Bicycling continues to grow in popularity year after year, with various types of bikes sharing the narrow streets of Nyack. From road bikes to cargo bikes, ebikes, and tandems, cycling has become a common sight especially on weekends. However, this isn’t the first time that cycling has taken center stage in American culture and in Nyack specifically.
In the 1890s, cycling experienced a tremendous surge in popularity, with men and women embracing this new mode of transportation and recreation. Let’s take a trip back to the 1890s to explore the cycling craze in Nyack.
Bikes in the 1890s
The invention of the safety bike, which closely resembles modern bikes, revolutionized cycling and created a newfound demand for this mode of transportation. The penny farthing bike with a tall front wheel quickly went out of fashion due to their dangerous design. The safety bike with its equal-sized wheel and various frames suitable for men, women, and children provided a safer riding experience.
Interestingly, the wheel rims of bikes in the 1890s were made of wood, and the introduction of pneumatic safety tires replaced the solid rubber tires, offering a smoother ride. Chain drives with gears allowed for more efficient pedaling, while brakes and acetylene gas lanterns! added to the overall safety of riding.
Rules of the Road
Even in the 1890s, cyclists were expected to obey the rules of the day, such as riding on the right side of road and yielding to wagons and pedestrians. However, complaints about poor cycling behavior were common, with frequent letters to the editor highlighting the issue.
Cycling on dirt roads presented its own set of challenges, and the sales of cycling liability insurance surpassed that of automobiles until at least 1904.
Get your life insured if you ride a bike. Accidents on bicycles are a very frequent thing.” Blauvelt and Morris, Nyack insurance agents
Breaking Gender & Racial Barriers
Cycling in the 1890s had a significant impact on society, particularly for women. It provided them with an affordable and independent means of travel, allowing them to move about more freely. Suffragettes recognized the transformative effect that cycling had on women, and it even influenced changes in fashion.
“I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world.” Susan B. Anthony, 1896
Furthermore, in a predominately white, male-dominated sport, an eighteen-year-old African American named Major Taylor emerged as a cycling champion in 1896. Taylor faced racism and segregation at every turn, yet his determination and talent propelled him to become one of the world’s best cyclists for two decades. His achievements broke barriers and inspired generations of cyclists. Today, bike clubs and rides are named in his honor.
While we may think of bike paths as a recent development, the idea of dedicated bike paths was prevalent in the 1890s. Specially designed bike-only paths crisscrossed New York City especially in Brooklyn. Later, some of these paths transformed into car parkways. In Manhattan, striped-off bike lanes like those we have today separated cyclists from the chaos of trams, horses, wagons, and pedestrians.
A Plan for a Bike Path on River Road
One beloved cycling route that remains popular today is River Road from Nyack to Piermont. In the 1890s, this road also hosted horse and harness races on weekends, attracting crowds of up to 150 spectators. Cyclists had to navigate through this busy scene. To make matters more complicated, Piermont required cyclists to use lights, unlike wagons and horses.
Despite the need for a dedicated path, Isaac Neisner, a Nyack clothing store owner, failed to realize his vision of a side-path on River Road funded through bike licensing.
Nyack Bike Shops in the 1890s
During the 1890s Nyack boasted at least four bike shops. The Rockland Bicycle Works on Main Street, captured in an iconic photo, was one of them. Other shops, such as Jack Heinig’s bike shop and Scanlon’s on South Broadway offered bike repairs, rentals, training, and accessories.
Where to Buy a Bike in Nyack in the 1890s
The availability of bicycles in Nyack during the 1890s were quite remarkable, with a range of shops catering to the demand. Harrison & Dalley, the largest department store in Nyack and Rockland County, offered a selection of bikes, including the popular Nyack Bike. Hinton’s Stationery Store on South Broadway also sold bikes.
One popular brand during the time was Crescent, manufactured in Chicago. Edward Hopper’s famous Crescent Western Wheelwork’s Number 7 model from 1897 is now showcased at the Edward Hopper House Museum & Study Center on North Broadway in Nyack. Hopper might have acquired his bike from either Howard Gerner’s shop on South Broadway or Walsh and Reichlung in Piermont, as both establishments specialized in Crescent bikes.
Chamberlin & Co., located on South Broadway, advertised two tandem brands: the Stormer and Crawford Models, priced at $100 (about $3,700 today). Dutchers, situated at 108 Main Street, focused on the Henley bike brands, particularly those designed for women. Additionally, Neisner’s clothing store offered a selection of bike clothing.These various shops and their specialized offerings contributed to the thriving bicycle culture in Nyack during the 1890s providing enthusiasts with a wide array of options to choose from.
Building a New Bike in a Day
Jack Heinig, bike shop owner, was known for building a new bike in just one day. Using prebuilt wheelsets and crafting the frame from tubular steel, Heinig would add handlebars and a seat, creating a bike ready for use. This biked weighed about 16 pounds and was geared for speed. Heinig test-rode his creations by taking a ride to Hook Mountain. He rode one of his models in a race at the Orangeburg racetrack (later home of the County fair).
In a fascinating twist, bicycles were manufactured in Nyack itself. The Nuttal Manufacturing Company opened in 1897 and produced, among other components, Nyack Bikes. Their factory was in the old Morrow Shoe Factory near the Nyack train station, employing 40 people. The company also specialized in making wheels for Spaulding children’s bikes. The Columbia Bike Company, a conglomerate of various brands, handled national distribution of Nyack bikes. Over time, Columbia absorbed the production of Nyack bikes, and the brand eventually disappeared. Today, antique Nyack Bikes occasionally surface in the market.
The Nyack Wheelmen
In 1897, the Nyack Wheelmen (the name for cyclists then) formed a club based at Jack Heinig’s bike shop, with Heinig himself serving as the ride captain. The club colors were white crash pants with white braid and black and orange sweaters. One of their favorite routes was to Hook Mountain and Rockland Lake. Additionally, the wheelmen organized bike parades at night, including a memorable one that took place on Broadway late on a November night, with cyclists donning costumes and elaborate bike lanterns.
The state of cycling in the 1890s shares many similarities with today. The passion for independence, athleticism, wellness, and exploration, combined with advancements in technology created a cycling craze in the 1890s, much like the resurgence that began around 2010 and accelerated during COVD-19. Safety remains a paramount concern, with an emphasis on the need for pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists showing mutual respect and courtesy towards one another.
Michael Hays is a 35-year resident of the Nyacks. Hays grew up the son of a professor and nurse in Champaign, Illinois. He has retired from a long career in educational publishing with Prentice-Hall and McGraw-Hill. Hays 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.