A moment in history: April 26, 1897

A moment in history: April 26, 1897

· The Pulse

On this day in 1897, Edmonton businesses were cashing in from cyclists during the bicycle boom.

It can be a little hard to imagine now, as bikes are a mundane sight and a staple of childhood for many, but there was a time when the bicycle was cutting-edge technology.

Until late in the 1800s, bicycles were expensive, unwieldy, and dangerous. Then, the bike boom hit with the invention of the "safety bike". Driven by a chain, with pedals, brakes, air-filled tires, and same-sized wheels, it was similar to what we consider a modern bike. Cycling fever swept over North America and Europe, and Edmonton wasn't immune to the allure of these two-wheeled machines.

The bicycle most appealed to urban professionals, who were coming to the city in large numbers toward the end of the 19th century. At the time, most people living in the core relied on street cars to get around. Vehicles were rare, and horses were both expensive and difficult to care for. For the growing number of office workers, medical workers, and others in Edmonton, the bicycle offered the chance to travel freely.

Edmonton's first bicycle club started in 1890, with its leadership made up of doctors, lawyers, and other well-to-do riders. While bicycles had come down in price, this still wasn't a cheap way of getting around. The $55 price tag listed in this 1897 advertisement would be the equivalent of a couple of thousand dollars today. And that's not including the club fees.

While the intense demand for bicycles cooled somewhat in the 1910s, partially due to the arrival of automobiles on city streets, it didn't go away. Cycling competitions were popular in Edmonton; photos of one such contest put on by the Edmonton Journal in 1912 show a healthy number of spectators and riders. The more competitive-minded riders would form clubs and leagues with names like the Silver Hawks and the Golden Eagles. In 1935, the Edmonton Cycling Club was founded and grew quickly in popularity. The ECC was soon hosting several large trophy races in and around Edmonton, which would draw competitors from as far as Manitoba.

While popular, Edmonton's cycling clubs could not keep pedalling through the 1940s — young men were leaving to fight overseas during the Second World War, and factories shifted from consumer goods to wartime equipment. The post-war period saw roadways increasingly geared towards car use.

While cycling has never again become the obsession it was in the early years of Edmonton, it's still popular. Bicycle clubs began to make a return in the 1980s, and during the '90s, Alberta had the highest rates of bicycle ownership in the country. Encouraging cycling and other methods of active transportation is a pillar of Edmonton's City Plan as a way to combat climate change and reduce sprawl. Edmonton city council has recently approved $100 million towards bike infrastructure over the next four years, a move that bike groups in the city say is helping feed more interest in cycling.

This is based on a clipping found on Vintage Edmonton, a daily look at Edmonton's history from armchair archivist @revRecluse — follow @VintageEdmonton for daily ephemera via Twitter.