May is National Bike month, so all across the United States bicycle advocates are staging events to raise awareness about topics like bike safety, bicycle rights and responsibilities, as well as promoting recreation on two wheels. In this era of high-stress traffic and congestion in the Lowcountry and elsewhere, bicycles are part of the larger conversation about pursuing sustainable, alternative forms of transportation that would help break the gridlock on our roads and help protect our fragile environment from damages caused by our long dependence on fossil fuels. But I’m not here to convince to you go out and ride a bicycle. I’m a historian, so my job is to share cool stories from the past that have some relevance in our present world. And it just so happens that the story of the bicycle in Charleston is not only fun and interesting, it also has a great deal of relevance to the transportation debates going on in our community. So strap on your helmet, kick up your kickstand, and let’s take a quick ride through 148 years of bicycling in the Charleston area.
Celebrating 148 Years of Bicycling in Charleston
I’ve been collecting information about the history of bicycles in our community for several years now, and almost all of the information I’ve gathered comes from old Charleston newspapers. At first I wasn’t even looking for information about this topic. I was actually browsing through some post-Civil-War newspapers a few years back, looking for facts to use in a program about Civil Rights history, when I happened to stumble into a very brief description of the first bicycle in the Lowcountry, which appeared on streets of downtown Charleston on the 14th of February 1869. At first I didn’t think much of it because the bicycle is such a mundane part of modern life. But the more I read, the more interested I became in this story, and so I kept on plowing through the newspapers.
Over the past few years I’ve done a series of programs on local bicycle history, and a few people have suggested that I should turn my research into a little book. I think that’s a cool idea, especially since we’re closing in on a milestone. 2019 will be the 150th anniversary of bicycling in the Charleston area, so maybe by then I’ll have a book ready to help us commemorate that event. Based on what I know now, I might organize the book in seven chapters, and I’ll take this opportunity to give you a brief description of each one.
Chapter One: The first bicycles in Charleston weren’t actually called bicycles. Initially we used the term “velocipede,” which was coined by French inventors who were playing around with the two-wheeled contraption in the early 1860s. The early velocipedes had iron frames, wooden spoke wheels with iron rims, and the pedals were attached to the front axle, like on a modern tricycle. There were no gears or chain, but otherwise you’d recognize it as a sort of primitive-looking bicycle. They were entirely hand made at first, and they were expensive and hard to balance. Nevertheless, the velocipede was instantly recognized as a transportation revolution, and it quickly spread around the world. Immediately after the American Civil War, curious young men in places like New York and San Francisco began experimenting with the new device. The two-wheeled velocipede was a welcome, fun diversion many in post-war America, and it spread rapidly across the country.
The newspapers of Charleston kept up with the fad, reporting the first velocipedes in places like New Orleans and Chicago, even before folks in the lowcountry had even seen one. When the first velocipede rolled into Charleston in February of 1869, it was a homemade model built by a local tinsmith or machinist named “Mr. Duc,” and it was an instant sensation. For nearly five months in the spring of 1869, the velocipede was front-page news in Charleston. At first there was just one, and everyone in town clamored to see it. When a velocipede salesman pedaled through the unpaved streets of Charleston in early March, a crowd of hundreds tried in vain to follow him around. Everyone recognized that this new machine, the “feedless horse” as some called it, represented a revolution in transportation and mobility. Brightly colored velocipedes manufactured in New York soon began flowing into our city in small numbers. Riding clubs and races sprang up like mushrooms, and the police tried in vain to keep the new machines off of the city’s brick-paved sidewalks. After a few months, however, the luster began to fade. The velocipede was expensive, awkward, and even dangerous. By the end of the summer of 1869, most of Charleston forgot about the velocipede and moved on to other pursuits.
Chapter Two: Following the initial velocipede craze that swept across the United States in the late 1860s, the new machine continued mostly as a plaything for adventurous young men who liked to go fast. By 1870 the name “bicycle” had almost completely replaced the French term “velocipede,” and the design of the machine evolved in an odd direction. Throughout the 1870s and early 1880s, the most popular form of the bicycle was one called “the ordinary” or “the penny-farthing,” which had a very large front wheel, sometimes as much as five or six feet in diameter, and a relatively tiny rear wheel. Because the pedals were still attached directly to the front axle, the diameter of the front wheel determined your top speed: the larger the wheel, the higher your potential speed. Flying headlong over the handlebars was a real danger, of course, but that was a risk many young men were willing to take in the interest of speed. During the 1870s and early 1880s, therefore, in Charleston and elsewhere, the bicycle was a macho, daredevil device that piqued the curiosity of the general public, but really failed to live up to its potential as a practical form of transportation for the masses.
