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All The Bicycle Railroads Of A Century Ago Have Disappeared

Betty Boop - Bicycle Boop

Cycling was born in Europe, but American ingenuity and know-how helped bring it to maturity — and affordability. In the years before automobiles took over, a strange hybrid form of transportation briefly flourished in the 1890s.

The long-awaited inauguration of a most improbable conveyance took place on September 13, 1892, when the Mount Holly & Smithville Bicycle Railroad was opened to a skeptical public. It was unique among the railroads of the world. It was nonpolluting, quiet, and very healthful for the patron. It had no cars or engines, and was one of the world’s shortest and most scenic lines, crossing and recrossing the meandering Rancocas Creek ten times in one mile. Riders enjoyed scenery and pure country air as they pedaled to a terminus at the pretty little village of Smithville, with its imposing mansion, millpond, and splashing water wheels.

The M.H.&S. was built as serious transportation, intended to allow the residents of Mount Holly, New Jersey, to commute more conveniently to and from their jobs at the bustling shops of the H. B. Smith Manufacturing Company in Smithville, 1.8 miles away. The railroad opened during the annual Mount Holly fair and became an instant success—as an amusement. The Mount Holly News reported that 3,000 people rode it in its first week.

The line had its shortcomings, including a shortage of bicycles, but the biggest drawback was the tracks themselves. Plans called for double-tracking the entire line, but only half a mile was1 double-tracked by opening day. This meant that a rider had to dismount and lift the heavy contraption off the rail when he encountered someone traveling in the opposite direction.

Professor Arthur Hotchkiss, the inventor and promoter of the line, had many inventions to his credit, from clocks to ordnance. A proper New Englander, dashing in his fastidious dress, full, dark beard, and derby hat, he was known for his devoutness. It is said that he refused to sell his bicycle-railway design for use at Coney Island because the proprietors wanted to operate it on Sundays.

Hotchkiss’s railway ran on a track that looked like a wooden farm fence. Posts were set into the ground to a height of about four feet, and stringers were nailed across them. The top rail of the fence served as the track. This was capped by an inverted iron T-rail, upon which the grooved wheels of the vehicles rode. Eventually turntables and switching spurs were installed at strategic points.

The vehicles were quite simple, except for their drive mechanism. A double triangular framework straddled the track. The twenty-inch driving wheel was in front. Next came the handlebars, not for steering but to hold onto. When pushed forward, they rubbed a brake pad against the front wheel. Then came the operator’s saddle and finally the small trailing wheel. Treadles powered the bicycle and a set of idler wheels ran along either side of the fence to keep the device steady. The vehicles used the drive mechanism of the Star bicycle, which was produced by the H. B. Smith Company.

The Mount Holly & Smithville line’s initial success interested the promoters of the World’s Columbian Exposition, which was to be held in Chicago the next year. In late 1892 the local papers announced that the professor had been invited to exhibit his railroad there. He and his engineer, W. S. French, made several trips to Chicago and ordered two hundred bicycles for the installation. Histories, guidebooks, and photo books of the fair don’t even mention the bicycle railway there, and only one original ticket for the ride is known to exist today, but it did run, and it was clearly a financial disaster. Records indicate a gross income of $185. This would have been barely enough to pay for three of the two hundred bicycles, let alone construction and operation costs.

Bicycle railroads proved more successful in resort towns along the New Jersey shore. In the two years following the Mount Holly line’s introduction, several were built as amusement devices. One was installed in 1893 in Atlantic City by Alfred and Edward Moore. Since it was the only other line ever built according to Hotchkiss’s original design, it may have used the equipment built for Chicago.

Besides the three fence-type railroads, there were three built with a suspended design, in which riders hung from rails approximately eight feet above the ground. One was built in Atlantic City in 1893; the others were in Ocean City (1893) and Gloucester (1894), New Jersey. The suspended type was much more impressive than the original; with a little imagination it gave the sensation of flight. Even so, it didn’t last.

The bicycle railroad was a good idea that came along too late. In the 1890s regular safety bicycles were becoming more popular and affordable every day. Who would pay to ride on a prescribed course when his own bicycle would take him wherever he fancied?

The Mount Holly & Smithville Bicycle Railroad shut down in the summer of 1898. By then the track had so deteriorated that accidents and injuries were frequent; a slowdown of business at the Smith plant had eliminated commuters; and the novelty value had worn off. There is no record of what became of the equipment, but when the Atlantic City suspended line was sold to pay a debt two years earlier, it brought only $100.

Unsurprisingly, all the bicycle railroads of a century ago have disappeared, but one of the original railroad bicycles is in a museum, at the H. B. Smith mansion in Smithville. The H. B. Smith Manufacturing Company went out of business in the early 1980s, and portions of the complex are being developed as a historical park.

There is one lasting success story in the saga of the bicycle railroad. About 1901 W. G. Bean, an Englishman who had been working in advertising in New York City, returned to his native Blackpool carrying bicycles and plans for a railroad of the original fence type. He installed it on the beach at Blackpool, along with a carousel. The railroad operated until about 1910 and was part of the foundation upon which the Blackpool pleasure beach—once called “Europe’s greatest amusement park”—was built. And Arthur Hotchkiss’s name still lives in Hotchkiss Patents and Investments, Ltd., a subsidiary of the Blackpool Pleasure Beach Company, which runs the amusement park founded by Bean.

