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How bikes led Seattle’s first roads renaissance

Editor's Note: The Puget Sound region often thinks of itself as a beacon of forward-looking urbanism, but it turns out that our bike commuting, urban garden planting, density warring ways aren't new. They are a reemergence of a northwest urbanism ethic that got its start in the pioneer days. 

"Roots of Tomorrow: Urbanism in our Blood" is a multiweek series by Knute Berger, that will explore Seattle urbanism and its roots in Northwest heritage. This week's back to the future focus: bike culture. Check back throughout the week for more on the Northwest's original cyclists. This project is made possible with the generous support of 4Culture/ King County Lodging Tax Fund.  

Twenty-five miles of urban bicycle trails built, funded and maintained with the aid of city engineers, designed for recreation, students and commuters. A dedicated bicycle toll road connecting Seattle to other Puget Sound communities. Bike cops enforcing cyclist speed limits, safety and dealing with the scourge of bike thefts. Bike shops — over 20 on Second Ave. alone — selling the latest models and newest gear. Multiple bike race tracks in the city.

Welcome to the Seattle of the turn of the century. The twentieth century, that is — 1894-1904.

Today, as the city puts a new Bike Master Plan in place, we see urban cycling as a forward-looking path toward greater urban sustainability. But this is not the first time Seattle has awakened to the possibilities of a "bike-friendly" urban complex.

Once, Seattle was a 19th century bike city, caught up in cycling's first golden moment. For a brief time — after the horse and before the automobile — bicycles were the hottest new form of do-it-yourself urban transportation.

In the 1880s, chains and pneumatic tires made cycling easier and cheaper; bicycles became much like the basic bikes of today. Here was a great way to get around, to enjoy exercise and the outdoors even in the city. Here was a means of transport for both men and women. Bikes were cheaper and easier to care for than a horse, simpler to drive than a buggy and offered more freedom than a trolley line.

The first recorded bicycle in Seattle arrived by boat in 1879 and was displayed at a stationery and book shop in Pioneer Square. It was a kid's bike, purchased by a man named Jules Lipsky for his son. But by the 1890s, adults seized on newer, improved models as a means of getting around Seattle's rough streets and over its steep hills — not to mention the thrill of riding down them. A mid-range bike could be had for $30 or $35 — about one third the cost of a good horse.

Second Ave. became bike row, where purveyors, like the wonderfully named F.M. Spinning, sold the latest models. In May of 1894, The Argus newspaper reported a "big demand for wheels" in Seattle, noting that "there have been more ladies riding during this past week than ever before." Frank B. Cameron, in his study, "Bicycling in Seattle 1879-1904," writes that the bicycle craze, which "had started in 1894 increased until about 1900 when there were possibly 10,000 bicyclists in Seattle." With a total population of about 80,000 in 1900, it was a veritable bike boom.

First, however, street improvements were needed for riders. "The streets of 1895 were described by [assistant city engineer] George Cotterill as 'strewn with wrecks of old planking, and holes were the principal features which distinguished the remains.'" Downtown streets were mostly mud mixed with horse manure. ("The horses were not wearing Pampers," Cameron told me over the phone.)

Sidewalks, where they existed, were often boardwalks set above the muck. Wagons got stuck, pedestrians got filthy. Raised streetcar and railroad tracks created hazards. Raised planked sidewalks were also crowded and problematic.

With Seattle's streets in disarray, cyclists became a major force in lobbying for civic improvements. Eventually, a group of smaller bike clubs and activists coalesced into the Queen City Good Roads Club, which pushed ceaselessly for a citywide bike path system, bike-friendly streets and sidewalks, bike regulations and safety programs.

The Queen City Good Roads club, like the Cascade Bicycle Club of today, was composed of avid cyclists and supporters who lobbied for bike improvements. They also put their physical behind their political muscle, building, maintaining and monitoring a system of dedicated bike trails throughout the city.

From 1890 to the early 1900s, these paths were added and expanded. They ranged from Magnolia and Fort Lawton to Lake Union and Lake Washington, from Pioneer Square to Queen Anne, Fremont, Woodland Park, Green Lake and Ballard. They crossed Capitol Hill, winding through its woods and around its ravines.

On miles of marked trails, cyclists could ride safely, unharassed by other forms of transport. The paths connected public roadways and crossed private lots, usually with the permission or non-interference of the owners. In fact, the bike trails provided some of the first public access to some parts of the undeveloped city.

The Queen City Cycle Club in Kent, Wash.. Photo: MOHAI

Assistant city engineer Cotterill was an officer of the club. A native of Oxford, England, Cotterill emigrated to the Northwest as a teenager in the 1880s. Working as a railroad surveyor, he became an ardent progressive, supporting women’s suffrage and becoming active in the temperance movement. He was an inveterate office-seeker, who would go on to serve in the state senate, on the port commission and as mayor (elected 1912).

And, as Seattle’s ‘good roads’ movement began to heat up, he became a key link between the cycling community and the city.

The movement was national – not just strong locally – and it cemented "pothole" politics as central to modern civic life. A thriving city had to have arterials that worked for everyone: pedestrians, trains, streetcars, horses, wagons and bikes. That’s a rallying cry still employed today by groups like Streets for All Seattle, which push for truly multi-purpose roadways.

Where modern day road improvements today focus on extra capacity and road widening a la Seattle’s “Mercer Mess”, the Queen City Good Roads Club urged better surfaced roads. Brick, gravel, asphalt, concrete, sandstone, wooden planks and a composite technique known as "macadamizing" all offered harder, flatter surfaces, more bikeable than mud wallows. Bike paths and racing tracks were covered with finely crushed volcanic rock.

Under Cotterill's supervision, bike-friendly changes were also made to a number of streets. According to historian Lucile McDonald, these included the introduction of crossing aprons — originally used to shepherd wagons over train tracks — to help cyclists over gutters and curbs.

The most controversial of Cotterill’s bike projects by today’s standards would have been the installation of a separated earth-and-ash bike lane on a section of 8th Avenue — situated eight feet out in the street.

At the time, Seattle was behind other Puget Sound-area towns, which already had dedicated bike lanes. Snohomish, which had laid down lengthwise boards in the center of streets for "the convenience of wheelmen," was said to be the object of jealousy. Meanwhile, cycling from First Avenue to Denny or out to Interbay was described by one local scribe as the "Rocky Road to Dublin" —  shorthand for a rough and lousy ride.

It wasn’t until 2013, more than 100 years later, that the City of Seattle returned to that idea and began installing separated bike tracks on city streets.

For this story, particular thanks are due to Crosscut interns Sara Kowdley and Jack Hunter, historians David Williams and Frank B. Cameron, The University of Washington's Special Collections and Suzzallo Library, the Washington State Historical Society in Tacoma, the Washington State Archives, the Washington State Library in Olympia, the Seattle Municipal Archives and City Clerk's Office, the Seattle Room and digital resources of the Seattle Public Library, the Museum of History and Industry, the Washington Secretary of State's Office and the Library of Congress.

Newspapers consulted included the glorious variety available to Seattle readers in the late 19th and early 20th century: The Seattle Times, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Seattle Star, The Argus, the Seattle Mail & Herald, the Seattle Republican, and various daily and weekly newspaper across the state and around Puget Sound.

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