Before Now – San Francisco bike activism has roots in 1890s

Villa Miramar Wheelmen's Rest

Villa Miramar, advertising itself as a "Wheelmens Rest." Photo: The Bancroft Library. University of California, Berkeley

San Francisco is consistently rated one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the world.

Bike-riders here, as represented by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, have political clout. The Board of Supervisors appoints a Bicycle Advisory Committee. Hundreds of bicyclists ride through downtown for “Critical Mass” each month. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency administers a city-adopted, 190-page Bicycle Plan, under which at least 45 miles of city streets have been marked with bike lanes and more than 1,500 bike-parking racks have been installed.

While there remains room for improvement to make San Francisco a bicycler’s paradise (can SFMTA or the Bike Coalition do something about all these hills?), the zeal for making the city more hospitable to pedal-pushers has antecedents in the late 19th century and the roads to Ocean Beach.

Widespread adoption of the safety bicycle, replacing dangerous models like the penny farthing and its big front wheel, set off a 1890s bicycling craze across the United States. Rallies for better roads and bike-friendly laws came soon after.

In San Francisco, tens of thousands clogged Market Street on July 25, 1896 for a grand cyclist parade supporting road improvements. (Non-bicyclist hoodlums made it a bit of a riot — some things haven’t changed.) After a large protest rally in Oakland in which bicyclists mocked an ordinance requiring bike bells with loud horns and noisemakers, one editorialist sounded off in the Argonaut:

“We hope the [police] will keep on arresting these Yahoos and put them behind bars. Bicycle riders must be taught that not the entire earth and the fullness thereof are theirs, but that there are a few other people on the planet.” (The writer sounds like a modern-day motorist who’d been trapped at Critical Mass — again, some things haven’t changed.)

After a long struggle with the Park Commission, San Francisco bicycle clubs won greater access to Golden Gate Park’s excellent roads in the early 1890s. Every weekend, packs of cyclists rode through the park to Ocean Beach, where a section of the Great Highway had recently been graded and paved. One Sunday in 1896, an Examiner reporter stationed himself on a park path to count the cyclists that passed between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. He tallied almost 3,000.

Cycler's Rest

Cycler's Rest rising above the U.S. Life Saving Station in 1904.


Suddenly, beachside roadhouses and refreshment stands competed for the bicyclist trade. Wooden racks for bike parking went up beside hitching posts. The Villa Miramar, a bar at the end of today’s Irving Street, put up a sign advertising itself as the “Wheelmen’s Rest.” North of the park, Adolph Sutro had a three-story chalet erected on the southwest corner of La Playa and Fulton Street that he named “Cycler’s Rest.”

It wasn’t only wheelmen taking to the park and beach roads. Scores of women took up riding, some shockingly forsaking skirts and dresses for more comfortable blousy-trousered “bloomers.” (The Examiner reporter who did the one-day Golden Gate Park census tabulated that bloomer-wearers outnumbered skirt-wearers by a ratio of 4-to-1.) One club of female cyclists, the Falcons, actually had a major role in starting the community of Carville by renting an old horsecar from Adolph Sutro to use as a clubhouse.

Falcon Bicycle Club

Falcons Bicycle Club and their horsecar clubhouse. Photo courtesy Paul Melzer

After hard rides, the Falcons took naps on the soft, long seats of the old transit vehicle. They built a shed addition on the back of the car to store their bikes, and installed a kitchen with three coal-oil stoves. The members held frequent dinner parties, often with tongue-in-cheek descriptions sent to the newspapers to mock conventional society recaps. An outdoor banquet in August 1896 was listed to have entrées of “brown beans, baked beans, barnacles, spider toes, frog legs, and Frangipanni.” A men’s bicycle club soon followed the Falcons and also rented a car clubhouse from Sutro.

By the early 1900s, many of the young bicyclists who once enthusiastically spent their Saturdays pedaling to San Jose began drifting off to newer and faster technologies such as motorcycles and automobiles. Autos, begun as weekend toys and novelties, rose in the 20th century to become essential tools of commerce and American life.

Bicycles never went away, of course. Ocean Beach usually had a shop or two where one could rent a bike for the day. Some old-timers will remember Shinn’s, on the 1200 block of La Playa, or Ferguson’s down on Wawona. But for many Americans, bicycles had become little more than a child’s toy or a poor man’s conveyance.

This attitude began to change in the 1970s. The bicycle made a comeback, insinuating itself into daily life for exercise, sport, transportation and — with concerns about global warning, oil dependence and traffic congestion — a possible panacea for “urban unease.”

I don’t know that we have returned to having 3,000 cyclists in the park or on the Great Highway on a Sunday, but I can aver that the ride is still beautiful, inspiring and, in this city of inclines, relatively flat.

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  1. I used to ride from Shinn’s Bike Shack 1951 when I started racing . I wrote a book with some chapters about Shinn’s Bike Shack. Google: Fatty Arbuckle’s Nephew Gains a Lap on the Old San Jose Velodrome by Erich von Neff. I have also written about the Paris Six at the Vel d’Hiv. 1937, 1938, 1939. Google: Erich von Neff, hit Smashwords -About Erich von Neff, then scroll down untill you find them.


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