Chapter Three: By the mid-1880s, the bicycle had been around for about twenty years, and there had been a lot of tinkering with both the design and manufacturing techniques. By moving the pedals from the front axle to the center of the bicycle’s frame, and by adding a sprocket and chain drive system to power the rear wheel, the machine entered a new era of prosperity. The result of these improvements, around the year 1886, was the “safety bicycle,” which is nearly indistinguishable from a modern bike. The first “safety bikes” rolled into Charleston in 1888 and quickly caught the public’s attention all over again. Solid rubber tires, and then pneumatic rubber tires became available here in the early 1890s, and the bicycle enjoyed a real golden age of popularity in the gay ‘90s. Charleston hosted bicycle clubs, bicycle parades, and bicycle tourism. Owing to improvements in design and mass production techniques, bicycles for women as well as children became popular for the first time. In 1892 a group of local riders formed a Charleston branch of the new national organization called the League of American Wheelmen (now called the League of American Bicyclists). Also in 1892, the City of Charleston passed its first bicycle ordinance, which classified bikes as vehicles and prescribed rules for riding etiquette that still apply today. In April of 1896 a group of advocates formed an organization to create what they called “the Charleston and Summerville Bicycle Path and Boulevard.” Their goal was to connect the two communities with a bicycle and pedestrian greenway that ran parallel to the existing railroad line. Between 1893 and 1906 there were two concrete oval tracks for bicycle races in our city, and competitors came from all over the southeast for tournaments of speed and agility. In short, the turn of the twentieth century was a glorious time to ride a bike in and around Charleston.
Chapter Four: Everything changed in 1901, when a new vehicle appeared on the streets of Charleston. It was the locomobile, a four-wheeled, steam powered contraption that represented the latest step forward in the world transportation. No one here remembers the locomobile, however, because in 1902 the first gasoline-powered automobiles rolled into Charleston. At first the automobile wasn’t seen as a direct threat to the bicycle or even the electric trolleys that plied our streets. In fact, the earliest automobiles and motorcycles in Charleston were introduced by men who ran bicycle shops. To them, the new machine was just a logical next step. In retrospect, however, we can look back at the first four decades of the twentieth century and see clearly the rapid rise of the automobile and the slow decline of the bicycle. The first automobile appeared here in March of 1902, and ten years later, in August 1912, the city of Charleston passed its first traffic ordinance. In that short span of time, the streets became sufficiently busy, confused, and dangerous, that the city had to intervene and try to regulate the flow of traffic. In 1912 our first downtown traffic ordinance set the maximum speed limit at 12 miles per hour, and required bicycles to follow all the rules of the road like every other vehicle. In the roaring twenties, the advance of the automobile quickened. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, poor people everywhere clamored for bicycles as a cheap means of transportation, but the automobile continued to overtake the roads. When a new bridge was being built over the Ashley River in 1926, bicyclists lobbied for a bike lane, but they were shot down. In 1938 diesel buses replaced the streetcars that had carried local folks to and from work since 1866. Bicycle injuries and fatalities spiked in urban centers like Charleston. By the time the United States entered World War II, the bicycle in Charleston was a quaint device used only by children, delivery boys, and poor folks.
Chapter Five: In the aftermath of World War II, the United States enjoyed an era of unprecedented prosperity. Manufacturing and consumption skyrocketed. Automobiles dominated the roads and the American psyche. With their increased mobility, millions of Americans, including folks in Charleston, moved from the city to the new-fangled suburbs. The proliferation of cars and cheap gasoline made it possible for the rising generations to commute longer distances to work, to school, and to new suburban shopping centers. In short, it was a dismal period for the bicycle. Adult ridership plummeted. In the age of the hot rod and cheap gas, most people considered the bicycle a mere child’s toy. The roads were too dangerous for bikes, and the media warned drivers to be wary of irresponsible cyclists who got in their way.
