when riding at night. That same year, Boston South Station opened, and among the “minor conveniences” included in the description of the gleaming train terminal were “ample bike racks.”

More than a century later, improving conditions and opportunities for bicycling is central to MassDOT’s transportation vision. Through its GreenDOT framework, MassDOT is working on a wide range of initiatives to triple the share of non-automobile trips – including those by bicycle – throughout the Commonwealth by 2030.

By then, perhaps Massachusetts can claim the title bestowed on Boston in an 1883 article in the journal Outing:  “Bicycling paradise of America.”

Do you have ideas about bicycling and walking in the South Station area? Share your thoughts online at:

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