Who killed the League of American Wheelmen?

Detroit Streetcar and bicyclistIn 1888, the pneumatic bicycle tire was invented which made riding on rough roads much more comfortable. By 1890, the safety bicycle design (what we have today) replaced the more difficult to ride highwheelers. This also opened the door for more women riders.

It was these milestones that ushered in the mass adoption of bicycles. Bicycle production peaked at nearly 2 million in 1897.

Historians call this the golden age of bicycling.

And during this time, the League of American Wheelmen (LAW) was the national bicycle advocacy organization.

They had a Michigan Division which was led by Edward Hines during most of the 1890s. They were highly successful as Hines noted in his membership drive from 1899. They fought for equal access to Detroit roads and against ordinances requiring lights, bells, and bike registration. They got bikes allowed on trains. They got the city to build a bicycle pavilion on Belle Isle. Also, in 1896 the Detroit Wheelmen built a very fine 3-story club house.

Nationwide, there were 102,636 LAW members in 1898.

By 1902, there were 8,692 members. The bicycle craze was over and the LAW closed their doors.

A popular perception is the arrival of the car killed the bicycle’s popularity, but the timeline doesn’t support that.

From 1901 to 1904, Detroit’s Olds Motor Works was the nation’s leading auto manufacturer. They produced 425 cars in 1901 and 2,500 in 1902. The Ford Motor Company didn’t exist until 1903. While many cyclists undoubtedly switched to cars, there weren’t enough (affordable) cars in 1901 to replace all the bicycles.

It seems likely that many bicyclists switched to streetcars — at least in Detroit.

In December of 1900, all of Metro Detroit’s streets car were consolidated into one Detroit Urban Railway (DUR) system. The fare was a flat 5 cents on most lines and 3 cents on the remainder. By 1901, the DUR acquired nearly all of the interurban lines, which provided rapid rail travel to cities outside of Detroit and as far away as Port Huron, Jackson and Toledo.

Below is an excerpt from a May 1901 LAW Bulletin article that notes cyclists switching to streetcars.

Why do we note a decline in wheeling? We think it has its root in the laziness of mankind. Time was when men wanted to get out and see the country and they employed the wheel. They had to work for it but they felt paid for all their labor in what they took in of scenery and fresh air. And now comes the trolley car and takes them out into the open country and they do no labor, get nearly all of it without work and for a nickel. We are such a lazy set that we use the nickel.

But that is not all. There is another point where wheeling hits a man in his lazy longitude. It’s a question of clothes. When a man desires to ride he must change his clothes, and when he has finished he must make another change. The trolley car requires no change of clothing and he takes the trolley. These two appeals to a man’s laziness have been very potent factors in causing riders to give up the wheel.

But all men are not lazy. There are many left who vote the wheel the king of pleasures. There are many who do ride and who will ride as long as they have strength to push a pedal and a keen appreciation of the beauties of nature when we meet her face to face. The trolley car does not put us into communion with nature as the wheel does. It does not go into the by ways the forest roads the out of the way places where we find the richest treasures of scenery. There is an independence on the wheel that we do not have on the trolley and there is an exhilaration that comes to us in no other way.

It seems the same author published an article with a similar tone in the October 1901 Bulletin, which ended with this foretelling sentence:

We are too lazy to work for our fun and we fear the muscular development we were once proud of will give place to flabbiness.

But eventually Detroit’s railway system suffered a similar demise as its ridership shifted to using buses and cars.

However, it should be noted that the futures of bicycling and light rail in Detroit are looking brighter than they have in generations. And this time, they can enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship, not unlike what the SMART (and forthcoming DDOT) bus bike racks provide.

Reference: LAW Cycling Handbook from 1945

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4 Responses to “Who killed the League of American Wheelmen?”

  1. Posts about bicycle advocacy as of October 10, 2009 | BikeTravellers News Says:

    […] about bicycle advocacy as of October 10, 2009 10 10 2009 Who killed the League of American Wheelmen? – m-bike.org 10/10/2009 In 1888, the pneumatic bicycle tire was invented which made riding on […]

  2. Rail trail mired in legal issues; m-bike.org; Go Bike! ride rescheduled | PedalGR Says:

    […] Who killed the League of American Wheelmen? […]

  3. Bill Aldrich Says:

    The ending paragraph about the demise of the Detroit trolley system should have had a reference to the role that GM and Big Oil had in buying up the privately owned systems and trashing them. Another “guilty” part might be urban city politicians who prevented fare increases so the owners could not improve the systems.

  4. Todd Scott Says:

    We didn’t reference GM or Big Oil in the demise of the Detroit streetcar network because they had no role. It would be misleading. We’re just not in the business of promoting conspiracies.

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