The bicycle “scorchers” menacing the 1890s city

Cyclists racing down city streets at top speed, darting around pedestrians on sidewalks and roadways? It’s not just a contemporary New York thing.

ScorchersongbookThe 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; third photo, cyclists rounding the corner at Fifth Avenue and 124th Street in 1897 : MCNY]

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15 Responses to “The bicycle “scorchers” menacing the 1890s city”

  1. Tom B Says:

    I can’t believe a NYC resident doesn’t have a comment on this bicycle article.

  2. Jean Says:

    Yesteryear, bikes, today, reckless drivers! ( I live in NYC )

  3. manhattan resident Says:

    Some things never change, do they? Bicycles are still a menace on city streets,

    • ddartley Says:

      You’re right. SOME things don’t change: cyclists still injure a number of people every year. But some things do change: motor vehicle drivers, who back then didn’t exist, now kill hundreds of New Yorkers ever year.

  4. Brandon Says:

    Then as now the number of people injured and killed by automobiles probably outnumbered those by bicycle by a huge margin.

  5. LisaK. Says:

    Just out of curiosity are any of the oficers in the group photo identified? I had a relative who was a Lieutenant on the police force during that time. Have only seen pictures of him when he was elderly.

  6. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    I haven’t seen any names in the many versions of this photo I’ve seen online, unfortunately.

  7. John David Howard Says:

    I love the fact that the buildings in the last photo are still there today!

  8. ddartley Says:

    There aren’t many better defenses of recent speed limit reductions than history like this.

  9. Frank Says:

    I write an occasional Community newsletter & wish to include “The bicycle scorchers menacing the 1890s city” with credit to May I have your permission to do so? Thanks.

  10. A Difficult Relationship- Victorian Cyclists and the Police, Part Two | The Victorian cyclist Says:

    […] Cycling Police (source: […]

  11. How bicycles helped liberate women in the 1890s | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] fad hit New York in the 1870s and 1880s, it was danger-courting men who mostly took up the wheel—scorching down city streets and joining cycling clubs for group jaunts to the far reaches of New York and […]

  12. Tyson White Says:

    If we go back to those terrifying times, we’d be saving hundreds of lives who are now taken by reckless drivers.

  13. Taking a “century ride” with the city’s wheelmen | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] neighborhood had a club, among them the Kings County Wheelmen (known as “scorchers” for their speed), the Riverside Wheelmen (bottom photo, 1888), and the Williamsburgh Wheelmen (top […]

  14. The pleasures of a New York summer on the Speedway | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Plus, wheelmen—aka, bicycle riders—were banned, which pleased the upscale, genteel crowd. Too many menacing scorchers! […]

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