A Boston Bicycle Club Before CRW

Lorenz Finison

A Boston Bicycle Club Before CRW




In May 1972, the CRW Newsletter published Howard Moore’s “Not a Dark Age at All.” Moore, a cyclist since the early 1920s and CRW ride leader, objected to CRW co-founder George Bailey (and Moore’s predecessor as club historian) calling the period of the 1920s through 1930s a “dark age for the bicycle.”  Moore claimed that there were many clubs around eastern Massachusetts “which endured for varying lengths of time between 1933 and the formation of the Charles River Wheelmen.” He mentioned the Cambridge Cycle and Sports Club, the Massachusetts Bicycling [Bicycle] Club, the Norfolk County Wheelmen, the North Quincy Wheelmen, the Brockton Cycle Club, the Middlesex County Wheelmen, and the West Roxbury Cycle Club; and, closer-in, the “Boston Wheelmen (not to be confused with the old-time Boston Bicycle Club).”  


What of this presumably ancient Boston Bicycle Club? What was its place in the history of our sport, recreation, and mode of transportation to or at work, and for a variety of social purposes? What are the parallels and contrasts between its story and those of cycle clubs today? These questions begin a series on the history of Boston region bicycling clubs and events. 


The Boston Bicycle Club (BBiC) was responsible for many firsts: it was the first cycle club on the American continent (February, 1878), the first club to join the League of American Wheelmen (now Bicyclists), and produced its first president, Charles Pratt. The BBiC organized the first century ride, the first bicycle race, the first 100-mile road race, the first tricycle race, and the first hill climbing contest. In October, 1879, the BBiC also co-sponsored, with the Massachusetts Bicycle Club, the recreational Wheel About the Hub – Boston was known world-wide as the Hub even then – and published popular stories about the event that arguably led to cycling’s surge in the 1880s, and even larger growth when the safety bicycle came on strong in the early 1890s.


At Readville, first organized bicycle run held in the United States, organized by the Massachusetts and Boston Bicycle clubs, September 11-12, 1879. Source: Quincy Historical Society.

Despite the end of the cycling craze by 1900, the BBiC survived for another 50 years – alone among Boston’s 19th century clubs. What follows are some notes on BBiC’s founding and early history, its unions with and divorces from the Massachusetts Bicycling Club (MBC), its remarkable longevity, and its connection to CRW. This is where we came from, in the long arc of history.

Part 1


Bicycling in Boston arose in 1876/77 out of the collapse of the velocipede mania several years earlier. The velocipedes, with direct-drive pedals on the front wheel were just too heavy, clumsy, and difficult to ride, especially over rough terrain, and were largely confined to rinks and riding schools in Boston and elsewhere. By 1871 spidery-spoked, lighter, and more road-worthy high- wheels appeared in England, and, given American (and especially Boston) elites’ connection to English culture, within a few years made their way to Boston: “…our English cousins developed … that combination of beauty, grace and power, the modern bicycle.”  Of course, these proclivities were not shared by Boston’s Irish immigrant population, just coming to political power, but then, they did not significantly adopt bicycling until the 1890s,with the advent of the cheaper safety bicycle and the broadening of bicycling beyond its upper middle class roots. 


During the mid-1870s a tiny number of English high-wheels found their way across the Atlantic to be used in match races and in trick riding demonstrations. Recreational use began when Alfred Chandler, a young Brookline lawyer, saw a high-wheel English bicycle exhibited at the Philadelphia Exposition in 1876 and ordered an import. He was widely seen riding in and around Boston.  Other young professional men were attracted, and by November 1877, Frank Weston, a Cunningham, Heath and Company partner, started importing English bikes into Boston. He was deservedly known as the “Father of American Bicycling” for his imports, organization, magazine, and encouragement to cyclists.


Weston was born in 1843 in London and followed in his father’s footsteps to become an architect. He came to Boston in 1866 and thereafter crisscrossed the ocean on business and joined the evolution from the velocipede to the high wheel. Weston maintained membership in London’s Pickwick Bicycle Club and cemented the comradely ties between English and American bicycling. His Cunningham offices at 178 Devonshire street became the first meeting place for the Boston Bicycle Club.  And he was to publish the first North American bicycling magazine: The American Bicycling Journal.


The mast-head for his new magazine illustrated a high wheeler waving farewell to the velocipede, while a dog chased along, perhaps eager for a new and more exciting victim.


Masthead, first issue of the American Bicycling Journal, December 22, 1877.


