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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Spokane

Spokane was a city built for cycling … and then the automobile arrived

Spokane’s bicyclists are “steadily and rapidly growing in numbers,” the mayor said, and called for planning to begin on a vast network of bike paths.

“The plan has my hearty approval and I hope it will be carried out,” he said.

The paths on this citywide bike network would be 6 inches higher than the existing road, separated from traffic and available only to cyclists.

That was 121 years ago, in summer 1898.

On Sunday, the first riders of the 12th annual SpokeFest will line up near the city’s first bike path – which ended at the intersection of what we now call Summit Parkway and Cedar Street.

Much has changed since then: the advent of the automobile, the growth of the city, the laying of lots and lots of pavement. But the bicycle remains remarkably similar to how it was then. Two wheels, handlebars, a chain drivetrain.

In March 1897, The Spokesman-Review published one of its first mentions of a “cinder path” in the city, an idea floated by members of the Spokane Amateur Athletic Club. At one of the club’s regular meetings that late winter, members came up with a plan to build a 6-mile path along “the boulevard” on the north bank of the Spokane River, a street with a route near what is now Summit Parkway.

By this time in Spokane, not to mention the nation, the bicycle had seized the American imagination. Automobiles were a decade away from becoming commonplace. Horses produced manure and required feeding, shelter and other care. Streetcars were loud and cost money. The bicycle, however, symbolized independence and ingenuity.

“In the 1890s, more bicycles wove through traffic than ever before,” writes Evan Friss, in his book, “The Cycling City,” a history of urban cycling in 1890s America. “Spinning wheels swirled across the urban canvas, dodging carriages, rotting horse carcasses, and piles of manure. Commuters sped to work; others glided lazily around town. News, mail, and eggs all came by the wheel.”

Problem was, the streets of Spokane and the rest of the nation were mud. That’s where the cinder path enters. An early type of pavement, cinder paths involved grading and graveling a road, covering it with cinder rock and flattening it with a 6-ton roller until it was hard as stone.

For the cyclists of the day, the cinder path represented what a paved road does to motorists today: a necessity. The muddy, manure-filled streets were a drag, and riding on the sidewalk was illegal, like it is to this day. Members of the athletic club began drawing up plans for making Spokane a cycling utopia, but were unsure how to pay for it all.

But one of the members had recently been to Puget Sound, and he relayed what was happening there to The Spokesman-Review.

“In Tacoma, this difficulty has been overcome by the levying of a ‘good roads’ tax,” the newspaper reported. “This tax is $1 per wheel, 25 cents of which goes to the city for the trouble of collecting, and the balance goes toward defraying the expenses of building the cinder paths.”

With thousands of bicycle riders in the city, not to mention the many advertisements for bikes and bike “sundries” that ran in the paper, soon the editorial board of The Spokesman approved not just of the good roads tax but of a network of bikeways. Over the next month, editorial after editorial lauded the idea of a bikeway network.

The articles said bikeways would probably double the number of bicycles in the city and make the city “more attractive, labor would be given additional employment, and business men engaged in the sale of bicycles and bicycle supplies would enjoy an enlarged trade.”

Another said that “wide-awake, progressive cities have awakened to the fact that the bicycle has come to stay, and are providing attractions for the wheelmen.” It continued, saying that “in the future the city that fails to make itself attractive to bicyclists will be behind the times.” It even suggested the city would lose its population and go extinct without a bikeway network.

Still another editorial said that $2,000 “would provide a splendid bicycle path for Spokane which could be used eleven months in the year,” as well as “make a network of roads in Spokane county such as to compel every farmer and suburban resident to own a wheel if he cared to save time and money.”

The mayor, E.D. Olmsted, threw his support behind the bike tax.

“I think the idea of charging a license fee for bicycles and devoting the money to making cinder paths a good one,” Olmsted said. “At first thought I should think the center of the street would be an excellent place for the path. Say along the boulevard, for instance. Then we could enforce a rigid ‘drive to the right’ rule. The wheeling contingent is steadily and rapidly growing in numbers and is entitled to considerable consideration from the municipal authorities. The plan has my hearty approval and I hope it will be carried out.”

The road hog and the wheelman

The athletic club drafted an ordinance creating a bicycle tax, and handed it over to the City Council.

Its details were simple. Owners of bicycles with wheels larger than 25 inches in diameter would pay $1 each year into a “bicycle road fund.” The money was reserved for “roads to be for the use of mounted wheelmen and no others.” Pedestrians, equestrians and teamsters who used the roads would be fined $10.

