/ Bicycles

The Bicycle Scorcher Menace of the 1890s

The advent of the “safety” bicycle in the mid-1880s pushed bicycling from a fad toward a full-blown national institution. Each day more people took up the “wheel,” and its popularity grew by leaps and bounds. However, little was done to accommodate the mode of travel of the new riders. Increasing numbers of bicyclists, called “wheelmen,” rode on sidewalks teeming with pedestrians. Frequent collisions made travel unsafe and pushed city officials to pass an ordinance that eventually forced all riders off of city sidewalks and onto the street.

In the early 1890s cities enacted bicycling ordinances to regulate the travel of “wheelmen.” St. Paul’s first set of bicycling rules were signed into city law on December 12, 1892. To protect pedestrians, these leaders chose to legislate where, when, and how bicyclists could travel. The ordinances enforced speed limits, forced “wheelmen” off of many city sidewalks, and required that they ring warning bells or blow whistles to alert pedestrians. Those that didn’t follow the rules were subject to fines between $1 and $50.

The majority of “wheelmen” followed the ordinance to the letter. They loved the independence offered to them by the bicycle, and while they weren’t necessarily in favor of inhibiting it through legislation, believed that public safety was paramount. However, it seemed that not everyone felt the same way. One group of bicyclists, referred to as “scorchers,” disregarded many of the bicycling rules put in place in the region. These young (predominantly) men rode well above the set speed limit and showed a brazen disregard for the safety of others.

The “scorcher” phenomenon of the era went on throughout the country. Any place that offered a flat road on a hill was seemingly at risk of being overrun by bicyclists “scorching.” Cities like Chicago, Denver, New York, Buffalo, and beyond fought to stop “scorchers” and their unsafe bicycling habits. Every city seemed to have particular locales within its limits that “scorchers” congregated to. In St. Paul “scorching” was prevalent at any of several streets with downhill slopes in or into downtown.

Public opinion of “scorchers” was very low. They were called “callow youth,” the “worst kind of nuisance,” “reckless cad(s)” and “hump-backed bulging-eyed creature(s)” that turned “an instrument of health and pleasure” into a dangerous weapon. The “scorchers” perceived blatant indifference for public safety caused an uproar. They were considered a menace that needed to be stopped. “Wheelmen” of the afflicted cities that followed the rules felt that these few reckless riders gave the majority of bicyclists a bad name. In Saint Paul, bicyclists called upon the mayor to commission staff of the best riders in the city to stop and arrest those that “scorched” and continued to put the public in harm's way.

Police officers set up the equivalent of speed traps and timed bicyclists as they made their way from one point to another. If they went too fast or rode by in an unsafe manner, the police chased down the offending “scorcher” and took them to jail. Eventually, cities created a formal “Bicycle Squad” of officers. Their job was to chase down “scorchers” on their bicycles and arrest them. Interestingly, the public sentiment of these special squads soon seemed to be no better than the opinion of the “scorchers” themselves.

City officials continued to update the bicycle ordinance, making it more difficult for law-abiding “wheelmen” to ride their bicycles. In response, and probably to distance themselves from dangerous riders, local riding organizations came forward and offered their assistance against the “scorchers.” They recommended the mayor deputize a number of their top riders to be part of a group of “specials” tasked with stopping “scorchers” in the streets.

Eventually, the conversation turned toward the continued building of bicycle paths for the “wheelmen.” Local communities began to build bicycle paths in 1896. They were frequently used and seemed to help create a safer environment for travel in the city. In a short time, reported accidents due to “scorchers” dropped significantly as the paths kept riders separated from pedestrians. Police officers that patrolled the trails continued to arrest those that rode unsafely.

After the turn of the century, the conversation regarding bicycles shifted significantly. In 1901 the talk moved away from bicyclists that “scorched” to those that had taken up riding for the first time. “Wheelmen” felt that these incredibly slow riders, with their “‘shivery handlebars’ and (an) uncertain direction” as they wobbled down bike paths, were as bad as any “scorcher.” While the consensus was that the “scorcher” still traveled too fast, at least they were experienced enough to handle their bicycles. They called for a happy medium of experienced riders and moderate speed.

Around the same time, the automobile started to become more popular and took the place of the bicycle as the standard mode of travel and leisure in the area. Bicycle “scorchers” were soon a thing of the past, replaced by the “auto.” “Scorchers” continued to wreak havoc on streets throughout the region; they just did so in a motorized vehicle instead of on the seat of a bike.

Bibliography available here.

Creative Commons Attribution

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial-No Derivatives 4.0 International License.

Matt Reicher

Matt is a Historical Research Consultant with Histreco Research Services. He has a BA in history from Metropolitan State University and a MA in museum studies from Oklahoma University.

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