The ABJ published many notes from “ our English cousins” – there being little local cycling news yet– and also published hotel advertisements (e.g., Old Squantum House in North Quincy, Fresh Pond House in Cambridge; the Reservoir Hotel on Beacon Street in Brookline, Pratt’s Railway Hotel in East Milton), each promising special accommodations for bicycles and opportunities like “Bicyclists Tea.” A Boston hatter advertised imported English-pattern bicycle caps and made “the cap proposed to be worn by the Boston Bicycle Club.” A livery stable promised secure bicycle storage “just minutes from the asphalte pavement of Columbus avenue.” 


In 1877, Weston suggested that Boston roads compared well to those he had experienced in England and that a cyclist would find “nothing better for his purpose than a good ‘natural’ highway. Within the city limits Commonwealth Avenue (on the east side), Columbus Avenue, Warren and Washington Streets, or the Lower Mills are excellent roads to travel. The Milldam road [part of the Back Bay along the mill-dam, since filled in] is not very well adapted for the bicycle; but of course, the streets and roads of Brookline, Newton and the adjacent towns are most excellent.”  


The high-brow daily paper Boston Evening Transcript published a long and approving article on the delights of bicycle touring in England, and soon advertised imports and a riding school opening January 7, 1878.  Over the next few months, the advertisements for the school, taught by ex-Bangor velocipede racer William Pitman,, were nestled in with ads for places like the Howard and Globe theaters and the “Boston Museum.” 


Knots of professional men–one of the earliest such groups, a journalist, a lawyer, a merchant, and an architect– coalesced and started the BBiC.  In a long Boston Globe article, an anonymous author, likely Weston, described the history of the bicycle, commented on its prospects, and for the first time used the name “Boston Bicycle Club.” The writer also described Pittman’s riding school, and suggested that while cyclists were unlikely to ride in New England snow, they could go out and thoroughly enjoy “skimming over the hard-frozen roads and inhaling the crisp air.” 


On February 12, 1878, “fourteen gentlemen” assembled at 178 Devonshire Street (Cunningham and Heath’s address) and founded the Boston Bicycle Club. They cobbled together English club documents and adopted a constitution. It required an entrance fee and a nomination and second by current members. The use of the term gentlemen had a specific meaning at that time, and effectively excluded “blue collar” workers – who in any case could not afford the expensive high wheelers, in today’s terms cost well over $2,000. 


The BBiC’s purposes were:

  1. The mutual enjoyment of its members in the pursuit of bicycling as a pastime; to which end club-meets, tours, excursions, races, etc, shall be arranged and carried out.

  2.  The promotion (by force of example) of the use of the Bicycle as a practicable and enjoyable aid to locomotion, by the general public. 


The ABJ published notes about the BBiC, its club runs, other clubs and their constitutions, news from England, and poetry, as in this excerpt reprinted from the Transcript, written by Joseph Dalton in the style of Tennyson.

The Bicycle

Tennyson plus J.G.D.

Sure never yet was any heel
Could flit so lightly by. 
Keep off, or else my bicycle
Will hit you coming nigh.
How lightly whirls the bicycle! 
How fiery-like you fly!
Go, get you one; this ticklish wheel.
Be taught before you try.
Thou darest —give me now to reel 
The rapid miles, or die.
There, take it, take my bicycle 
And break your neck thereby.  



Boston Bicycle Club members in front of Trinity Church, in formation and ready to ride with admiring crowd in the background, 1878. Source: “The Massachusetts Bicycle Club,” Whewelman 2(3), June, 1883.


By May 1878, the club had grown to 27 members, and assembled regularly in military formation near Trinity Church to start their group runs. Member occupations included six merchants, four salesmen, four students, three lawyers, three clerks, two officers of corporations, one architect, one literateur, and one physician, in today’s terms, a solidly upper middle-class group.  The Baltimore Sun reported that the BBiC was the “reigning sensation” in Boston and that “great crowds assemble to see the start.” 


The group typically rode to a radius of twenty miles from Boston but reported on plans to travel into New Hampshire for 300 miles in a six-day outing. The Sun also commented on an early bicycling commuter, likely Weston, who was “said to leave his home in [Squantum] Quincy, 7 ½ miles from his office, every morning, on his bicycle, and be at his desk within forty minutes.”   


BBiC conducted weekly meetings to plan club runs, admit new members, to police the distinction between amateur and professional cycling, and to exclude all professionals from membership. This problem would bedevil cycling organizations for many years to come. 


