The Boston Bicycle Club, Harry Corey and the Corey Hill Climb
Annotated Map of Corey Hill, 1888, showing Corey Estate, Beacon Street, and Summit Avenue. http://www.brooklinehistoricalsociety.org/archives/atlas/map1888.asp
Harry Corey dominated the hill. Corey was the twenty-year-old son of a wealthy merchant farmer. He lived with his parents on Washington street between Corey Road and Downing Street, their house still standing at the bottom of the hill. He cycled past Corey Hill many days commuting to and from work at the Milk Street Boston importing company Stoddard and Lovering, where, by the mid-1880s, he was “busily engaged in looking after the interest of the Rudge and Hunter cycles. And he joined the Massachusetts Bicycle Club. Corey bested Corey Hill on May 4, 1883 on a 52-inch English Rudge bicycle weighing thirty-three pounds.
On July 6, another bicycle dealer/racer, William Stall, followed Corey on a Victor rotary tricycle – manufactured by the Overman Wheel Company in Hartford, showing the advance of American manufacturing. For several weeks thereafter many other cyclists attempted the feat and failed.
Victor High Wheel Rotary Tricycle. This sold for $19,890 at the Copake Bike Auction in 2014.
On July 27, Harry Corey did it again, this time on an Apollo (English) tricycle. The B.Bi.C. organized an August hill climb for both bicycles and tricycles. Medals were promised for the fastest three riders and a prize for each rider who reached the top without stopping. Many still failed. And the race prompted a protest from an experienced cyclist, signing his letter to the Boston Daily Advertiser only as “C,” who complained that the prizes would tempt ill-prepared cyclists who might injure themselves.
The Climb was popular enough among Boston cyclists (perhaps because few could do it), that the B.Bi.C. put on an April 1884 minstrel stage show in which the “six end men (a standard role in such shows) rode in on small velocipedes, all claiming they were climbers of Corey Hill.” Greeted, no doubt, by loud hoots and laughter from the audience.
The hill looked much different than it does today. There was little housing on it. Cyclists, cross-country runners, and tobogganists all used it for recreation and racing. Beacon Street and Summit Avenue, too, were very different. The roadways were not asphalted, which certainly slowed the racers. The races occurred just before Beacon Street was widened to become a boulevard, with a streetcar line down the middle. The original Olmstead landscape plan was for separate lanes going each way for commercial and pleasure vehicles, a horse-car track, bridle, and bicycle paths. All separated by elegant trees. Opposition to the expense developed. The Olmstead architects scaled it back from 240 to 160 feet and abandoned the bridle and bicycle paths – and the horse- cars were replaced with electric streetcars.
Throughout 1883 and 1884, cyclists regularly gathered at the hill to practice their skills, and knowledge of the road (it was too soft in dry weather and thought to be best after a hard rain). Practice, and the continuing improvement of bicycle and tricycle design showed results.
The League of American Wheelmen (L.A.W.)’s Bulletin touted Harry Corey’s long string of cycling records: “Not content with his past achievements in breaking all the records from one to ten miles (excepting two and five), which he barely missed in 1883; with the [Chestnut Hill] Reservoir record in the same year, a record which had stood for four years; with the coasting record down Mt. Washington, and the twenty-four-hour record in the same year, and with the bicycle and tricycle Corey Hill record, he now comes forward with a [24 hour] record of two hundred and three and one-eighth mile on a safety bicycle.”
By 1885 cyclists finally and regularly matched the Corey Hill challenge on all brands of imported and domestic bicycles and tricycles. In October, all eleven contestants made the hill, won by Stall on a Star bicycle (small wheel in front and large in back) in 3:24:1-5.
The four tricyclists who got to the top included winner John Williams, a well-known “colored” (in the journalistic parlance of the time) racer from the Dorchester Bicycle Club on a Quadrant (3:46:2-5).
The May 1886, the L.A.W. national meet in Boston attracted thousands of cyclists to a three-day event with business meetings, politicking, banquets, and recreational rides and races, including a Corey Hill climb, nicely illustrated by Harper’s Weekly. Walter Kendall, a Quincy dentist, bicycle commuter, and cycling activist organized the hill climb for the B.Bi.C.
Corey Hill Climbing. From Harper’s Weekly, June 5, 1886. Courtesy Ken Liss. The Harper’s Weekly illustration appears to include a tricycle in the middle. On the left, halfway up the hill, is likely a Star bicycle, operated by a treadle mechanism, rather than a crank.
