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Brooklyn bicycles: A look back at the bike mania that gripped the borough in the 1800s

Today's Brooklyn bicycling boom isn't the first time that the borough has caught two-wheeled fever.

Nearly 150 years ago, a curious new mode of personal transportation from France was introduced to New Yorkers with great fanfare by a famous acrobatic troupe known as the Hanlon brothers. This early version of the bicycle, known as the velocipede, would become a Brooklyn sensation.

The Hanlons even hired a Brooklyn company, the H.B. Witty Carriage Manufactury, to produce a modified version of the French velocipede by 1868. The brothers then toured the East Coast, showing off the bicycles, wowing audiences wherever they went and getting rave reviews in the press.

By the end of the year, "velocipede mania struck Manhattan in earnest," wrote historian David V. Herlihy and then "quickly spread to nearby Brooklyn," which was the country's third largest city with a population of about 400,000.

Herlihy, the author of "Bicycle: The History," is scheduled to give a talk on bicycling in Brooklyn at the Brooklyn Historical Society, co-presented by the New York Cycle Club, on Tuesday, May 19 at 6:30 p.m. But if you can't catch him in person or just want a preview, Herlihy has shared some highlights of the early history of bicycling in Brooklyn with amNewYork.

So sit back and enjoy this ride in celebration of #NationalBikeMonth.

The first recorded sighting of a bike in Brooklyn may have been on Christmas Day, 1868

"Some excitement was occasioned on Fulton Avenue yesterday by the appearance of a man riding a two-wheeled velocipede, which he handled with great skill, reported The Brooklyn Eagle on Dec. 26, 1868. "He bowled along over the pavement and over the curbstones with ease, and was followed in his course by a large crowd of admiring juveniles."

Brooklyn’s first velocipede rink opened on Jan. 19, 1869

Gymnast Avery C. Burnham opened the velocipede rink

Gymnast Avery C. Burnham opened the velocipede rink referred to as a velocipede school by the Eagle at the corner of Boerum Place and Livingstone Street, with five Witty bicycles. On opening night, the Eagle reported, "the crowd was so large that it encroached upon the space which is devoted to riding." The paper reported that "there could not have been less than a thousand visitors" and that "a large number of ladies" also attended. Although a machine of three wheels had been invented for women to protect "the fair drivers modesty," at least some had "a bloomer costume" to ride in. By march, five rinks had opened, offering classes and shows by skilled velocipedists.

But outdoors, velocipedes were struggling to make it on the city’s streets

Most city streets were cobblestoned and difficult for

Most city streets were cobblestoned and difficult for velocipedists to navigate, forcing them to find smoother riding on sidewalks or hard-packed dirt roads in places like Prospect Park. Another favored spot was Clinton Street with its smooth wooden surface. In 1869, the city imposed a ban on velocipedes on sidewalks after a woman was knocked down and run over on Nostrand Avenue by an unknown rider, as the Eagle reported on April 8. The Parks Commissioner banned them from city streets.

Shortly after the sidewalk ban, a group of enthusiasts formed the Brooklyn Velocipede Club, with the goal of increasing the positive views of the new diversion. Their first goal was to rollback all restrictions on riding. But the enthusiasm and organizing did little to encourage further growth of the velocipede craze, which had pretty much fizzled out after a series of races failed to gain attention, by 1870.

But the popularity of bikes resurged in the 1890s

Bike clubs and bicycle racing helped to stimulate
Photo Credit: Courtesy James Swan

Bike clubs and bicycle racing helped to stimulate renewed interest in bikes that surged from the 1870s until the end of the century. The Eagle declared in 1883 that the bike "has settled down into a favorite amusement of young men." Clubs like the Bushwick Wheelmen and the Kings County Wheelmen established themselves as destinations for enthusiasts.

The city establishes the country’s first dedicated bike path in 1895

By the 1890s, there was a growing need
Photo Credit: NYC Parks Department

By the 1890s, there was a growing need in Brooklyn for dedicated bike paths, and some saw the construction of a line from Prospect Park to Coney Island as ideal. But it seemed that authorities were moving too slowly for enthusiasts. "Why dont the city authorities do something to rush ahead that bicycle path?" the editor of Brooklyn Life magazine asked. "Bicyclists are being arrested for riding on the sidewalks when the roads are in such abominable condition that it is quite impossible for them to ride anywhere else." The path was finally opened in 1895.

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