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Bicycling the Ashley River Bridge in 1897
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Today I’d like to highlight a story that demonstrates the relevance of history in our present lives. In recent years, there has been much talk in Charleston about the need for a bicycle-friendly path across the Ashley River. A plan to convert one of the existing bridge lanes into a bicycle path was approved in 2014, but has evaporated, and now the cycling community is spinning their wheels. This isn’t the first time our community has addressed this topic, however. In fact, back in 1897, Charleston’s bicycle lobbyists succeeded in making the one and only bridge over the Ashley River more bike friendly. Let’s turn our time machines back to the 1890s and see if there are any lessons to learn from this story.
We’ll begin with a bit of bridge history. Over the past two centuries, there have been a succession of six drawbridges connecting the city of Charleston to the mainland west of the Ashley River, an area formerly known as St. Andrew’s Parish. The first five of these bridges, including one still standing, were constructed at the western extremity of Spring Street. (The sixth bridge, opened in 1961, sits at the west end of Bee Street.) The first four were built long before the existence of the South Carolina Department of Transportation, and before any local government was willing to spend the money necessary for such an undertaking. The Charleston Bridge Company, a private corporation chartered in 1810, provided the capital for the first four bridges. The Bridge Company also hired the builders, managed bridge operations, and charged a small fee or toll from everyone crossing. This was typical bridge business in nineteenth-century America.
The first drawbridge over the Ashley River was built of wood and opened in July 1810. The hurricane of 27 August 1813 completely destroyed it. The second bridge, built of wood and iron, opened in March 1856. Retreating Confederate soldiers set fire to this bridge on 17 February 1865, and was still burning when Union soldiers occupied the city of Charleston the next day. The Bridge Company opened their third bridge on the same site in early 1886, and it included iron trusses over a wooden roadbed. The hurricane of August 1893 completed destroyed it. The Bridge Company’s fourth bridge at the west end of Spring Street opened in June 1894, and, like its predecessors, was known simply as the “New Bridge.”
All four of the nineteenth-century bridges over the Ashley River followed a similar design. Each included a central span across the water measuring over 2,000 feet long, which was flanked on the east and west sides by earthen causeways leading up to the bridge, usually paved with shells. According to a description of the 1894 bridge, published shortly after its opening, the main driveway in the center of the bridge was twenty feet wide. Pedestrian walkways, each five feet wide, flanked both sides of the driveway, from which they were separated by a wooden “guard rail.” (Charleston News and Courier, 26 June 1894, page 8). In these respects, the 1894 bridge differed very little from ancient patterns. It was intended to accommodate pedestrians, animals, and all manner of traditional, slow-moving wheeled vehicles.
Meanwhile, Charlestonians living in the late 1800s witnessed a profusion of bicycle activity in the city and across the nation. Following its first appearance in this city in 1869, the bicycle evolved from an awkward wooden contraption with iron wheels into a graceful machine built for speed and comfort. By the year 1894, when the fourth “New Bridge” across the Ashley River opened for business, the bicycles of Charleston looked pretty much like they do today. They had steel frames, rubber tires with air-filled inner tubes, pedals that turned a sprocket-and-chain drive system, and were in every sense “modern” machines.
Thanks to improvements in manufacturing techniques and a strong economy in the mid-1890s, bicycle production in the U.S. soared and retail prices tumbled down. An estimate published in the local newspaper in October 1892 said there were approximately 200 bicycles plying the streets of urban Charleston. By June 1896, however, there were an estimated 3,500 cyclists in the city, including men, women, and children. By July 1897, the number of bicycles was estimated at 5,000, in a city with a total population of approximately 55,000 people. That means one in eleven Charlestonians was using a bicycle for regular transportation and recreation at the end of the nineteenth century (see Charleston News and Courier, 17 October 1892; 27 June 1896; 27 July 1897). Reflecting on the rapid increase in bicycle popularity in the city, a writer at the Charleston Evening Post in January 1896 noted how the local cycling movement had matured in recent years:
“It is very evident that the bicycle has come to Charleston to stay for good and ever and it is still more evident that the bicycle ‘craze’ is no longer a craze. The novelty and amusement of bicycle riding has worn off and the convenience and necessity of it is being realized. The increase in the number of cyclists in the city is becoming more marked every day and the very many bicycle shops of the city are all doing a fine business. Two years ago, it was a hard matter to get a bicycle properly repaired in the city, but now the workmen in the repair shops can turn out almost any part of a wheel wanted or repair any kind of damage done. The majority of Charleston’s cyclists ride for the economy of time and money. There are two bicycles at least to nearly every office on Broad Street and any number in the stores and business portions of the city. Business and professional men need the wheel in their work and that is why the bicycle is in Charleston to stay” (Charleston Evening Post, 18 January 1897).
By the summer of 1896, Charleston was even more sure of its commitment to the bicycle. As the News and Courier noted that June, the Palmetto City had adopted “wheeling,” or cycling, “with greater rapidity than in any other Southern city.” “Wheeling is not a craze any longer in Charleston,” proclaimed the newspaper. “It is a part of Charleston’s life. . . . The town will always have thousands of wheels—that will not be denied. But before Charleston can be set down as distinctively a bicycle town, Charleston must have bicycle roads” (Charleston News and Courier, 27 June 1896).
In the late 1890s, bicyclists across America formed the vanguard of a widespread movement to lobby local governments for improved roadways. Historians refer to this phenomenon as the “Good Roads Movement,” which was well underway before the appearance of the automobile. Here in Charleston, the profusion of bicycles and enthusiastic riders led to repeated calls for better roads. Empowered by their rapidly growing numbers, bicyclists also successfully asserted their right to share public roads with other vehicles, without discrimination from carriages, railroads, trolleys, or bridge owners. In 1896, the most vocal of the local bicycle evangelists organized themselves into the South Carolina division of the national bicycle lobby, the League of American Wheelmen (founded in 1880, now called the League of American Bicyclists). The League, or the L.A.W. as it was commonly called in the late 1800s, was the nation’s most active proponent of good roads. The Charleston Wheelmen, led by businessman Clifford Lewis Legerton (1854–1935), were at the forefront of that local campaign.