Besides Columbia, Mo., and Portland, Ore., many other cities are promoting bicycling

  • Boulder, Colo.
    At least 95% of major roads have bike lanes or trails. In 2005, the city was among the first to launch a Safe Routes to School program to encourage kids to walk and bike to school.
  • Tucson, Ariz.
    All new street construction is required to include bike lanes. The city created a "Share the Road" safety guide for bicyclists and motorists.
  • Davis, Calif.
    One of the first cities to incorporate bicycling into its transportation infrastructure, the university town of 60,000 has more bikes than cars.

Darwin Hindman is the mayor of Columbia, Missouri, which he's transforming into one of the nation's premier cycling cities. "Here outside this café is a huge corral of racks for locking your bike," Hindman says, riding along happily. "And here, we've painted a bike lane. We want bicyclists to feel as happy as larks out in the road."

Until recently, Columbia (pop. 100,733) was, like most American cities, designed almost exclusively for automobile transit, offering up a host of four-lane mini-highways over which motorists could zoom between parking lots. For Hindman, a retired lawyer, the situation was all wrong. "If we depend too much on cars, then we increase our reliance on foreign oil, childhood obesity goes up, and life just isn't as much fun," he says.

Across the country, the number of bicyclists has exploded. Between 2003 and 2007, the number of American bike commuters increased 38%. Yet many of these riders are forced onto dangerously crowded streets and roads designed for motorists, not bicyclists. In fact, in 2007, 698 cyclists nationwide were killed and more than 44,000 were injured in collisions with motor vehicles.

The Federal Highway Administration has launched a pilot program with an aim to make roads safer and more enjoyable. More than $90 million has been allocated to four communities—Columbia, Minneapolis, Sheboygan County, Wis., and Marin County, Calif. Each will receive about $22.5 million to make them more bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly.

With the support of Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R., Mo.), who helped launch the program, Hindman recently ordered concrete bike paths alongside Columbia's streets, rejiggered major intersections for bike safety, and turned existing residential streets into "bike boulevards" with painted bike lanes and obstacles to slow down cars.

Other cities are enacting their own changes. New York City just spent three years building 200 miles of bike lanes. Louisville, Ky., lured more than 10,000 cyclists to a Mayor's Memorial Day Hike & Bike Ride. And tiny Carmel, Ind., identified a 100-mile network, an "Access Bikeway," that consists of existing streets on which cyclists can safely ride.

Congress is watching the Federal Highway Administration's pilot program closely. Rep. Jim Oberstar (D., Minn.) is now pushing for the passage of a new transportation bill that reportedly could devote up to $1 billion a year to facilitate biking and walking across the country. But not everyone is happy about the new embrace of cycling. Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) has decried "pet projects like walkways and bicycle paths," saying they come "at the expense of our nation's roads and bridges."

While it may be too soon to gauge the success of early efforts, bicyclists in Portland, Ore., are setting the pace. Since 1992, the city has spent almost $60 million—or roughly the cost of building one mile of an urban highway—to enhance its cycling infrastructure. The number of riders flowing across the city's bridges has more than quadrupled, and on one bridge last year, more than 20% of all trips were made by bicycle. Portland, meanwhile, has become one of the few U.S. cities to decrease its greenhouse-gas emissions below 1990 levels.

Columbia is still far from equaling Portland's gold standard, but Mia Birk, once Bicycle Program Manager for Portland and now a principal in a transit-planning firm there, notes: "There's no overnight magic wand you can wave. It takes a generation to change an ingrained habit like driving, but Columbia is on its way." From 2007 to 2008, the number of cyclists riding midweek increased by 71%. There are now about 10,000 people riding Columbia's streets.

Among the new converts is Bonnie Trickey, a 66-year-old mortgage broker who had scarcely mounted a bike in three decades—and was afraid to brave Columbia's streets. Trickey took a city-sponsored cycling-safety class and now rides through Columbia's hillier neighborhoods for an hour most mornings. Likewise, Alvin Sweezer, 40, a school custodian, commutes 15 miles each way from his home. Sweezer's journey begins at 5 a.m., in darkness, and wends up a couple of steep hills and over a potholed country bridge before passing a yard full of dogs who invariably greet him with bloodcurdling growls. Still, he says, "Even if it snows, I ride in. They plow the roads pretty good around here."

But Columbia's most stalwart cyclist is probably the mayor. Hindman rides about 60 miles each week—to the grocery store, to meetings, and to the dog park, hauling his faithful mutt, Loki, in a bike trailer. Hindman's next goal is to connect every neighborhood to a bike path, in the hope that he can continue to wean citizens from auto-dependence. "If we could get people to use their bikes or walk on 20% of their short trips, I'd be delighted," he says. Meanwhile, the mayor will keep pedaling. "Every ride is different," he says. "Every ride is a new adventure."

Herbert B. Stockinger. The Bicycle Railroad. American Heritage. Spring 1992; Volume 7, Issue 4.
Bill Donahue. A Free-Wheeling City. PARADE Magazine. September 27, 2009.

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