Within a few months of BBiC’s founding, more clubs appeared on the Boston scene: the Suffolk Cycling Club – headquartered on Charles street but with many members, like Alfred Chandler, from Brookline and Cambridge – and shortly thereafter, clubs in Fitchburg, Salem, Worcester, and Brockton; and at Harvard University.  


Albert Pope an importer and then manufacturer, started advertising imports in early 1878, in full page ads opposite to those of Cunningham. It appears that Pope’s relationship with BBiC was ambivalent, especially since ABJ was Frank Weston’s journal and Weston was a partner with Pope’s principal competitor, Cunningham and Heath. Complicating things further, BBiC’s president was Charles Pratt, editor of the ABJ, but also a lawyer and politician, and increasingly drawn into Pope’s orbit. Pope and his family started the Massachusetts Bicycle Club (MBC) in 1879 and for the next decade the two clubs cycled between union and division.


Weston and the ABJ shepherded the bicycling clubs in their first two years, but ABJ became increasingly irregular. Edward Hodges took it over in November, 1879 (with Pratt as editor), and for a short time renamed it Bicycling World and Archery Field: A Weekly Journal of Polite Athletics. Hodges’ father was a successful State Street banker with a suburban Roxbury home and Hodges had the resources to risk on a new venture. The magazine temporarily combined the two elite sports to increase readership. “Polite” proclaimed that it was not a magazine for sports associated with gambling (e.g., professional pedestrian races) or the working class (e.g., baseball). Amateur/professional distinctions came up, especially in racing: As Bicycling World put it: “Amateur prizes are medals, silver or gold plate, articles of vertu, or anything which simply and only affords the winner a suitable memento of the contest, which he may keep as a trophy. These are consistent with the real difference in objects of the professional and amateur racer: that of the former being gain and self-aggrandizement; of the latter, love of the sport and a gracious emulation in its development.”  Of course, the amateur’s medals could be easily pawned for cash. So, the no-cash fig leaf was a cover for a gentlemen-only policy. Even Pittman, the bicycling racer, trickster and instructor came under fire for his professionalism and was eventually ousted, despite his denials and protests – that under these rules anyone who made money from bicycles including Weston, Pratt, and Pope himself should also be removed from membership in amateur clubs.  The BBiC regretted ousting the well-liked Pittman but stated that it had to do it, under the rules. Years later, on his death in 1914, the whole conflict seems to have been forgotten as he was eulogized by cyclist publisher Abbot Bassett for his “varied career, full of incident and meritorious performance.” 


The BBiC’s earliest meetings were held at its officers’ businesses or at Carl Vossler’s well-known restaurant on Hawley street. Within a year, old and new leaders began to coalesce.  In November, 1880, just after the founding of the League of American Wheelmen (L.A.W.) at a meeting in Newport, the two leading clubs in the effort, the BBiC and the MBC decided to lease a joint clubroom at 40 Providence street in Park Square. Bicycling World promoted this “Bossachusetts Room” as a model in which two clubs could share the expense and authority for adequate rooms for business meetings, a wheel room for storage, and a place for members to read the various bicycling magazines. A model set of “Rules and Regulations” stated among other things that: No liquor or liquors of any kind whatsoever shall be in any way used, kept or sold on said premises. (emphasis in the original). This was in line with “clean living” and anti-alcohol sentiments of many main-line Yankee Protestants of the time, and correlated with their anti-immigrant (Irish and German) views. The “old guard” was apparently incensed at the sight of German immigrant men and women enjoying a Sunday “biergarten” outing together. 


 There appears to have been continuing conflict between “wets” and “drys” within the cycling community through to the end of the century, with no clear resolution. Anti-alcohol rules did not seem to apply when cyclists met at a country inn, downtown restaurant or hotel, or picnicking on the road. Cyclists at play frequently toasted one another and their leadership.


The BBiC/MBC partnership split up in October, 1881, and BBiC took on a new home at 53 Union Park, a structure still standing at the corner of Union Park and Tremont Street in the South End.  

Boston Bicycle Club invites friends at the opening of their new club house. Source: Abbot Bassett Scrapbook, Division of Work and Industry, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution


That address was also home to Joseph Dalton, BBiC treasurer, wealthy son of the president of the Boston and Providence Railroad, poet, and publisher of a bicycling poetry book, Lyra Bicyclia, who also helped edit Bicycling World


BBiC invited applications from “associate” members, who might not cycle, but would enjoy (and help pay for) the social amenities provided.  The club also sponsored its first tricycle race from Cobb’s Tavern – known as BBiC’s “country clubhouse” in Stoughton (now East Sharon) – to Union Park.

