This is the third article on Northwest bike heritage in "Roots of Tomorrow: Urbanism in our Blood," a series on northwest urbanism. Read Part 2, "Meet Seattle's first bike vigilantes," here. Or, read Part 1, "How bikes led Seattle's first roads renaissance," here.
By the late 1890s and early ‘00s, Seattle's 25 miles of bike trails were reshaping the city and influencing its culture, from how people socialized to how they commuted to work.
The bike trails ran throughout the urban core — and even to resort neighborhoods like Madison Park. Hundreds of riders used the Seattle trails to go on long scenic rides and picnic outings within town. Financing was provided in part by bike license fees – $1 per bike per year – and club volunteers still did much of the trail maintenance. Contracts to build the paths involved real work though: One handwritten contract involved "clearing, grading, surfacing, corduroying, bridging, culverts, ditching, guttering, elevating curves and rolling…"
These paths were serious infrastructure, touted as one of the urban wonders of emerging Seattle. Trails wound up hill and down dale, following the city’s natural contours through clear-cut and old-growth forest. Bridges were built over streams and gulches.
The city's hills were a challenge, but the views spectacular. "Probably [in] no city in the United States is there a system of bicycle paths so excellently conceived, so well constructed and kept constantly in as good repair as are those in and around the city of Seattle," the Seattle Times boasted in 1902. Failing to ride the paths to enjoy the scenic beauty, they said, would be "a misfortune to be sincerely regretted."
Seattle bike paths: A 1900 map created by Anders B. Wilse versus 2013. Photo (L to R): MOHAI, SDOT
Most popular was the Lake Washington bike path, which wound from Lake Union to its namesake body of water near Leschi. A public subscription was raised to pay for it, with some civic heavy-hitters kicking in as much as $25. When the path opened on a June Sunday in 1897, "nearly everyone in the city who owned a wheel rode over it," according to The Argus.
Lake Washington Bike path near where I-5 and SR520 intersect today (near Roanoke), 1900. Photo: Seattle Municipal Archives.
Between Lake Union and Lake Washington, a bowered bungalow called the Halfway House served food and drink to riders. You could stop for sandwiches or ham and eggs to fuel your workout, get a caffeine boost with coffee or tea, or slake your thirst with sodas and orange cider.
When spring came, good weather brought out the sexes and the cyclists. "The warm weather has brought out many fine looking female bicycle 'turn outs,'” the Seattle Republican observed in March 1900, “and it is useless to add that, the men have been doing the long look act ever since."
The same paper ran a 1901 essay on the virtues of "The Bicycle Girl": A model of common sense, ‘The Bicycle Girl’ rode her bike to the office and knew her business better than anyone. "The girl who can ride a bicycle with grace and endurance can and will do almost anything that comes to hand, even to, in many instances, making a living for her worthless husband."
Two women on a bike path near Port Townsend give the flavor of bike garb in 1898, in the middle of the first “bicycle craze.” Photo: MOHAI
Beyond city limits, cyclists – at "the peril of life and limb" – wended their way through a maze of trails, trestles and roads that could take them to Edmonds, Everett or as far south as Olympia. They could even ride the 26 miles east to Snoqualmie Falls. The Queen City Good Roads Club organized large Sunday rides to Kent for ice cream socials at the home of state senator A.T. Van de Vanter. In 1897, 500 Seattle cyclists took an excursion boat to neighboring Tacoma and paraded through the streets.
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