Chapter Six: In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Untied States witnessed a cultural shift that was also being felt in Europe. Our society was divided over issues like the conflict in Vietnam, civil rights, women’s rights, and our dependence on petroleum from the war-torn Middle East. In this context, many people reflected on the times and questioned the status quo of our consumer-oriented culture. For the first time in more than a generation, large numbers of adults began riding bicycles again, for recreation and as a means of transportation. They were motivated in part by the rising price of gasoline, but in the late 1960s and early 1970s there was also a rising consciousness about adult health and physical fitness. This was the era that gave birth to the jogging craze. Throughout the 1970s, 80s, and early 1990s, bicycling wasn’t just for kids anymore. Cycling matured into a respectable activity suitable for all ages, as a means of beneficial exercise and recreation and as a viable means of transportation. As suburban roads and urban streets became increasingly congested with gas-guzzling cars and trucks, many conscientious adults began to demand recognition of their right to share the road. At first, it was a tough argument put forward by a small group of passionate people. By the early 1990s, however, the modern bicycle advocacy movement, as we might call it, was on the cusp of becoming mainstream. Hardcore bicyclists wanted to be at the table, participating in the conversations about planning the future of our roads, bridges, and communities.
Chapter Seven: In 1995 a group of bicycle enthusiasts in the Charleston area coalesced into a new organization known as the Charleston Bicycle Advocacy Group (CBAG). There have been a lot of recreational bike clubs in the lowcountry over the past century and a half, but the CBAG was different. Rather than an informal group of enthusiasts or racers, the Charleston Bicycle Advocacy Group was formed for the purpose of lobbying for the inclusion of bicycles in the planning of future roads and bridges. And their timing was perfect. In 1995 the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments (BCD-COG) was working on a project called the Charleston Area Transportation Study (CHATS) that was to form a blueprint for road improvements for the next twenty years. By raising their voices, and recruiting other cyclists to participate in the public process, the Charleston Bicycle Advocacy Group convinced the BCD-COG to include bicycle lanes in their long-term plans.
In the late 1990s the South Carolina Department of Transportation began planning the construction of a major new bridge over the Cooper River. Through the efforts of the Charleston Bicycle Advocacy Group and other like-minded organizations, and with the vocal support of Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, the design for the new bridge included a space reserved exclusively for pedestrians and bicyclists. Since the opening of the Ravenel Bridge in July 2005, these lanes have proved to be extremely popular with walkers, joggers, and cyclists.
The Charleston Bicycle Advocacy Group has evolved into Charleston Moves, and in 2017 they are more active than ever. In fact, Charleston hosts a number of bicycle friendly organizations that lobby for increased public support for alternative forms of transportation. As we celebrate the 148th year of cycling in the Lowcountry, it seems like we’ve come full circle. For example, there’s a relatively new group in town called the Friends of the Lowcountry Lowline, and they’re advocating for the restoration of the currently disused railroad line running down the backbone of the Charleston peninsula, by turning it into a greenway for pedestrians and bicycles. Sound familiar? That was the goal of the “Charleston and Summerville Bicycle Path and Boulevard” group, back in 1896. And Charleston Moves is at the forefront of the current fight to create a dedicated bicycle lane on the Legare Bridge over the Ashley River, a project that was officially approved in 2014 but has been stalled by local government. Sound familiar? The local chapter of the League of American Bicyclists fought for this same bike lane before that bridge even opened, back in 1926.
In short, bicycling in Charleston has come a long way over the past 148 years, and we’ve reached a tipping point in our community. Our city, county, and state governments are currently debating questions about the rights of cyclists—and pedestrians—to share our roads on an equal footing with automobiles. There are too many cars and trucks going too fast on our streets and bridges, and the traffic congestion is already unbearable. Unless we start committing ourselves to pursuing alternative means transportation and improving mass transit, it’s only going to get worse. May is National Bike Month, and there’s a lot of cool stuff going on in the Charleston area to promote cycling. Whether you’re just looking for some fun in the sun or want to get involved in the cause, I encourage you to get out there and ride a bike. It’s been a great Charleston tradition since 1869.