For a period from about 1880 to 1910 bicycling enjoyed its greatest popularity in this country. While it was popular throughout the US, the city of Buffalo was a hotbed for bicycling, and was referred to as “The Wheelman’s Paradise.”
Early bicycles were expensive and hard to ride —- you’ve seen the “ordinary” bicycle with a huge front wheel, right? Well, in the 1880s the “safety” bicycle came along, and it was much easier to use and much less expensive. Similar to most modern bicycles, the safety bicycle had a diamond-shaped frame, pedals below the saddle that power the back wheel through a chain and gears, handle bars to the front wheel, and forks supporting the front wheel. Around the turn of the 20th century there weren’t many automobiles, horses and carriages were expensive, and public transportation was always great. Therefore, when bicycles (they were often called “wheels” then) got better and cheaper they experienced massive growth, especially in Buffalo.
So why was Buffalo in particular such a great city for bicycling? A poem by Charles Harris that appeared in the Buffalo Courier in 1893 touched on some of the reasons:
With gay decked lawns on either side
Of avenues, both clean and wide,
And just a nice, delightful run
To Falls, or Hamburg; oh, such fun!
With here and there a park to rest,
For weary but enraptured guest,
Who, asked, would answer in a trice,
“Why here is the Wheelman’s Paradise!”
Yes, yes, she leads, ‘tis really so
Fair Buffalo, fair Buffalo!
Buffalo was a beautiful place to ride a bike, especially with the development of the system of parks and parkways designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, which were being constructed at the time. In addition, during a period when there weren’t a lot of paved, well-maintained roads, Buffalo had more than its share. It helped that bike enthusiasts, many of whom were wealthy and well-connected, had advocated for more paved roads. In addition, with the Pan American Exposition coming in 1901, Buffalo wanted to look its best for the many visitors it anticipated.
By the time of the Pan American, bicycling was not just a recreation for the well-to-do but also a means of commuting for the working-class. In 1901 Bicycle seller W.C. Jaynes, located at 520 Main St., ran a newspaper ad in advance of the Exposition urging readers to prepare for “50,000 to 100,000 strangers in town every week for the next six months.” The ad maintained the street cars were “already jammed” and it told readers: “You cannot wait or walk. You’ve got to be at work on time. You must hustle home for meals. You’ll want to get out to the Exposition once in a while.” Readers were urged to get around quickly by buying a bike from the shop, which cost from $22.50 to $40, and could be paid in weekly installments of $1.50.
In fact, the newspaper Brooklyn Life wrote in August 1901 that “Visitors to Buffalo this summer have been astonished by the number of bicycles flying about the city in every direction.” It agreed that Buffalo “is, in truth, a wheelman’s paradise.” The reasons, it concluded was its 250 miles of “excellent asphalt pavement” and 25 miles of roads in its parks system “where bicycling is a thorough delight.”
Many famous bicycle treks passed through the city. In 1884 Thomas Stevens stopped in Buffalo on his way to becoming the first person to circle the globe by bicycle. So did Annie Cohen Kopchovsky, better known as Annie Londonderry, who in 1895 became the first woman to bicycle around the world. In fact, it was in Buffalo that Annie decided to ditch the long, Victorian-style dress she had been riding in. She bought a pair of boy’s pants from a local store and turned them into knickerbockers, and added a blue serge yachting cap, tweed coat and vest. According to the Buffalo Morning Express her outfit was “an extraordinary and exceedingly unfeminine costume.”
Among the numerous bicycling clubs in Buffalo there was even one for women. Bicycling played such a pivotal role in the women’s rights movement that Susan B. Anthony once said of the bicycle, “I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”
Because bicycling was so popular in Buffalo, it was also a hotbed for bicycles races of all distances, indoors and outdoors. Many of the great racers of the era came to Buffalo to compete. On August 8, 1902 Buffalonians witnessed two of the sport’s legends, Frank Kramer and Major Taylor, compete against each other. Kramer, one of bicycling’s great racers, narrowly defeated Taylor, the first African American to achieve a world championship in any sport, in a five-mile race held at the Buffalo Athletic Field, located at Main Street and Jefferson Avenue (The site of that field was the location of a Sears store for many years, and now is part of Canisius College.).
By the 1920s the bicycle boom was over, in Buffalo and in most American cities, due mostly to one factor: the automobile. Backed by powerful financial interests, the car had taken over American roadways and left little room for bicycles. Through the 1950s bikes were mostly considered children’s toys. However, in the 1970s bikes experienced a resurgence as fitness and the environment became priorities for many. In recent years bicycling has experienced much growth, particularly as a means of commuting in urban areas. It’s helped that cities like Buffalo have invested in the expansion and improvement of bike networks, built new bike paths and added on-street bike lanes. Innovations like bike racks on buses, bike sharing and promotional programs have helped as well.
The key to making Buffalo a paradise for bicyclists again is to create safe and protected bikeways, and we’re making a lot of progress. Cars may be far ahead, but bikes are certainly catching up.
Photo: Annie Londonderry, “the clever and intrepid little wheelwoman,” as described by the Buffalo Courier, stopped in the city on her trip around the world