The Colossus of Roads

“Bicycle riding is a good, healthy and invigorating exercise, and is especially valuable to those whose lives are sedentary. Boating, baseball and lawn-tennis are all excellent forms of recreation; but in the wide complexity of modern life there is plenty of room for the wheelman with his graceful iron steed.” – New York Tribune, September 21, 1883.

By 1883, the bicycle craze was already well underway. The velocipede had been introduced into this country in 1869, but had met with miserable failure, doomed by a combination of lack of comfort and horrible roads.

Over in Europe however, the evolution of the bicycle continued, and in the Summer of 1877, Colonel  Albert A. Pope of the Pope Manufacturing Company saw his first bicycle; imported by an English visitor to Newton, Massachusetts. At the time, there were a handful of bicycles in the United States, imported from England, and Pope saw big things in the bicycle. He was off to England on the next boat to learn how the things were made, and in early 1878, the Pope Manufacturing Company began turning out three models of bicycles; the Standard Columbia, the Special Columbia, and the Mustang; the latter designed for the younger bicyclist. For the safety conscious, the Pope Manufacturing Company also turned out the Columbia Tricycle.

Barely anyone knew how to ride the dang things, and so Pope set up a riding academy at the company’s corporate headquarters at 87 Summer Street, Boston.

Demand soon became insatiable, nor was it restricted to men; word trickled back that a daring “aristocratic lady bicycler” and a coterie of companions were enjoying the City’s pleasant streets. Nor were the streets particularly smooth, spills happened regularly.

Pope’s  took over the Weed Sewing Machine Company’s manufacturing buildings outside of Hartford, Connecticut. It became the biggest bicycle company in the world, turning out 50 machines per day, and the company imported leather, iron, steel, and horn in vast quantities.

Pope subdivided the factory into separate rooms. In one, blacksmiths worked pouring metal into specially crafted dies to form the forks which would attached the frame to the wheel; in the “perch shop,” the tubular backbones of the bicycles were bent into shape; and in other rooms the wheels were rolled out, the seats crafted, and the various and sundry parts of the bicycles were welded and lathed. Put together, the bicycles were inspected, and then sent off to yet another room, to be nickel plated and thus protected from corrosion. By the count of one visitor, it took 158 machines to make the 77 parts which went into the Standard Columbia.

Their riders loved their new contraptions, some even wrote poetry about them; bad poetry, but poetry nonetheless. Here’s a typical example by N.P. Tyler from 1879.

There were accessories too, including the first domestically manufactured cyclometer, which would tell the rider exactly how far he’d gone. Indeed, they began to roam far and wide over the countryside; to race each other in long and short distance races; and to try their skill at “no hands” competitions, all of which exciting details we here at Forgotten Stories will be describing over the next few days, so stayed tuned.

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