John Williams raced again, despite being suspended by the L.A.W. board, likely for being declared a professional (the racing board at the time was adamant about keeping out hundreds of men who earned money from racing, even if in indirect ways, or having raced against a professional). Williams won by twelve seconds. The only other tricyclist who finished got the gold medal. Nevertheless, the assembled crowd gave Williams a “very kind reception.”
The L.A.W. Bulletin remarked on the crowd: “The entire road from top to toe was lined with cyclers, many accompanied by ladies. Little knots of wheelmen were gathered at prominent points of observation and discussed the chances of the contestants, while amateur and professional photographers reaped a great harvest….” Sadly, none of these photographs survive.
In June 1886, Corey added to his Corey Hill exploits. As the Herald reported, he was well known as the first rider to successfully surmount the Brookline side, and had for three years tried to scale the Brighton side, much steeper and regarded as impossible. But he did it, on a Rudge bicyclette – a machine looking like a cross between a high wheel and a safety bicycle, with a chain drive. For his many accomplishments, the Boston Herald, who had called him “The King of Corey Hill,” now called him the “king of both sides of Corey Hill.”
Corey reported from a trip to England that the high wheels and tricycles were on their way out, in favor of the new safety bicycle. It took a few years before the wave hit North America. During the late 1880s and early 1890s races included all three divisions: safety, ordinary, and tricycle. But the advantages of the safety bicycle were so great that cyclists abandoned the other modes.
Wheel and Cycle Trades Review reported on the Corey Hill attraction for the old-timers: “The hill climbing contests were famous the country over. The man who reached the top was considered something of a marvel; his name promptly found its way into print. But the contest waned in interest, and until last week Corey Hill had not been heard of in some time.” Corey Hill was given over to the safety bicycle, and the new bicyclists made the most of it. Ten amateur riders were sent off at intervals of three minutes. The contest for the largest number of ascents without dismount in an hour was won by Robert Urquhart who finished his eleventh climb in 59 minutes.”
Harry Corey worked briefly as “superintendent of bicycling business” with Pope Manufacturing. After his marriage in 1988, and apparently inheriting his father’s estate, he became a stockbroker. He spent the rest of his life world traveling from his Newtonville home for business and pleasure. Corey had no children and died in 1931. The extended family petered out in another generation leaving behind hardly a trace, except for the hill called Corey.
Corey Hill still challenged, but infrequently, in the 20th century. In November 1934, Needhamite Marino Breda, an Italian immigrant bricklayer, won a race “over the Corey Hill course,” against other Boston-area locals. The Boston Veteran Journalists Benevolent Association (really the B.Bi.C.) petitioned Brookline to permit a Corey Hill race in May 1942. The organizer, Dr. Walter Kendall, described as a “famous nonagenarian” had organized the 1886 race and had by 1942 been captain of the B.Bi.C. for 55 years. Long after that, in 1986, [was it a conscious attempt to recreate the 100th anniversary of the 1886 L.A.W. event?] a Summit avenue block party promoted a race, but the press noted nothing more. A recreational running club called the “November Project” jogs up and down both sides of the hill every Friday morning at 6:30, but cyclists are elsewhere.
The races, hill climbs and recreational events of the 1880s put cyclists in position to ride the great craze of the 1890s with the safety bicycle. They thrived for a bit, but cycling collapsed in 1900 and struggled on until the Earth Day 1970, when the environmental movement coupled with physical health consciousness to kick off another great rise.
Hill climbing still goes on, The Major Taylor Association sponsors downtown Worcester’s annual George Street hill climb, so named because the famous African American sprinter used it as a training ground. And CRW’s climb up Mount Wachusett as part of the “Climb to the Clouds,” is an annual badge of honor. CRW notes that the one mile 9% struggle to the summit “is not for beginners….”
Perhaps the Corey Hill Climb will come back. Would CRW sponsor one as a special event, like the B.Bi.C. did in the 19th Century? Perhaps limited to a single gear (of the rider’s choice so everyone can join in) to copy the ungeared high wheelers of yesteryear. And with a social gathering at the top when we get past Covid-19?
BostonCyclingHistory [at] gmail.com
Larry Finison is a CRW member, public health consultant, and bicycling historian.