A reporter for The Spokesman interviewed every cyclist he could find, and found no “dissenting voice.”

“The bicyclists of the city who have taken up this matter are quite enthusiastic over it, and there is little doubt, if the good work is kept up, but what the cinder path will soon be a real thing, and the ‘road hog’ will begin to respect the rights of the wheelman,” the paper reported in September 1897.

Easier said than done. In October 1897, the City Council shelved the ordinance on the advice of the city attorney, A.G. Avery, who said the ordinance was unconstitutional.

The decision didn’t please Spokane Comptroller George Liebes or City Engineer Otto Weile, who were in Seattle touring the city’s “bicycle cinder path, which girds Lake Washington.” Liebes told the paper he “noticed with regret” the council had “pigeonholed” the bike tax ordinance.

“The matter of the constitutionality of this ordinance seems to me to be of small import. I am not aware that the statutes of the state or the city charter prohibit the licensing of bicycles,” he said. “No law would be violated in the enactment of this measure and I do not understand why the city council inclines to be so extremely careful in this particular instance.”

Spokane’s cyclists were not dissuaded. The following May, the executive board of the athletic club “outlined a plan of campaign to obtain the passage of the bicycle path.” The same ordinance would be reintroduced and it “is believed influence can be brought to bear to have them passed speedily.”

A deal was struck. The City Council strengthened laws banning riding on the sidewalk, and as a “consolation” agreed to approve the bicycle tax and creation of a formal “bicycle commission,” which would determine how the tax revenue would be spent.

On June 21, 1898, the council was true to its word and passed two ordinances creating the tax and commission.

High times for Spokane cyclists

Within three months, 1,779 bikes had been licensed by the city, generating an equivalent amount of cash. On Sept. 14, 1898, work began on the city’s first paved bike path, its route already decided. It would run down the middle of Howard Street north to Mallon Avenue, where it would head west, then jog just north of the Spokane County Courthouse to Cedar Street before going south to Summit Parkway.

“Men are to commence laying plank on the Howard Street bridges,” the paper reported. “The new path will be 5,745 feet long. It will be five feet wide across the Howard street bridges, eight feet wide on the streets to Monroe street, and nine feet wide beyond Monroe to the boulevard.”

Ten days later, The Spokesman updated readers on the path’s progress: “Fifteen men and four teams are working on Mallon avenue between the flour mill and the court house. The construction of a cinder path at that point is quite difficult, owing to the nature of the grade, but the work will be almost completed by the end of next week and from that time on it will be easy sailing.”

When work was complete, the city had paid a total of $1,459.81 for the path, and had “a trifle over $300” remaining in the bike road fund.

It was high times for Spokane’s cyclists. Over the next two years, the number of registered bikes grew, and cinder paths were laid around town. Paths connecting Browne’s Addition, Nettleton’s Addition and Whiting’s Addition to downtown were proposed. Still more were envisioned to connect to Liberty Park and “Rose Park by way of Olive street.”

The city hired its first bicycle cop, J.S. Hindman, who was charged with making sure all bicycles were licensed and tagged, and that “all wheels” had a horn or bell. He also made sure cyclists were following the 8 mph speed limit and not riding on the sidewalk.

“Probably the most important duty of the new special will be to prevent any driving on the new cinder paths. Officer Hindman will hereafter be found mounted on a wheel,” The Spokesman wrote.

An August 1899 story with a dateline of Hillyard reported that “there is a movement on foot for the bicyclists of Hillyard to organize and build a bicycle path to the Spokane city limits. There are fully 40 wheels in the village.”

The same month, the paper reported that 3,524 bicycles had been registered in the city.

It wouldn’t last. The nation’s bicycle craze was ending, and its obsession with the automobile just beginning.

In 1900, there were 997,000 bicycles manufactured in the U.S., just short of the previous year’s peak of 1.2 million. The same year, about 8,000 motor vehicles were registered with the nation’s state governments. Bike manufacturing and membership in the League of American Wheelmen plummeted in the new century, while car ownership boomed. In 1910, there were 468,500 cars registered in the U.S., and by 1920 that number was 9.2 million.

Nowadays, there are nearly 270 million vehicles registered in the U.S., and the bicycle has taken a back seat to the internal combustion engine. But for a brief time in 1890s, Spokane was truly a city made for cycling.

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