Hilary Beaumont

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Before cars, cyclists ruled the streets

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Published Jan. 10, 2012. Read the full multimedia story on OpenFile.

The Halifax Ramblers held a bike parade on Labour Day. (From Silent Steeds by Heather Watts)

Decades before cars appeared on the streets of Halifax, there were bicycles.

Until they were mostly abandoned in favour of the automobile, cycling culture encouraged women to participate in society, brought tourists to Halifax and prompted the local government to improve road conditions.

Cycling activist Tom MacDonald gave a talk last fall about the bicycle’s heyday in Halifax between 1890 and 1900. MacDonald helps organize the monthly bike rights event Critical Mass and the annual World Naked Bike Ride in Halifax. Last week, OpenFile sat down with him to talk local bike history.

Interview with cycling activist Tom MacDonald by Hilary Beaumont

In the 1870s, Haligonian cyclists rode around on noisy, iron bikes without tires called velocipedes. They practiced in gymnasiums to avoid the embarrassment of falling in public, according to the book Silent Steeds by Heather Watts. Once the skill was mastered, they paraded down the streets in large groups that resembled today’s Critical Mass.

Bike parades weren’t political back then. By the 1890s, Halifax was home to several clubs of cyclists. Members wore close-fitting wool uniforms and small caps. By then the velocipede had transformed into a “high-wheeler” with a large front wheel and a smaller one in the back.

One of the clubs voted to allow women to join in 1892. The new female recruits opted to wear skirts rather than trousers, which were widely ridiculed at the time. Mudguards on the back wheels prevented these long skirts from getting caught in the mechanism.

The Halifax Chronicle declared 1897 “the year of the bicycle craze.” The cycling boom lasted until the turn of the century when the American Bicycle Company’s monopoly on bikes threatened Canadian bike manufacturers. Around the same time, the upper class abandoned bikes in favour of the earliest electric cars.

Since they began sharing the roads with cars, cyclists have faced an increased risk of injury or death in collisions.

Helmet laws in Nova Scotia were enacted in 1997 to protect cyclists in collisions with cars. According to a research paper by University of Toronto professor Dr. Mary Chipman, the number of cyclists observed on the streets dropped from nearly 90 per day in 1995 and 1996 to only 34 in 1997.

Most of the archive photos and early historical information that appears here can be found in the book Silent Steeds: Cycling in Nova Scotia to 1900 by Heather Watts.


Written by hilarybeaumont

January 10, 2012 at 11:48 pm

Posted in Culture

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