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Nyack People & Places: 19th Century Cycling

by Mike Hays
“Share The Road” had a place on our streets long before cars ruled the road. In 1900 bicyclists were on every street,  competing with the dominant transportation of the day, horse-drawn vehicles.
Biking clubs were common. Both men and women (thanks to the step-through frame and skirt guard) rode bikes. Susan B. Anthony stated that the bicycle helped contribute to the liberation of women by increasing their mobility and freedom, not to mention a change in fashion with the advent of bloomers as biking clothing.

Bike paths and road cycling safety

Today Piermont Ave/River Road is crowded with vehicular traffic, parked cars and trucks, and cyclists. At the start of the 20th century, this street was a favorite course for horse racing and trotting. The March 26, 1900 Rockland County Journal reported that a crowd of 150 or so gathered to watch the horses, endangering cyclists and pedestrians. Led by Nyack department store owner Isaac Neisner, wheelmen and wheel women (as cyclists were then called) petitioned for a side-path of their own. A side-path commission was formed. Money to build the side-path was to be collected from bicycle license fees (just try licensing cyclists today.) How did that work out? River Road still doesn’t have a side path nor a sidewalk. Conflicts between cars and cyclists persist today.
Cycling on the roads in the 1900’s could be dangerous. Sales of cycling liability insurance exceeded that of automobile insurance in 1904. Blauvelt and Morrell, insurance agents, advertised, “Get your life insured if you ride a bike. Accidents on bicycles are a very frequent thing.”

Bike Shops and Bike Manufacturing

A Nyack bike in all its glory including headlamp. The wheel set may not be original.

In 1897, the Nuttall Manufacturing Company started making bicycles in Nyack in the former Morrow Shoe Manufacturing Building at Railroad (now Depot) and Cedar Hill Avenues near the train depot. The business had 12 expert bike builders who moved from New York City to the Lower Hudson Valley to work at the factory. The business was soon purchased by the much larger Columbia Company, but closed in subsequent years as autos replaced bikes. Nuttall “Nyack” bikes were second to none in quality and are now highly prized by antique bike collectors.
Nyack’s three current bicycle shops — Nyack Bicycle Outfitters, Crankworks and 9W Bikes. — join a long line of bike merchants and mechanics going back to the bicycling craze of the 1890s. Nyack had at least two shops at the turn of the century. A classic photo shows the Rockland Bicycle Works at 137 Main Street in the block that was torn down for Nyack Plaza and parking lot. Blauvelt Bicycle Store was at 118 Main in one of the buildings along Onderdonk Row. They advertised new bicycles as well as repairs. The shop soon switched to automotive supply and then became an agent for Oldsmobile cars.

What were bikes like back then?

Bikes were pretty much like today’s hybrid bike with the so-called “safety bike” having wheels of equal size, pivoting handlebars, and chain-driven rear wheels. The pneumatic tire was re-introduced along with a steel frame configured in a diamond pattern. These features made biking more comfortable for the unpaved roads of the time. The tires were relatively wide and the handlebars were mostly of the bullhorn variety. They must have been heavy; no carbon fiber bikes then. Braking was via coaster brakes.

Everyday Cycling

Cycling was a method of transportation for kids and a recreational activity for adults. Many parents cobbled together bike parts on an old frame for their kids. No one seemed to lock a bike in those days. A photo of the Liberty Street Schools shows several rows of bikes racks.
Cycling at the turn of the century must have been tricky as most roads were unpaved. Franklin Street, for example, was paved but with cobblestones. A favorite town route was Midland Avenue. Recreational cyclists sometimes ferried over to Nyack after biking up from New York City to Tarrytown. An early photo shows a cycling club resting beside the unpaved road up to Hook Mountain and Rockland Lake. The men wear knickers and in one case a bow tie. The women wear long dresses and hats.
Biking outfits have changed almost as much as bicycles have. Knickers, long dresses and sun hats have given way to lycra bicycle clothes, wrap-around sunglasses and helmets. What will the next hundred years bring? No one can say for sure, but maybe pedestrians and cyclists will get the safe passage sidepath and sidewalk they first asked about in 1900.
Photos courtesy of Nyack Library and the Hudson River Valley Archives
Michael Hays is a 30-year resident of the Nyacks. He grew up the son of a professor and nurse in Champaign, Illinois. He has recently retired from a long career in educational publishing with Prentice-Hall and McGraw-Hill. He is an avid cyclist, amateur historian and photographer, gardener, and dog walker. He has enjoyed more years than he cares to count with his beautiful companion, Bernie Richey. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike.

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