Boston Bicycle Club house and Tricycle Division at 53 Union Park. Source: Abbot Bassett Scrapbook, Division of Work and Industry, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution


The BBiC was committed to good order and to show a properly uniformed and organized image. They wore a distinctive uniform: “A helmet with badge on front, jacket, vest, breeches and stockings all of dark seal brown.” The badge was a silver five-pointed star with the motto “Pedibus Bicyclus Addidit Alas” (Pedal Bicycles Quickly).  


The club also developed a system of bugle calls, many adopted from the U.S. Calvary. Among the nineteen calls published in Bicycling World were two which might be helpful in organizing starts even now: prepare to mount, and mount. 


Boston Bicycle Club bugle calls ~ 1880. Source: “Signals and Bugle Calls,” Bicycling World, 1(11) April 3, 1880:166.


The Federal tariff schedule and Pope’s monopoly on American bicycle production presented a key problem for the early bike-sellers and resulted in some inter-club conflict. Both Cunningham and Pope started out importing English bikes. Bicycle historian Bruce Epperson has estimated that of the total $90 selling price of an English ordinary he likely paid $50 wholesale, freight of $5, and $17.50 Morrill tariff – 35 percent because it was defined as a carriage rather than the 45 percent due on a machine. Pope figured that he could manufacture locally for a lower cost and pocket the difference.  And he did, and also offered English imports at a discount from what the rider could get direct from the English manufacturer. But importing versus local manufacturing drove a potential wedge between the interests of Cunningham (lower tariffs) and Pope (higher tariffs). Both Pope and Cunningham advertised in the ABJ, the only paper of its kind in America but Pope stopped advertising in the ABJ’s successor, Bicycling World. The conflict didn’t end soon.


In 1882 Bicycling World published articles against the bicycle tariff and Pop’s bicycle patent monopoly and accused Pope of asking the Federal Tariff Commission for an increase in the tariff from 35 percent to 45 percent. Pope denied that, saying that he only wanted a reduction in the tax on imported steel from 45 percent downward. The Federal Tariff Commission’s records support Pope’s denial.  The arguments flourished in Bicycling World and in a new bicycling journal out of New York, The Wheel. Along the way, Pratt resigned as President of the League of American Wheelmen, dissolved the partnership with Hodges, went on Pope’s payroll as chief patent attorney and renounced his membership in BBiC.  So did Edward Pope, Albert’s cousin, who had cofounded the BBiC.


Boston Bicycle Club at Chestnut Hill Reservoir, 1883.Source: Abbot Bassett Scrapbook, Division of Work and Industry, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.


Despite these difficulties and frayed fraternity, early in 1884 the BBiC opened larger quarters with a “Ladies Night.” The Boston Herald promoted this ideal Boston clubhouse:the members, their lady friends, and a few invited guests assembled to the number of several hundreds to participate in the house warming. The new quarters are in the handsome brown stone house formerly occupied by Hon. Moses Kimball [politician, showman associate of P.T. Barnum, and owner of the Boston Museum] at 87 Boylston street. … with the extra facilities afforded the club will continue to be a leader in all matters of bicycling interest, while the social features will be more than ever cultivated. 


Members entered through large double doors into a spacious drawing room with lounges, divans, artistic pictures and an upright piano. Beyond that a quiet reading room featured “all of the principal daily and weekly papers, magazines, and ’cycling journals, both of this country and England.” Servants provided a 5 o’clock dinner in the dining room. Other amenities included a telephone closet, a wheel room (for bicycles, tricycles, and two-person sociables) and a gymnasium; billiard, pool, and smoking rooms, dressing rooms, bathrooms, lockers, closets, private rooms for members and friends, and to top it off, an observatory on the roof.  


The BBiC clearly aspired to be the equal of other gentlemen’s clubs of Boston, such as the Algonquin, Union, St. Botolph, Tavern, and Somerset.  The club was apparently open to both riding and non-riding associate members.  


The scientific and literary ideals of Boston society were represented well in the leadership of the BBiC. Charles Fourdrinier, an English immigrant and BBiC secretary, proposed that an organization be formed within the club with the idea of “riding for a purpose.” It would “collect information upon its excursions in topography, history, and in other scientific directions.” 


