Cycles of history

The bicycle's long road from novelty to national fitness craze is detailed in a new exhibit at the Ashland Historic Railroad Museum.

Called "Pedaling History: The History of the Bicycle in Jackson County," the exhibit will open with a reception at 6 p.m. Friday, Sept. 7, at the museum, 258 A St., No. 11, Ashland.

The exhibit was designed by Amy Drake, curator of special projects at the Southern Oregon Historical Society. She will give a talk during the railroad museum's Second Friday History Night, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Sept. 14 in the Gresham Room at the Ashland library, 410 Siskiyou Blvd.

Drake will explain what led to the Oregon Bicycle Bill, the first of its kind in the nation.

"Bikes started out with the high wheelers in the late 1870s," she says. "The front wheel was 5 feet high, with a small rear wheel, but this was cumbersome for women, children and older people.

"So, in the late 1880s, they came out with the 'safety bike,' which had equal-size wheels and was much easier and safer. It spread like wildfire."

Invented in England, the bicycle started out as a popular novelty among the upper class until the price rapidly declined in the mid-1890s, she says.

The safety bike had rubber tires and a chain driving the rear wheel.

"Women loved it," Drake says. "It had a drop frame so they could wear their long skirts. One-third of riders were women."

Bicycling joined tennis, canoeing and other female-friendly outdoor sports as women rediscovered exercise and fitness after decades of the demure Victorian era, Drake says.

All this took place before the advent of automobiles. Bicyclists used dirt wagon roads or wooden or cement sidewalks, where they often posed problems for pedestrians.

On March 20, 1896, the Medford Mail newspaper reported: "There comes to The Mail considerable complaint as regards the fast riding of bicyclists on our streets."

In 1897, Jackson County passed the first speed limits for bikes, implemented a tax and required a registration number. The taxes helped fund the building of a bike path between Medford and Jacksonville around 1900.

People would regularly go bike "touring" between Portland and Ashland, Drake says.

The impetus for paved, government-funded roads came from bicyclists. The League of American Wheelmen, a males-only cycling club, led the national Good Roads movement, which "formed the basis for our street and highway systems today," Drake says.

The prestige of bicycles began to wear off with the turn of the century, as more and more cheap, used bikes became available to lower classes. Prices dropped from $300 or $400 to $75 for new bikes and much less for used ones, Drake notes.

"The car accelerated the decline of the bike and it became a lower-class machine," she says.

As cheap used cars became available after World War I, the bike was relegated to mostly a child's means of transportation. But another fitness revival in the 1970s propelled passage of the pioneering Oregon Bike Bill, which dedicated 1 percent of highway funds to bike and pedestrian paths.

The 1971 bill was written by Rep. Don Stathos, an avid bicyclist from Jacksonville, and was the first of its kind in the nation. The present Medford-Jacksonville bike path is named for the late Stathos.

In 1973, Rep. Al Densmore offered up a bill creating the Bear Creek Greenway, which allowed Jackson County to proceed with planning and land acquisition. The path is now about 20 miles long and follows Bear Creek from Ashland to Central Point.

The exhibit can be viewed at the museum from noon to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.

"Pedaling History" is part of SOHS's "History: Made by You" traveling exhibit program. SOHS, the Southern Oregon University Bike Program and community members developed, researched and helped design the exhibit.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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