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The car that broke the back of Seattle’s bike craze

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.

In addition to recreational use, riders wanted paths for more practical purposes. Scores of students at the University of Washington petitioned the Queen City Good Roads Club for an extension of the Lake Union bike path, which wound from what is now Eastlake, north to the UW’s sprawling new location. The link was an obvious advantage for commuting students and faculty.

One of the biggest bike projects of the day was a dedicated path to Tacoma – at that time, a big bike town with a nationally recognized bicycle bridge. In 1897, two Tacoma entrepreneurs sold stock shares to privately finance the $15,000 tolled route (The toll was three to five cents per rider), the certificates for which were emblazoned with a cyclist racing by a feather-bonneted Indian.

Image of Indian and cyclist from Tacoma-Seattle Boulevard project stock certificate raising funds to build a bicycle toll road. Photo: Knute Berger Collection.

Ames and Bell's Tacoma-Seattle Boulevard Company built approximately eight level miles of the proposed road, which a spring 1897 Argus articled raved about as a "wheelman's paradise." Just a year later, though, the project fell apart. The partners split amid charges of mismanagement and, after just a year, Frank Cameron, author of "Bicycling in Seattle 1879-1904," says, the company went bankrupt.

From Bike Paths to Boulevards

Riding on the tails of the failed Tacoma path, the bike craze began to cool in the early 1900s. The city's paths were broken up by property owners, who fenced off sections for their own use, and also by real estate developers, who were platting and expanding Seattle's neighborhoods to accommodate rapid growth. Between 1900 and 1910, Seattle's population of 80,000 had nearly tripled and its bucolic trails began to be absorbed into new and growing residential neighborhoods. Non-cyclists became bolder about chewing up the remaining paths with their wagons and horse teams. As the paths became more piecemeal, the system was harder to sustain and sections began to fall into disrepair.

And then there was the arrival of the automobile in the summer of 1900. As growing affordability turned the car into a craze of its own, bike sales dropped off. In turn, some national cycle manufacturers turned to making cars, and at least one local bike shop, Gifford & Grant's on Pike Street, morphed into H.P. Grant & Co., an auto dealer and garage that also sold bikes.

The growing lobby of influential car owners added their voices and horsepower to the push for better roads, streets, boulevards and eventually highways.

With the car ascendant, Seattle’s bike paths became the backbone of a new system of boulevards linking city parks. Famed landscape designers the Olmsted Brothers were hired in 1903 to develop a citywide park and boulevard plan and, by 1904, the conversion of bike paths was underway. Under the supervision of city engineer R.H. Thomson, parts of the old Lake Washington bike path were widened, regraded and turned into what are now Interlaken and Lake Washington Boulevards. 

In the fall of 1905, the parks board took mayor Richard Ballinger, city council members and assorted other VIPs on a 15-car caravan tour of the brand new boulevard from Volunteer Park to Madison Park. "In natural beauty, it can scarcely be excelled by any like thoroughfare in the United States," the Seattle Times bragged. That fall, the parks superintendent reported that on a recent Sunday, the "Interlaken Driveway" had been used by "ninety automobiles, 50 carriages and 300 pedestrians." Nary a mention of bikes.

Early horseless carriage drivers were mostly affluent hobbyists motoring for recreation and thrills and paved boulevards were just the thing to attract wealthy city-dwellers, who could afford to build homes and garages along them, enjoying the virtues of both town and country. By 1912, Seattle boasted some 15 miles of boulevards, with more on the drawing boards. The old Halfway House bike oasis, which sat in what is now a ravine along Interlaken, did not survive the auto age.

Bikes didn't entirely disappear in Seattle. People still rode on the new boulevards and on trails in the expanding park system. As park advocates pushed for playgrounds to serve an increasingly urban population, bikes and bike trails were touted as healthy options for city-bred young people who were becoming divorced from the rigors of frontier life and outdoor recreation. A 1902 Seattle Times story advocated for playgrounds and imagined athletic fields for boys with room for football, baseball, a track and "grounds skirted with an asphalt bicycle path."

The scale of ambitions had changed though. Instead of seeing bikes as a trendy, useful, healthy commuter vehicle for adults, they were largely considered for youth or competitive racers, or as transport for messengers and paperboys.

Within a decade of their construction, the movement behind Seattle's 25 miles of scenic, dedicated bike paths had lost power. The paths were subsumed in the growing city, marginalized in a new era of transportation technology. It would be 70 years before another urban cycling renaissance would begin to shape Seattle as a modern city. Today, our urban cycling revival is as much a rediscovery of century-old promise and potential as it is new, green innovation.

This project is made possible with the generous support of 4Culture/ King County Lodging Tax Fund. 

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