Shortly after its formation in November 1896, the South Carolina division of the L.A.W. determined to focus its efforts on the achievement of a specific, short-term goal: to improve bicycle access over the Ashley River bridge and the toll road leading to it on the west side of the river. Using their contacts in the business community, the professional men of the L.A.W. approached the board of the Charleston Bridge Company and started a conversation about the matter. The Bridge Company made a profit by collecting tolls from every passenger, so an increase in bicycle traffic across the bridge would appeal to their bottom line. In return for delivering an increase in customers, the Wheelmen wanted the Bridge Company to provide a road surface conducive to bicycle traffic. At this time, the long causeways leading to each end of the bridge were paved with shells that easily broke under the weight of horses and wagons, but frequently punctured the new-fangled rubber tires used on the latest bicycles (see, for example, the complaint in Charleston Evening Post, 27 June 1896).
Bicycle enthusiasts in twenty-first century Charleston might find this hard to believe, but in the early months of 1897, the Charleston Bridge Company was happy to strike a deal with the local Wheelmen. The company offered to sell bridge tickets (needed for each passage across the river) to the L.A.W. at the volume discount of $1 for fifteen round trips. If the Wheelmen could sell 1,000 tickets by the first of August 1897, then the Bridge Company would use that money to create a pathway through its property, paved with hard-packed clay, sand, and gravel, for the exclusive use of bicycles. After the details of this bargain emerged in April 1897, the local newspaper enthusiastically endorsed it. On April 30th, for example, the Evening Post declared that “all encouragement should be given to the organization which has undertaken to secure this boon for wheelmen and their efforts should be heartily seconded.”
Beginning in late April 1897, the local League of American Wheelmen, numbering fewer than 200 members, canvassed the city in an effort to sell more than 1,000 bridge tickets to cyclists at $1 apiece. With the assistance of repeated encouragement from the local newspapers, they met their goal in less than eight weeks. The engineering firm of Simons-Mayrant started construction on June 22nd and estimated the work would take less than a month. The estimated price of the project increased immediately, and so the Charleston Wheelmen quickly raised an additional $150 to cover the overage (see Charleston News and Courier, 24 June 1897).
In the late summer of 1897, the new bicycle path across the Ashley River bridge opened to the public. The bridge itself spanned just a half mile in length, but the path created by the Bridge Company encompassed the approach causeways on either end, as well as a three-mile-long stretch through the public right-of-way through the wooded landscape formerly known as St. Andrew’s Parish. Parts of the paved path were just three feet wide, while others, where space permitted, were five feet wide, to facilitate tandem cycling (Charleston Evening Post, 21 June 1897, page 4).
By November 1897, the local press noted that the bicycle path across the Ashley River bridge had rapidly attained a large measure of popularity. One happy cyclist praised the new smooth path with a romantic simile: “A trip across the Ashley in the morning or afternoon, or by midnight, in these conditions, is like a bottle of wine, invigorating and altogether delightful.” “It is a blessing to the many cyclists of the city,” proclaimed an editor of the News and Courier, “to have such a route for their excursions.” Looking into the future and speaking to the distant generations of Charlestonians, he added this prescient wish: “it is to be hoped that they [the cyclists] and the road authorities will unite their forces to make the way smoother and pleasanter and longer and more beautiful every year” (Charleston News and Courier, 8 November 1897, page 4).
But such was not the case. In the early years of the twentieth century, the gasoline-powered automobile captivated the public imagination and quickly overwhelmed our roads. By the era of World War I, most Charlestonians had laid their bicycles aside and joined the growing masses behind the wheels of road-hogging, polluting machines. When the 1894 bridge across the Ashley River was slated for replacement in the mid-1920s, the new state Department of Transportation adopted a thoroughly “modern” design. The Ashley River Memorial Bridge, which opened in January 1926, was a concrete structure designed exclusively for automotive traffic. Unlike all of its predecessors at that site, the bridge’s design purposefully discounted alternate modes of movement. Automotive traffic across the Ashley River continued to increase in subsequent years, and so in 1961 the state D.O.T. opened an additional drawbridge across the river, called the T. Allen Legare Bridge. Like its companion, the Legare Bridge was built with just the automobile in mind.
The onset of the Great Depression in 1930 triggered a temporary reduction in automobile traffic in our community. Gasoline didn’t become prohibitively expensive, but cars have always been expensive to buy and to maintain. As a result of the sour economic times, many Charlestonians dusted off their old bicycles and rediscovered the value and joy of cycling. This budget-conscious trend didn’t endure, but it lasted long enough for the local press to take notice. “The bicycle appears to have ‘come back,’” observed the Charleston News and Courier on 19 October 1933, with a wry backward glance, “but there will be no repetition of the militant demand that a path be provided on the Ashley River bridge exclusively for it. Who remembers how the Charleston chapter of the League of American Wheelmen battled for the path?”
Who, indeed. In the twenty-first century Charleston, I think it’s safe to say that no one remembers how local cyclists in 1897 successfully lobbied for a safer path over the Ashley River bridge. In light of the current struggle for bicyclists to re-gain safe passage across the same river, however, I believe this long-forgotten story has some relevance. And so, to Charleston Moves and all the twenty-first century wheelmen and wheelwomen of Charleston, I say good luck. May the lessons of our past empower our present and improve our future.