Meet Seattle's first bike vigilantes
This is the second article on northwest biking heritage in "Roots of Tomorrow: Urbanism in our Blood," a series on northwest urbanism. Read Part 1, "How bikes led Seattle's first roads renaissance," here.
As Seattle’s first bike boom grew, the biggest hazards to riders — or "wheelers" as they were called — weren't ignorant drivers or car doors opened into a bike lane, but unfenced cattle that wandered onto the trail. In 1901, one group of Interbay residents was arrested for letting their cattle stray onto the Magnolia Bluff bike path, which was "badly cut up" by their hooves.
Another scourge of cyclists was the bicycle thief. Popularity brought sticky fingers and, in 1897, 183 bikes were reported stolen in Washington state. By 1902, the author of a Seattle "Bicycle Notes" column was urging a crackdown: "The bicycle thief is becoming a terrible menace to this community. Bicycle thieves should be classified with horse thieves and the police should pursue them with the same persistence. Under such conditions it would be interesting to notice how rapidly they would disappear."
Newspaper clippings suggest that, in that era, stealing a horse could get you one-to-five years in the state pen.
Apparently, even sabotage was a problem. Even in the 1890s, there was hostility toward cyclists. In notes from minutes of the Queen City Good Roads Club in May of 1897, the officers of the club voted to offer a reward of $25 for the arrest and conviction "of any one placing obstruction[s,] tax [sic], glass, &c upon bicycle paths and sidewalks used by riders" and to post signs along the bike paths stating that.
Because Seattle’s bike paths were so much better than its muddy roads, heavy horse-drawn wagons also liked to use them – especially when it rained – a practice that wreaked havoc on the well-appointed paths. "Unscrupulous drivers," an article in the Seattle Times scolded, had "mutilated" the path from Pike Street to Denny Way.
After the arrest of one teamster, a 1902 Seattle Star warned that, "A strict watch will be kept up all winter and every man who is caught driving on the paths will be prosecuted."
Cyclists had to find a way to defend their turf.
One May day in 1894, fifteen members of the Seattle Cycle Club were crossing the Grant Street Bridge across the Duwamish tide flats when they ran into a man on a farm horse, who purposely tried to run them down and knocked several of the cyclists over. Laughing, The Argus reported, he then "put spurs to his horse and away he went, laughing heartily at what he had done.” The wheelers caught up with him and demanded an apology. When none was forthcoming, they let him have it.
"When the angered wheelmen got through with him,” The Argus reported, “his own mother would not have known him. He was very forcibly taught that wheelmen have rights that must be respected." Imagine the backlash today if the Cascade Bicycle Club played such a vigilante card.
As the bike craze grew, so too did the number of reckless riders. Speeders were called "scorchers" in the bike jargon of the day and so-called "free hand men" sped along with their hands off the handlebars. Pedestrians complained about fast sidewalk riders (bikes were in fact banned from most of the central downtown's busy sidewalks).
The free hand men were not always men, though. Nell Pickerel, a notorious "male impersonator," was arrested for "riding at a high rate of speed with her hands off the handle bars" while wearing a man's suit. Pickerel was a well-known and oft-arrested Seattle character who gained notice for fighting, frequenting bars and wooing women lovers while posing as a man. In this case however, it was her riding that warranted arrest, not her scandalous wardrobe.
Pickerel’s antics aside, speeding and reckless riding were serious issues. In 1902, an arrest warrant was sworn out for a man named Oscar Berg, who severely injured an eight-year-old boy, while tearing through Ballard “at a tremendous rate". A scorcher could do real damage.
Cyclists worried about public backlash over such reckless riders. Some praised an 1896 Ballard ordinance requiring bells on bikes. "Unless wheelmen have some regards for the rights of pedestrians, it will not be long before the latter will turn upon them and have laws passed which will take from them many rights which they now have," warned an Argus column.
In June of that year, Seattle passed its first bike ordinance to "control the running, by riding, of bicycles, tricycles and velocipedes…" The speed limit was 10 mph on streets, 8 mph on sidewalks, and 4 mph when passing a pedestrian. Bikes had to have bells and lights. Fines for violations ranged from $2 to $10.
Bike patrol officers were hired to ride the trails, hand out tickets and, when necessary, make arrests.
An early professional enforcer was bicycle police officer A.C. Deuel, who was hired in 1900 and quickly made a name for himself through his prolific cycling. Said to inspect Seattle’s bike paths at least twice a day, Deuel registered more than 6,500 miles on his cyclometer one season, according to the Seattle Mail & Herald.
That hard work included tending to the paths by coordinating volunteer efforts, which he did with a biker's religious zeal. He was referred to jokingly as "The Rev. A.C. Deuel" by a columnist who described how he had, "in pursuance of the scriptural mandate to remove the stumbling blocks from a brother's path,” taken “a corps of trusty missionaries out along the Lake Washington path last Sunday, and through a system of 'faith and work' – mostly work – removed the large stump that has been a dangerous impediment for so long a time."
Officer Deuel (far left), one of Seattle’s first bicycle police officers, outside the Gifford & Grant cycle shop, circa 1900. Bike cops were hired to police cyclists and patrol the bike paths. Photo: Seattle Mail & Herald
Not all bike cops were as popular as “Rev. Deuel” though. Within a year of his hiring, Officer Ike Teller had ticketed some 500 cyclists. "Mr. Teller is not popular with all the local cyclists," a Seattle Times story gossiped at the time. "The lady cyclists, who, by the way, are frequently the recipients of blue papers, complain that Ike lacks tact and good judgment when making an arrest.”
“The male delinquent cyclists nurse the hope that the officer will some day lose control of his wheel when going down one of the Magnolia Bluff grades…"
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