Monday, March 29, 2010

A Different History of Transportation: Bicycling & Multi-Modalism Circa 1900

Chartered in 1860, Salem is this year celebrating its own Sesquicentennial. On her SHINE blog, local historian Virginia Green is marching year-by-year through Salem's history. It's a great project - but in one important way, its history reflects a conventional wisdom that needs to be revised.

Just last week, Green wrote about 1905, when she notes that
Mrs. John Albert, Mary, dies after injuries in one of Salem's first automobile accidents according to Pioneer Cemetery records of her death and funeral. She was the daughter of pioneer, Joseph Holman, and mother of noted photographer, Myra Albert Wiggins.
Two days before she observed that
Henry Ford introduces his new Motor Company and the Wright Brothers fly in Kitty Hawk

It is often noted that the Wright Brothers were bike mechanics before they were flight mechanics! And in Salem, between 1890 and 1910, bicycling was a central part of the transportation system, far more important than the motor vehicle.

It wasn't, in fact, until the late 19-teens that auto ownership and use equaled bike ownership and use. Portland's first auto came in 1899, Salem's in 1903, and the little town of Pratum's in 1912. In 1905, 218 autos were registered in the state; by 1911, it was 6,428. The 1910 census gives Oregon's population as 672,765, so in 1911 even if we assume that car owners had only one each, less than 1% of the population had a car.

Even in Portland and Salem, in 1912 autos were luxury goods, expensive and out-of-reach for most people, much more expensive as a proportion of yearly income than iPods or even fancy notebook computers. Even in the 1920s horse-drawn carriages were common.

When we write the history of the very early 20th century, we should not overstate the presence of the motor vehicle. They were far from ubiquitous.

Conversely, as we write this same history, we need to rescue bicycling from the scrap heap. For in the 1890s, the bicycle was leading edge technology, an advanced form of ground transportation. In the next two decades, it remained speedy ground transport that, once the second-hand market developed, became quite affordable.

A picture says it best. Check out this 1905/6 film. It is from San Francisco (pre-earthquake), and it is from the nose of a cablecar, going down Market Street. (full details here, h/t streetsblog)



San Francisco was a large port city, rich from mid-century gold. Even with all the wealth, there were many more horse-drawn vehicles than motor vehicles at this time. The cablecar/streetcar infrastructure was the most important part after wagons/carts/buggies.

Needless to say, in Salem, with much less weath, motor vehicles were a paltry bit of the transportation system at this time - expensive and fancy gadgets, a spectacle, and in no way moving significant numbers of people or goods.

Bicycles did move significant numbers. They were so popular that in 1899 the State Legislature passed a law to create a network of bicycle paths, highways between communities that were better surfaced than the roads, deep and think with gloppy mud and manure. (We should not underestimate the amount of crap on the roads!) In Marion County surveyor B.B. Herick, Jr., surveyed 5 routes each in 1899 and 1900:
Salem and Aurora
Salem and Turner
Jefferson and Turner
Salem and Silverton
North Salem and the Wheatland Ferry along Matheny Road
I.O.O.F (Pioneer) Cemetery and the Liberty Store along Commercial & Liberty
the Fair Grounds and the Howell Prairie Post Office
Pratum and Silverton Road
Brooks and Silverton
The Butte Creek Bridge at Monitor and Woodburn.
In May of 1899 the Salem Cycle Association designated Winter street as part of the main north-south bicycle route in Salem. It was to connect two of the cycle paths, one to Aurora, the other to Jefferson.

Everyone biked. Note the women bicyclists in this detail from an image of a marching band on State street in the very early 1900s.

Leaders, too, biked. Governor Geer (1899 - 1903) often biked to the Capitol from his farm in Macleay. When in 1900 he visited Champoeg to locate the site of the 1843 meetings, he biked. In his 1911 memoir, Fifty Years in Oregon, Geer wrote about this ride:
I shall never forget that beautiful ride from Salem to Champoeg. It was a perfect day, with a firm north breeze, not a cloud in the sky; the roads were in good condition, the crops were growing splendidly, birds were singing everywhere, seemingly to be in harmony with Nature’s glad mood – it was, in short, just that sort of day which is known in all its wealth of joy, beauty, and inspiration only in the Willamette valley in the spring and summer months.

As we consider increasingly scarce oil, more expensive energy, and a potential shift to electric vehicles, we do well to remember that the automobile itself is something contingent and of recent vintage. The motor car is not merely historic, but also historical, and we all know history changes.

For more on this history see this article on Marion County.

1 comment:

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