The wheelmen (and women) of New York

Today marks the start of bike month in New York City. But cruising around on two wheels en masse is nothing new; Gothamites have been doing it since the late 19th century. In the 1890s, Ocean Parkway became the country’s first designated bike path, with thousands of “wheelmen” and “wheelwomen” pedaling the six miles from Prospect Park to Coney Island. 

From the New York City Parks photo archive, Ocean Parkway in 1894:

When a second Ocean Parkway path was completed in 1896, the New York Times described opening day, June 28, poetically:

“Over the return cycle path, in Brooklyn, which lies like a strip of gray ribbon from Prospect Park to the sea, there rode yesterday an army of cyclists. There were all sorts and conditions among them—the grave and the gay, side by side, each bent on doing his share to celebrate the formal opening of the second path in the Imperial Ocean Boulevard.”

Bicycles were like the iPhones of the 1890s. Here’s an 1898 bike ad from Wanamaker’s, the grand old department store formerly on Broadway and 9th Street (where Kmart is today):


It wasn’t long before some wheelmen were branded a menace. “Scorchers” were riders who blazed into the streets. “Cracks” raced their bikes. Papers were full of accident stories. Wet asphalt is dangerous, indeed!


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5 Responses to “The wheelmen (and women) of New York”

  1. Quid plura? | "Silhouettes and shadows..." Says:

    […] to chronicle “an ever-changing city through faded and forgotten artifacts,” including 19th-century bicycle ads, ghostly painted advertisements, and long-gone elevated […]

  2. david walsh Says:

    Does anyone know how to locate the name of officers of the South Brooklyn Wheelmen of 1898 ?

    D Walsh

  3. Victoria Khroundina Says:

    Hi there,

    I was looking at licensing an image I have seen on your website for a title we are doing on advertising and “Mad Men”. The image is of a Wanamaker bike ad.

    Do you own the rights, and if not, can you point me in the direction of who does? If you do, are you able to supply me with a high-res image (300 dpi) and what is involved in licensing this image?

    I really appreciate your help and look forward to hearing from you.

    Kind regards,

  4. New Yorkers wonder: Is cycling safe for ladies? « Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] “Wheelman” clubs popped up in different neighborhoods, and riders took to city streets—especially the new lanes built just for cycling, like the one from Prospect Park to Coney Island along Ocean Parkway. […]

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