Cedar Blocks and Devil Strips: Cycling the Streets of 1898

While perusing the tubes of the internet, I stumbled across a map labeled City of Detroit for Bicyclists, Showing Pavements. It was dated 1898. Visible were color-coded streets of the inner city, what today is known as Downtown, Midtown, Corktown, Eastern Market, and New Center.

It’s widely known Detroit was the birth place of paved streets, and that cyclists of the 1890s fought for this smooth, durable surface for its obvious benefits to biking. Looking at the map below, we see some of the very first Asphalt streets in America running North and South marked in blue: Woodward, Cass, and Second Ave.

Also marked in descending rank of quality are brick, granite, and a form of packed gravel called macadam. But looking at the overall map the vast majority is yellow, which on this map is keyed as: ‘Wood’.

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Certainly, I thought, this meant wooden sidewalks, not actual streets.

A couple hours of digging later and I had far more insights into bike politics of the era than I’d expected. Those wooden streets were actually made of cedar blocks wedged together much like cobble stone, but with dirt to fill the corners.

It was hard to find a good up-close photo of these cedar block streets. After all, why would anybody take a picture of such a cheap surface prone to damage from moisture rot, horse hooves, and metal plated wagon wheels?

Because they literally grew on trees, cedar blocks were cheap, abundant, and didn’t require importing. But they had a short shelf life due to weather and regular traffic friction. You’d think engineers of the era would have no problem selling the public on more durable, rugged materials designed to last. But yeah, no.

Just like today, everyone wanted the roads fixed, but nobody wanted to pay for it.

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In cities like Detroit and Toronto street designers knew pavement was the future, but they couldn’t get the public behind the needed tax increases for such improvements. Knowing the all powerful bike lobby was supportive (seriously, there actually was an all powerful bike lobby in 1898), street designers fawned over the many virtues of bicycles like DOTs fawn over freeways now.

Here’s a sample:

A bicycle in the eyes of the law is a vehicle entitled to travel upon public highways similar to the rights of other travelers. Bicycles have come into such use that reasonable provisions for this class of traffic should receive careful consideration of all officials. It is claimed bicycles outnumber other vehicles six to one; it may be true in cities. It is certainly true that the use of the wheel has extended to every profession and occupation in life. Great numbers of men and women who bicycle for business and pleasure are rightly entitled to an equal footing with pedestrians and other vehicles upon the carriage ways.”

~ Baker, A Treatise on Roads and Pavements, pg. 624

Jesus, settle down, Yehuda Moon!

So street engineers and the bike lobby were in cahoots, and naturally this collusion yielded the desired effect. And bicyclists got to enjoy the fruits of their labor for about ten years before the automobile showed up and ruined every damn thing.

Something I’ve often wondered amid the rash of bikers wandering into streetcar tracks and their own doom is this: what the hell did cyclists do back in the day when every city street had streetcar tracks on them?

San Francisco – 1906 in HD

San Francisco 1906.Fahrt durch die belebte Marktstraße

The famous film reel of 1906 San Francisco days before The Big One shows riders easily crossing tracks, often at angles you’d expect to induce wheel-jerking ruin. Maybe bikes then had thicker wheels? Tires of the time were solid rubber, not inflated tubes – could this have made a difference? Are modern tracks wider now than 120 years ago?

Turns out 1898 streetcar tracks were the same destroyer of cyclist worlds they are today. So much so that riders who’d wheeled their way into a 3 inch abyss had their own parlance for such an urban menace: Devil Strips. If that’s not the name of a topless club somewhere, please, somebody make it so.

Here’s another colorful excerpt from the day, again out of Toronto:

Sir, Today as I was wheeling down Yonge street I turned to avoid a waggon [sic], my wheel slipped on one of those holes, and I found myself sailing into the fender of a moving trolley. Fortunately for me, and the accident companies, and the careless city fathers, the car was stopped before any damage was done. How long are the wheel-men of this enlightened city going to tolerate this disgraceful state of asphalt between the tracks?”
~ Letters, “We Want Good Roads,” Daily Mail and Empire (May, 17th 1898)

Screen shot 2012-10-26 at 1.41.37 AMSurely, certainly, the fault of those damn bikers somehow.

All of this goes to show the battle for supremacy of the streets between competing mode users is nothing new, nor is the perception that roadways were once good, for anyone, ever.

The other constant is this: horses hauling tons of lumber and semi-trucks hauling whatever the hell they haul tear up roads fast. Bicycles do not.

So the next time you hear a motorist whining about potholes or paying to fix them, remind them of this fact: bikes cause virtually no damage to roads at all. Multiply mass by velocity and divide by tire surface area – or however you actually do math right – and you’ll find bikes to make the most economic sense for any street environment.

Or maybe don’t worry about it at all; just go enjoy a ride and relish your own place in cycling history.

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1 comment

  1. There’s a whole chapter about road surfaces in my book, Roads Were Not Built For Cars. Most big American cities were softwoods: not good. London used hardwoods, imported from Australia. A street surfacing map first produced in 1898 and updated until 1921 showed that – just like Detroit – most of the streets were covered with wood. Yes, until 1921, and beyond.

    Detroit wasn’t first to get asphalt – Washington, D.C. got there first. They were asphalt strips – in effect, early bike paths.

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