When the “safety bicycle” married up with the Dunlop pneumatic tire in 1889 a transportation revolution emerged. A cycling craze swept America and Europe. Personal mobility dramatically expanded. The Bay Area, with its passion for weekend picnicking, adopted the two-wheeled wonder as its particular friend. No longer did your picnic spot need to be within walking distance of a railroad station; no longer were you tied to hiking trails within that short distance. The safety bicycle by the way featured two wheels, each the same size, with the rear wheel chain driven from the pedals and featuring a diamond shaped frame.
“As a revolutionary force in the social world the bicycle has had no equal in modern times. … (It) put(s) the human race on wheels for the first time in its history. The proportion of people who are riding bicycles in nearly every community is astonishingly large. In many instances it may be said that nearly every able-bodied man, woman and child is a regular rider.” San Francisco Call 18 August 1895.
To reach many favored bike trails and picnic spots Bay Area cyclists put their bikes aboard the trains and ferries as luggage. A certain amount of luggage had always been allowed aboard as part of the price of a regular train ticket. Now the Southern Pacific began charging for bikes on board. Wheelmen, as cyclists called themselves then, reacted strongly. The ladies’ cycle clubs also protested.
“Commencing September 1, 1896, 25 cents will be charged for the transportation in baggage cars of a bicycle between any two points,” announced SP. SF Call 24 August 1896. Other roads followed suit.
“The war upon the free transportation of bicycles has been waged quietly but effectively by the railroad company for some time, but that … the silent steed would at one fell swoop be deprived of all its privileges a-rail came to the bicyclists with considerable shock.” Ibid.
Some cyclists stowed their bikes inside Saratoga trunks. As the trunks weighed less than 100 lbs., within the standard allowance, they had to be carried free despite frowns from the carriers. Lady cyclists reacted that the charges were an “Imposition and outrage. We will not ride aboard Southern Pacific. We can ride up into Marin County as the railroad over there will not charge us for our wheels,” declared Miss Mollie Mahoney of San Francisco. SF Call 28 Aug. 1896. The paper opined that the ladies’ views would be eloquently transferred to their gentlemen friends. Thus the Call. Imagine what William Randolph Hearst had to say in the Examiner with its anti-SP bias.
As Miss Mahoney said, one Bay Area railroad and one only refused to exact a charge for bikes on board. That railroad was the North Pacific Coast. “It has always been our policy,” said James B. Stetson, President of NPC, “to encourage bicycles to use our line. We do not get all of the mileage they travel, but are glad to get what we can. We have always tried to make things convenient for them, and on Sundays put on an extra car to carry their wheels.
“I recognize the fact that the wheelmen are not the nabobs of the land. They are mostly young men who are working for a salary. A bicycle I consider a most advantageous recreation for them and see no reason why its uses should be discouraged or made expensive. I have always worked for the improvement of the (public) roads about Sausalito. I believe it will pay (our railroad) in the long run.
“The handling of their wheels, of course, occasions some inconvenience, but we are willing to put up with it and have no intention of imposing a charge upon wheelmen.” SF Call 24 Aug. 1896.
San Francisco’s Wheelmen bicycle club put together a proposal to the California Legislature to amend the California Civil Code. In it bicycles would be considered as luggage and one bike per passenger would be included as a part of the luggage allowance included in the regular train fare. In support the Wheelmen cited NPC as proof that free carriage would not unfairly inconvenience the railroads. The legislation was introduced in January, 1897 and signed into law 22 March, 1897 as reported by the Call. To this day the Code retains free conveyance for bikes on board.
Today the bicycle retains the inherent appeal that drove the great cycling boom of the 1890s. And today SMART invigorates the old ties with Marin and Sonoma bikers. SMART’s proposal for a 70 mile rail and 70 mile trail between Larkspur and Cloverdale forges a strong bond between the railroad and biking communities. SMART expects that bikes on board its trains will constitute a large part of its patronage. Indeed there will be more space onboard SMART for bikes, in proportion to passengers, than on any other train in America.