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Bicycling: What goes around, comes around - on wheels


Here it is: The storied Velocipede - here shown in a catalog from the Pope Manufacturing Company, which sold a Columbia Bicycle that they insisted a cyclist could use to pedal ten miles in 7 hours and 18 minutes! Most of their models could be ordered by mail and shipped to a consumer on the West Coast, back in the 1880s. Bicycling enthusiasts in Inner Southeast have been pedaling around on bicycles from the beginnings of the city here on the east bank of the Willamette River.

Portland is considered a bike-friendly town these days, owing to the recent creation of bike paths and bike boulevards, as well as the recent opening of the Tillikum Crossing transit bridge, on which bicycles are welcome though private vehicles are not.

But, bicycling in the Northwest isn’t a new phenomenon at all. As early as the 1880’s the Rose City – and Southeast Portland – were a hotbed of enthusiasm for these two-wheeled devices, twenty years before the public began to turn its attention to the automobile.

Even earlier, on April 17, 1869, just after the Civil War, the “Vancouver Register” announced the sighting of a Mr. Ainsworth and a Mr. Wadhams, both of whom had pedaled their Velocipedes through city streets north of the Columbia River. The report went on to say that “the city of Vancouver turned out en masse to see the sight.” The editor of that broadsheet declared the Velocipede to be a two wheeled monster, but complimented these “pedalists” as having considerable skill and confidence in their riding ability.

The only untoward incident in this particular display of pedal power involved a small dog that got in the way; otherwise the townsfolk of Vancouver were smitten by the event.

The Velocipede, or the “high grader” as it has been called, attracted considerable attention because of its height. With a six foot wheel in front, and a very small wheel in the rear, the rider stood head and shoulders above his or her surroundings, and required acrobatic skills to mount. (Langlitz Leather Shop on S.E. Division Street has a Velocipede on display in their store, if you would like to see one in person.)

A small kerosene lamp, located between the forks of the front wheel, was used on gloomy days or dark nights. Unfortunately, because of the placement of this lantern, if the driver were to lose control of the bike, a careless fall might send him or her tumbling into a flaming ball of fire. This possibility was not highlighted in the promotional literature for this distinctive bicycle.

Two bicycling clubs – the United Wheelman’s Association organized in 1896, and the Oregon Good Roads club – led regular jaunts from downtown Portland to Vancouver, Washington, and back. Manufacturers and new patents soon were making bicycles faster, safer, and more durable, and over 100 companies around the U.S. began competing with each other to produce new makes and models.

The nation at that time was so enthralled with these two-wheelers that piano sheet music, and songs about bicycle racing and romantic bike rides for two, were composed and sold. Bicycling was also included as an event in the 1896 Olympics.

Meantime, the Oregon United Wheelman’s Association and Oregon Good Roads Club, hoping to promote long distance treks into the countryside, were calling for better bike paths in and around Southeast Portland. Residents also backed this idea, believing that designated paths for cyclists would keep “speed demons and speedsters” off the sidewalks, and away from children and pedestrians. Apparently unable to collect donations from bike riders for this purpose, however, the Oregon Good Roads Club agreed to having a city tax the bicyclists, as proposed by city officials in the 1890’s.

Author Percy Maddux, in his book “City on the Willamette”, reported that by 1899 all bike riders were required to buy a license tag for their vehicles, and “After May 1st, 1899, all bicycles in Multnomah County without license tags were to be seized and held until payment of the $1 tax was paid.” This was serious business, and this regulation also “applied to out-of-state bicyclists as well”.

As more bicyclists took to the streets and sidewalks on their two-wheelers, the accidents between pedestrians and speeding cyclists became more frequent, and an ordinance was passed at City Hall for cyclists to install bells and lights on their bikes.

Cycling was so popular, at that long-ago time, that professional tracks were set up for serious competitors. Multnomah Athletic Club at 18th and S.W. Morrison, Mechanics Pavilion at S.E. 2nd and Clay, and Cycle Park in Sullivan’s Gulch hosted just a few of the many tracks available for bike racing. A riding path, established from Portland south to the White House Racetrack on today’s S.W. Macadam Avenue, opened in 1896.

On numerous occasions during this time period, outings involving over 3,000 bicyclists traveled north to Vancouver from as far south as Inner Southeast on a Sunday morning, and back – an impressive gathering long before the naked bike ride recently began drawing even larger crowds of participants (and spectators).

Traveling on bike trails, during the early years, was both exhilarating and dangerous, since the only bike paths available were unpaved dirt roads with small divots and deep grooved gouges caused by constant cycling. Not to mention the mud, in rainy weather.

In Sellwood, residents helped support the local bike club, eagerly raising money for the construction of a dirt bike path. Though primitive by today’s standards, the path – according to newspaper reports – started near the west side of Midway School, which was then located at Milwaukie Avenue and Ellis Street, in today’s Westmoreland.

A bicyclist traveling south on Milwaukie from Ellis from there wound his or her way along the Sellwood Bluff to City View Park (today’s Sellwood Park), then followed a steep route downward, forcing the bicyclist to skirt past overgrown bushes and annoyed birds nested along Oaks Bottom, to the railroad tracks along which the Springwater Corridor Trail now winds.

