- Portland Tribune - News
Every Friday in Stumptown Stumper, the Portland Tribune offers a trivia question and answer to help you boost your Rose City IQ.
Q: Portland enjoyed a bicycling craze in the 1890s, but it died down a decade later. What caused the trend to slow down? Hint: It wasn't the automobile.
A: Karl Klooster, who wrote witty 'one-half-minute history lessons' throughout the 1980s for This Week (a former downtown weekly), has a snappy take on this particular craze - which, obviously, never went away at all.
In his Nov. 11, 1987, column, Klooster asked readers what caused the decline in bicycling after the fad just started picking up in the late 1890s. He answered his own question in his trademark tongue-in-cheek style: 'Women of questionable character, wearing bright clothing and split skirts, took up the sport.'
In fact, the bicycle business was booming nationally at this time, just after the first American manufacturer released the first models in 1878.
According to Klooster's column, a young entrepreneur in Portland named Fred T. Merrill - who later went on to serve three City Council terms - was the exclusive dealer for the Rambler and Pacemaker brands, selling them in a huge showroom at Southwest Sixth Avenue and Alder Street, the largest in the country.
In 1898, Klooster notes, Merrill sold 8,850 units, more than any other dealer in the U.S. In 1908, he built a mile-long oval racetrack for bikes that drew thousands of spectators into the early 1920s. In 1923, the track was turned into the first nine holes of the Rose City Golf Course.
The Multnomah Athletic Club, one of Portland's oldest institutions, also latched onto the frenzy. According to the club's written history, the track meets regularly featured 'wheelmen,' and by 1896, competitions featured both amateurs and professional touring riders.
A MAC recreational cycling group called the Early Birds also formed, and it's still around today as an early-morning fitness group.
So what of this supposed decline? Eric Lundgren, a Portlander who's working on a book about early bike culture, said he's found in his research that cycling did take a dip in popularity as the streetcar lines and automobile became more popular.
But more drastic than the drop in bike riding was the drop in bike sales, he said.
'The bike manufacturers reported massive overstock and a crash in sales and demand,' Lundgren told the Portland Tribune. 'The early adopters, about whom the most is written in contemporary accounts and in memoirs, moved on to the auto. From these has arisen the myth of the bicycle's disappearance. But it was, in fact, a much slower decline, and some people never stopped using the bicycle - they just didn't get written about.'
More of Lundgren's research is at fortunaerota.wordpress .com.
Next week's Stumper: What old Portland restaurant includes, in its eccentric décor, a two-foot geoduck preserved in formaldehyde from the 1970s?