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    Mark Twain: A vision for Portland's leadership on bicycling

    What would Twain do? More than a century before Portland would be regularly ranked among the top cities for bicyclists in the country, the author envisioned how Portland could become the ultimate city for cyclists.

    While doing a little research on Mark Twain's visit to the Pacific Northwest, I came across this article from the Aug. 9, 1895 edition of The Sunday Oregonian. Twain came to Portland to give a lecture while on his world tour. Afterward, he headed for Seattle, Tacoma, Vancouver, and other Northwest cities before taking a steamer to Hawaii to continue his globe-girdling journey.

    Apparently, things haven't changed much. His conversation with the Oregonian's reporter turned almost immediately to public transportation (Twain arrived and departed by train and the interview took place on the bus). Twain expounded on his idea of how to turn Portland into a European-style bike town. Why not, Twain suggested, a public monopoly supplying bikes to the people to fund road improvements? Yes, Twain advocated public investment in bike transport. Here's the clip:

    "Portland seems to be a pretty nice town," drawled the author of Tom Sawyer, as the 'bus rolled down Sixth Street, "and this is a pretty nice, smooth street. Now Portland ought to lay itself out a little and macadamize all its streets just like this. Then it ought to own all the bicycles and rent 'em out and so pay for the streets. Pretty good scheme, eh? I suppose people would complain about the monopoly, but then we have the monopolies always with us. Now, in European cities, you know, the government runs a whole lot of things, and, it strikes me, runs 'em pretty well. Here folks seem to be alarmed about governmental monopolies. But I don't see why. Here cities give away for nothing franchises for car lines, electric plants and things like that. Their generosity is often astounding. The American people take the yoke of private monopoly with philosophical indifference, and I don't see why they should mind a little government monopoly."

    Twain's visit to Portland was brief, but positive. "Well, I haven't had an opportunity to see much of Portland, because, through the diabolical machinations of (lecture agent) Major Pond, over there, I am compelled to leave it after but a glimpse. I may never see Portland again, but I liked that glimpse."

    Knute Berger is Mossback, Crosscut's chief Northwest native. He also writes the monthly Grey Matters column for Seattle magazine and is a weekly Friday guest on Weekday on KUOW-FM (94.9). His newest book is Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes On Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice, published by Sasquatch Books. In 2011, he was named Writer-in-Residence at the Space Needle and is author of Space Needle, The Spirit of Seattle (2012), the official 50th anniversary history of the tower. You can e-mail him at mossback@crosscut.com.

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