Following the railway tracks south, riders would would continue their journey, exiting at Harney Street; then pedaling uphill through the neighborhood back to Milwaukie Avenue, where the return loop would be completed by traveling north back to the Midway district.

Fred T. Merrill boasted about opening Downtown Portland’s first bicycle shop in 1885 – with “the largest salesroom in the nation, and one of the largest bike operations in the Northwest.” Over 5,000 bikes were reportedly bought there in 1899; and, while Merrill’s Bike Shop was the most well-known store – as you might expect, given Fred’s spectacular success, other vendors in the area opened their own shops, and began selling and repairing bicycles as well.

On the east side of the Willamette River, few businesses that sold or repaired bikes could yet be found, but in 1909 Alfred M. Osgood started the first Inner Southeast repair and maintenance store along 13th Avenue in the Sellwood neighborhood. Osgood opened the Sellwood Cycle Company, and when that business got slow, he sold guns and ammunition too.

William and Ray Waldren bought and continued running the shop in the 1920’s, by then relocated to just north of Spokane Street, until the building was torn down. Fred Ross became the new owner of the Sellwood Cycle store, and moved his bicycles and tools to the corner of 13th and Harney. While the business still had the original name, locals often referred to the shop then as “Ross Cycle”.

Various proprietors owned the Sellwood Cycle Shop during the ensuing years, including C.G. Danielson, and E. H. Clem, with the location of the store changing as it went through different ownerships. It was still on S.E. 13th Avenue in the late 1950’s, before it finally closed.

Once big department stores began selling bicycles to children, teenagers, and families, from their showrooms, the pro bikes and expert repairs were relegated to small independent shops like Pats Cycle in Brooklyn, Beckwith’s Cycle Shop in Woodstock, the Moreland Bike Shop on Milwaukie Avenue, and R&R Bicycles at Tacoma Street.

What exactly happened to the big bicycle craze of the late 1890’s? Views differ on why the decline of the bicycling era happened as the start of the 1910’s approached.

Fred T. Merrill is reported to have blamed the decline of bicycling on “loose women who decided to pedal their trade riding bicycles about town with a smile, a wink, and colorful stockings that guide one’s eye up to the split skirts that they wore.” Sounds like sour grapes to us, but such thoughts must have been taken seriously, because well-respected ladies of society refused to be mistaken as women of questionable character, so bike sales tanked. But Merrill didn’t have a ready explanation as to why the men who relied on bikes for travel to work, or for use in sporting events, had stopped purchasing new models too.

Actually, as you probably have already guessed, it was not questioned morals but rather the advent of the automobile that turned public attention away from bicycles. Henry Ford had introduced the Model T Ford in 1908 as an affordable means of transportation for the average workingman, and the automobile era had arrived.

That, however, is hardly the end of the story of bicycling enthusiasm in Inner Southeast, and you probably are well aware of that, too.

84 years after the introduction of the Model T, in 1992, Steve Landon started a small business by which he tuned up and fixed broken bikes out of the basement of his house on S.E. Tacoma Street.

When a stucco building at the corner of Milwaukie and S.E. Malden became available, Steven moved his cache of bicycles and equipment over there, and set about buying, selling, and mainly repairing, bicycles. He hired additional workers; one of them was a 19 year old kid, Eric Tonken, who moved here from Minnesota and was taking courses at Lewis and Clark College.

Working part-time alongside Steven, within the next few years Eric became a co-owner of the new business, and together they both brought back to the community what had been missing the last 30 years: “Sellwood Cycle Repair” – though technically it was now in Westmoreland; and neither one really knew about the prominence of the old shop that had once carried the name in the area.

Eric was the perfect fit for the Sellwood and Westmoreland neighborhood and, as he points out, he has now spent his entire adult life working, biking, and living among the residents of Inner Southeast. He has donated his time, and items from his shop, to numerous charities and school fund-raisers every year.

Eric reminisces, “Residents and commuters that passed by our store every day knew where we were located. You couldn’t miss the 80 bicycles lined up on the sidewalk.” By far, he says, that was the best form of advertisement.

When Steven decided to retire to Mexico in 2007, Eric Tonken took over sole ownership of the Sellwood Cycle Shop, and in 2011 – after its 15 years on Milwaukie Avenue – he bought the building where the Furbish Chemical Supply Company had been, along 13th Avenue, returning Sellwood Cycle Repair to Sellwood.

Bicycle sales have changed drastically in the past few decades, and Eric has kept pace with his competitors – he offered the first website-based bicycle sales, just as it was becoming popular to shop online. The Sellwood Cycle Shop today offers everything from Mountain Bikes to competitive sporting speedsters, chariot trailers, travel cases, helmets, and even stationary training cycles. Last year, Eric reports, his shop sold over 1,500 consignment bicycles from the showroom floor.

The adage “what goes around comes around” appears very true, as far as Sellwood Bicycle Repair goes. In 1904, cycling was the craze when the Sellwood Cycle Company first opened; in 2016, cycling is back, as popular as ever – and Eric Tonken’s Sellwood Cycle Repair again stands proudly along S.E. 13th Avenue where the first business by that name began.