BBiC and the other Boston bicycle clubs faced difficult challenges during the 1880s and 1890s, despite the huge increase in the number of cyclists on the road, and the “clubiness” of Boston’s gentlemanly culture. Suburbanization produced one headwind. As more and more of the upper middle class moved out to places like Roxbury, Dorchester, Hyde Park, Newton, and Brookline, aided by the old train lines and the new streetcar lines, suburban bicycle clubs grew, at the expense of the downtown clubs. But some non-cycling club members would be quite pleased to have a “downtown” club. And the BBiC fit the bill. As of July 1884, it had 67 active and 228 associate (non-cycling) members. Abbot Bassett, long time publisher, secretary, tricycle racer and race official retrospectively reported “The associates did not have an unlimited right to vote because if they had this power they could as any time convert the bicycle club into a social club. Therefore a ‘life preserver’ was created, by awarding only token representation on the club board to social members.”  The social amenities of the magnificent BBiC clubhouse split members who were enthusiastic cyclists from those associates who were attracted by the indoor amenities (dinner, billiards, pool, smoking, card, and guest rooms), and a gentlemen’s atmosphere. By 1886, Cycle, Bassett’s new magazine reported that BBiC was moving again, this time to 26 St. James street. 


In 1889, BBiC tried to paper over the differences by starting the Town Club, a social club. Members of the BBiC were automatically members of the Town Club, but Town Club members were not required to join the BBiC. BBiC/Town Club leased a new clubhouse on Boylston street between Washington and Tremont. The new president of the Town Club tried to cultivate fraternal relations and invited all members to travel to his fishing boat anchored at Weymouth, by bicycle or by a “tally-ho,” a fast, open, sightseeing coach drawn by “six grays.” 


Soon, BBiC had no clubhouse.  Other clubs declined too. The formerly prominent Massachusetts Bicycle Club (MBC) suffered an embarrassing fall. In January 1889, their magnificent building at 152 Newbury street – still standing near the corner of Dartmouth street – went to the Boston Art Club and all of the contents were auctioned off at low prices (e.g., the “magnificent six-light chandelier brought only $20”).  Many MBC members joined the Boston Athletic Association. 


A long article in the February 1891 Bicycling World and L.A.W. Bulletin lamented the demise of Boston’s two venerable cycling clubs – they existed as a shadow of their former selves – and attempted an analysis. At first, the addition of associate (social) members seemed like a good idea to club members. That helped grow the clubs, but unintended consequences followed. The writer thought that the vitality of the club had been “sapped” by the introduction of the “social element.” After a while the “social element, far outnumbering the riding contingent, demanded and were accorded representation in the club’s management. From that time the cycling interest declined, and, though the most cordial relations existed between the riders and non-riders, the Boston Club, as an active riding club died for want of interest. It was simply smothered by the social influences.”  


Members revived the Massachusetts Bicycle Club, but in 1892 it fell on hard times again. It began to admit women members, who straightened out the club finances and décor, only to be ousted in 1895 by a majority vote of men who wanted the old male club camaraderie. The women and their male supporters went off to start the Commonwealth Cycle Club.  


The BBiC never admitted women. The clubhouse-less club tried to put itself back “on the map” by recreating the famous Wheel About the Hub of 1879. In September 1892 the tour was resurrected and led by Walter “Doc” Kendall, a Quincy commuting dentist and BBiC captain. 


Boston Bicycle Club Reviving the Wheel About the Hub, 1890s. Source: Russell Mamone, personal photo; The Wheelmen, # 74, May, 2009,20.

In 1894 Daniel Dwyer in his Prominent Wheelmen and Bicycle Club Directory of Massachusetts noted BBiC’s glorious past but currently small dues and no clubhouse.  It would seem that this once thriving club was on its way out, and unlikely to survive the end of the bicycle craze in the late 1890s. 

Yet it did – for another 50 years – alone among Boston’s 19th century cycling clubs. How it contributed to Boston’s touring and racing is the story of Part 2. Part 3 shows how BBiC with Captain “Doc” Kendall survived through the “dark ages” of bicycling claimed by CRW’s George Bailey and how Bailey reconnected it with CRW history to contribute to Boston’s bicycling renaissance of the 1970s. 


This article is an expansion on material from my books: Boston’s Cycling Craze, 1880-1900 and Boston’s Twentieth Century Bicycling Renaissance, both available from UMass-Press. Obtain a fully referenced copy of the article by sending email to BostonCyclingHistory [at] gmail.com