Cycling in the City

Bicyclists from Oakland Playground (a non-extant municipal park at 40th and Langley Streets) ca. 1925, Chicago Park District Records: Photographs, Special Collections, Chicago Public Library.

August is a great time for cycling in the city, especially if you are a fair-weather bicyclist as I am, So, I’m featuring Chicago’s bicycling history this month. Another reason to highlight cycling is that I will be a panelist for a program called Bike Talk: Chicago’s Cycling Future on August 21, at 6:00 pm. Co-sponsored by the Chicago Architecture Foundation, this event will be held at Revolution Brewing in Logan Square. Did you know that last year, Bicycling Magazine selected Chicago as the “Best Bike City” in the nation? There is no doubt that our city has strides in becoming “bike-friendly,” and there are exciting opportunities for further improvements. I hope you’ll join us for an evening with beer, light buffet, and a fascinating discussion about the past, present, and future of cycling in Chicago.  (Register at architecture.org.)

 High-wheeler, Agnieszka Kwiecień (Nova) (Own work) [ GFDL   or  CC BY-SA 3.0 ]

High-wheeler, Agnieszka Kwiecień (Nova) (Own work) [GFDL  or CC BY-SA 3.0]

Chicago’s cycling history began in the 1870s with a different type of bicycle than we ride today. These early bikes, called the high-wheeler or penny-farthing, had a huge wheel in the front and a small one in the back. They didn’t have gears, and the pedals were attached directly to the large wheel. So as you might imagine, it took a fair amount of athleticism to ride these bicycles, and accidents frequently happened. In fact, according to a Report of Commissioners of Lincoln Park, a “stray and adventurous” high-wheel rider caused a major incident in 1879 when it “frightened a horse and caused a runaway.” In response to this ordeal, the commissioners passed ordinances in 1880 and 1881 prohibiting any bicycling in Lincoln Park.  

 This 1880s photograph of cyclists in Lincoln Park was published in an  Annual Report of the Chicago Park District,  1976.

This 1880s photograph of cyclists in Lincoln Park was published in an Annual Report of the Chicago Park District, 1976.

Bicycle enthusiasts were upset by the restrictions against riding in Lincoln Park. Cycling clubs, then known as wheelmen, petitioned for permission to ride in the park. The wheelmen called attention “respectfully to the fact that horses were becoming civilized and more accustomed to wheels” and that other cities had success when the lifted cycling restrictions. The commissioners agreed to suspend the prohibition against bicycling for three days in 1882 when the League of American Wheelmen held a convention in Chicago. After the convention, the commissioners decided to continue suspending the ordinance and they allowed bicyclists to ride in the park, except during evening hours.

Ladies and their bicycles near the Rustic Shelter in Lincoln Park, from the Report of the Commissioners and A History of Lincoln Park, 1899, by I.J. Bryan.

By the late-1880s, American manufacturers had begun selling safety bicycles—bikes with two wheels of the same size. Not only did cycling become safer, but these bicycles were more affordable. While high-wheel bicycles often sold for as much as $400, safety bikes ranged from $40 to $120, and many manufacturers offered to sell them on installment plans. The new bicycles also made the sport safe and respectable for women. In 1890, a Chicago Tribune article entitled “Girls who ride wheels,” profiled women from various parts of the city who were “enthusiastic over the pleasant, exhilarating, and healthful” form of exercise. Women also began forming their own bicycle clubs such as the Lincoln Cycling Club for North Siders.  

View of old Lake Shore Drive with bicycles and carriages, ca. 1895, Chicago Park District Records: Photographs, Special Collections, Chicago Public Library.

Garfield Park bicycle and race track, from Annual Report of the West Chicago Park Commissioners, 1896.

In the 1890s, as Chicago developed into the nation’s capital for bicycle manufacturing, cycling continued to gain popularity. Having banned bicycles only a decade earlier, the Lincoln Park Commissioners built a bike path along the lakefront in the early 1890s. Many people enjoyed fast riding or “scorching,” but it was dangerous for pedestrians and horses especially on Chicago’s boulevards. Members of a West Side wheelmen’s club suggested that a bicycle track could provide a safer alternative to road racing. The West Park Commissioners agreed, and in 1896, they constructed a double-ring track for horses and bicycles in Garfield Park. The track remained until 1905.

Bicycle race in Humboldt Park, 1921, Chicago Park District Records: Photographs, Special Collections, Chicago Public Library.

Enthusiasm for bicycle racing continued to grow, by the 1910s, many summer bicycle derbies began and ended in Humboldt Park. A newly-formed Franklin Skating and Cycling Club launched its first bicycle races in the park in 1917. Fifteen thousand spectators gathered the first year, and crowds increased in subsequent years. In 1922, the Chicago Tribune began sponsoring an annual bicycle derby in Humboldt Park.  That year, more than 500 cyclists participated in the derby’s seven different races. Sponsors sought to promote the involvement of youth in sports, and the race categories included separate events for boys and girls aged 16 and younger.

Humboldt Park became so prominent in the cycling world that, in 1926, when Amateur Bicycle League of America representatives met with the West Park Board of Commissioners, the Board President agreed to build a bicycle track featuring eight laps to the mile. Two years later, a cement track was laid out near the southwest corner of the park. Within a short time, the commissioners replaced it with a much more substantial wood and concrete velodrome that had a checkerboard play space in the center.  Over the years, Humboldt Park’s velodrome was used for hundreds of bicycle races and festivals. However, by WWII, it had fallen into disrepair and the track was destroyed by fire in 1946.

Bicycle velodrome in Humboldt Park, ca. 1935, Chicago Park District Records: Photographs, Special Collections, Chicago Public Library.

It seems that Chicagoans have never lost their enthusiasm for cycling. Today, the city has over 200 miles of on-street bike lanes as well as bike paths, including the Lakefront Trail, Major Taylor Bike Trail, the 606, and the Sauganash Bike Trail.  The City of Chicago has plans for a 645-mile network of bicycling facilities in the future.  I hope you’ll join us at Revolution Brewing to learn more about the past and future of bicycling in Chicago.