03 April 2011

The Stuff They Didn't Build & Crowdsourcing History

While doing some digging around in various online archives, I came across a digitized journal brief that appeared in the November 1892 edition of The Manufacturer & Builder, heralding the development of "An Asphalt Bicycle Road from New York to Chicago":
It is seriously proposed, by the great bicycle manufacturers of the country, to build an asphalt road, from 20 to 35 feet wide, and extending from New York to Chicago. At all events, the proposition is announced to have been made in good faith, and has already been discussed in the daily papers. 
Peter Gendron, of the Gendron Iron Wheel Co., of Toledo, Ohio, is reported to be the prime mover in this remarkable scheme, which is said to be under consideration by the bicycle makers of the country. A highway of this character would be, indeed, an object lesson is propagating the gospel of good roads. We will watch the future development of this enterprise with interest.
I'm a sucker for old-timey language, and I seriously would like to own stock in the "Gendron Iron Wheel Company of Toledo". Obviously, a thousand-mile "bicycle road" never came to fruition, but paved highways were a reality in most of the country within a quarter-century. This is yet another reminder of the role the cyclists' lobby played in developing the federal roads-building projects of the early twentieth century.

Some cycling amenities were built, however, like the pictured California Cycleway. It looks suspiciously like this recently-erected cycle bridge in the Netherlands. A private consortium built the link between Pasadena and Los Angeles, but eventually went bankrupt. The right-of-way was later used for a streetcar line, and finally became the Arroyo Seco Parkway, one of the world's first freeways. Quite the encapsulation of Southern California history.

Of course, bicycles were all the rage at the turn of the last century. Races draw huge crowds to velodromes around the country. Check out this view showing the start of a bicycle race outside Chicago's historic Water Tower on Michigan Avenue overlaid on the modern streetscene.

Be prepared to lose the rest of your day after clicking the link, as it directs you to WhatWasThere.com, a site that allows users to upload historic photos and layer them over modern Google Streetview images. This is a website that I've been wanting to exist for quite some time, and was quite glad to find it. So glad in fact, that much of my free time over the past few weeks has been spent filling in the map of Chicago's Near Northwest Side, among other places. I can envision this being an indispensable tool for urban planners, historians, educators and all manner of folk with an interest in changes to the built enviornment. See these views of Logan Square in the '30s or of the 1966 Division Street Riots for some other great contrasts.

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