Cyclists racing down city streets at top speed, darting around pedestrians on sidewalks and roadways? It’s not just a contemporary New York thing.
The Gilded Age city dealt with reckless bike riders first.
Called “scorchers” for their speed, they gave the very trendy new sport of cycling a bad name and were much-discussed in newspaper articles of the day.
“A new menace appeared in the streets: the ‘scorcher’ or bicycle speed fiend, ‘that idiot with head sunk between bent handle bars,’ body thrown forward and pedaling at top speed,” wrote Peter Salwen, author of Upper West Side Story.
The Upper West Side was especially popular with riders. From Columbus Circle to 72nd to Riverside Drive and Grant’s Tomb, the broad avenues were packed with riders—and some terrified residents.
“The Boulevard, in the vicinity of 72nd Street, is becoming a place very difficult to cross, and at times dangerous to limb and possibly to life,” one New York Times letter writer complained in November 1895.
“The number of ‘hoodlums’ scorching along there with heads down, with no regard to the safety of persons crossing, is rapidly increasing; and the matter certainly needs regulating by the officers of the law.”
One month later, police commissioner Teddy Roosevelt approved the formation of a “scorcher squad,” four men who were tasked with catching and ticketing these speeding cyclists.
Considered a success, the scorcher squad eventually expanded to include 100 officers (middle photo).
But as the cycling fad eased and the automobile took over city streets, the squad’s days were numbered. Considering that we’re in a new bicycle era and not all riders follow traffic rules, maybe it’s time for a second incarnation of the scorcher squad?
[Top image: via tubulocity.com; third photo, cyclists rounding the corner at Fifth Avenue and 124th Street in 1897 : MCNY]