Monday, August 21, 2017

Breaking the Law on Two Wheels

by Erin Doane, Curator

In 1900, Elmira police made 1,438 arrests. The top three criminal offenses for which people were arrested were intoxication, vagrancy, and violating bicycle ordinance. 107 people were arrested for violating bicycle ordinances. That’s almost 7 percent of all arrests in the city that year. 1900 was the first and only time that bicycle-related criminal activities broke into the top three. So, why was that?

A bicycle gang? No, just the Kanawehola Bicycle Club at Fitch's Bridge in the 1890s.
The years around the turn of the 20th century are seen as the golden age of bicycling. The earliest bicycles first appeared in the early 19th century but bicycling as a craze really takes off after the invention of the safety bicycle in the 1880s. The safety bicycle was an alternative to the penny-farthing which had one giant front wheel and a smaller rear wheel. The safety bicycle was, as its name implies, safer, so more people took up riding as a hobby and as a means of transportation.

Penny-farthing bicycle
"Elmira" model D lady's bicycle made by the Elmira Clipper Chilled Plow Company, c. 1890s
By the 1890s, the city of Elmira had detailed bicycle ordinances in place regulating where and when cyclists could ride their vehicles. Rules that kept cyclists from riding on sidewalks without permits or riding at night without lanterns were made for the sake of public safety. Bicycling can be a dangerous activity for both riders and those who happen to get in their way. On July 17, 1897, the Elmira Star-Gazette reported on two wheelmen, as cyclists were also called, colliding with each other at 10 o’clock at night while riding on the cinder path in front of the table factory in Elmira Heights. One of the men suffered from a fractured cheekbone and a blackened eye while the other was knocked unconscious. Neither bicycle had a lamp.

Brass bicycle lamp
Many of the complaints about bicyclists came from residents in the vicinity of Eldridge Park. The park was a very popular destination for cyclists. It was in the evenings at the end of a concert or play that had been held in the park that problems arose. Cyclists would speed away on the sidewalks, weaving through pedestrians as they went. Several accidents were reported in which pedestrians were run down. People also complained that cyclists used the roads surrounding the park as race courses for their own entertainment.

Pedestrians and bicyclists in Eldridge Park, 1890s
In 1899, the city began to crack down on those violating the ordinances. In July, two Elmira police officers, H.B. Murray and F.A. Gitchell, were tasked with helping with the crack-down. They were assigned bicycles of their own and, being good riders, were easily able to run down all guilty parties. Within just two days the pair arrested seven people for riding on the sidewalk without either permits or lamps. Those arrested were brought to city hall. They were not held in jail but their wheels were kept as security. After appearing before the city Recorder the next day, they paid the $1 fine and their bicycles were returned to them. It’s interesting to note that a bicycle license, which would have kept the riders from being arrested in the first place, cost $1, the same amount as the fine.

Elmira Star-Gazette, July 13, 1899
In October, 1899, the city’s common council passed a new set of bicycle ordinances. They appear to be only slightly different from the previous ordinances. Cyclists were prohibited from riding on sidewalks unless the street was not paved or macadamized. In that case, they would need to purchase sidewalk permits at the cost of 50 cents. Cyclists were required to have lights on their bicycle which could plainly be seen two hundred feet ahead if they were riding between sunset and sunrise. They were also required to carry a bell or whistle to alert pedestrians when they were riding on sidewalks. A bicycling speed limit of 6 miles an hour was also enacted. Any violation of the ordinances was punishable by a fine of not less than five dollars or, in absence of payment, imprisonment in the Chemung County jail for a term not exceeding five days. All money collected from the sales of permits and fines would go toward paving streets in the city. The Kelly-Keefe Co. offered a printed summary of the new ordinances on a neat card that could be picked up at their shoe store on Water Street.

Elmira bicycle permit, 1900
The common council promised strict enforcement of the new bicycle ordinances and they delivered on that promise. The Star-Gazette reported on dozens of arrests for violations from the fall of 1899 through the new year. For some, though, enough was still not being done. Enforcing and strengthening the city’s bicycle ordinances became a pet project of Alderman Eugene Barnes who represented the city’s 11th Ward. Barnes was an engineer with the Northern Central Railroad who lived on South Main Street. In July 1900, he reported to the common council that a woman bicyclist had run into him and he demanded that a speed limit be set for bicycles. He was told that the ordinances passed some eight months earlier did set a limit and he countered that it had never been enforced. At the next meeting, Barnes introduced a resolution to have the police enforce the bicycle ordinances more strictly. That evening, the police received orders to take all wheelmen into custody who violated the ordinance.

Bicyclist in Eldridge Park posing near the American Girl Statue, 1899
From July 10, when the resolution for stricter enforcement was passed, through August 21, 98 people were arrested on charges of violating the ordinances. Despite all these arrests, some cyclists insisted upon continuously defying the ordinances. Trouble-makers Laverne Allen and Miss Grace Wood appear twice in the local newspaper for their crimes. In April 1900, the pair was arrested at 9 o’clock in the evening for riding on the sidewalks without a lamp. When they appeared before the Recorder the following day, Allen argued that they were not guilty. He said that he thought the sun set at 9 o’clock and that bicyclists were not required to carry lamps until some time after the sun set. The court did not agree with his argument as the sun actually set closer to 8 o’clock and found the pair guilty. Allen paid the fines for both himself and Miss Wood. Three months later, Allen and Wood were arrested again for disobeying the bicycle ordinances. This time, their bicycles were confiscated.

Kanawehola Bicycle Club in front of the Elmira Reformatory, July 4, 1895
The popularity of bicycles started dropping off after 1900. As cars became more popular through the 1910s and 1920s, bicycles became seen more as recreational vehicles and children’s toys. Perhaps that is why reports of arrest for violations of the city’s bicycle ordinances rarely appear in local newspapers after 1914.


  1. I find the article really interesting as with Today's bicycle riders who don't follow the laws either, like your required to ride WITH the flow of traffic not against it, use hand signals when necessary and follow traffic signals and crossing signs, and above all DO NOT ride at night I find it horrific when I hear of a bicyclist being killed because they were riding at night and the driver of the vehicle couldn't see them and then they are (the vehicle driver) is the one charged with a crime which to me is not fair, if you MUST drive a bicycle at night wear white clothing, orange reflective vest and have lights on both the front and rear of your bike.

  2. For safety purposes, high visibility colors and reflective stripes are going to make you far more visible.
    Safety vest