Charleston bicycle craze started in 1869

Cyclists have participated in group rides in support of reopening the James Island Connector to legally allowing biking on the bridge in recent years.

At this time in 1869, just four years after the end of the Civil War, Charleston was in the midst of a mania. It had nothing to do with reconstruction or carpetbaggers but was making headlines of newspapers and even causing a little controversy.

The obsession was over the “velocipede,” or what was later known as the bicycle.

Earlier in the decade, French inventors made some major tweaks in earlier designs that catapulted the bicycle into the mainstream, quickly flowing to New York and across the nation.

“It was a worldwide phenomenon at the time and Charleston was part of it, “ says Dr. Nic Butler, the historian at the Charleston County Public Library. “People realized bicycles represented a transportation revolution.”

Butler details the craze in Charleston with his talk, “146 years of Bicycles in Charleston,” which he will deliver again at 6 p.m. May 12 at the main branch at 68 Calhoun St.

Butler is presenting the lecture as part of local events for National Bike Month and the library’s regularly scheduled “Charleston Time Machine” series.

Whether you’re an avid bicyclist, history buff or someone who just loves Charleston, take my word on this, you don’t want to miss this talk.

It is surprising, often funny, involves other social issues (such as women being accepted for wearing pants — while on a bike) and has plenty of applications to what the Lowcountry is experiencing now as we return to the bicycle as a mode of transportation for practical, economic, health and environmental reasons.

“It’s very topical right now,” says Butler, noting the talk goes beyond the 1869 time frame. “The bicycle was here 146 years ago and nearly 50 years before the automobile first appeared (1906) on the streets of Charleston and it underscores the need for more bicycling rights.”

Across the nation, communities will be celebrating National Bike Month in a variety of ways, including advocating for safer routes.

Charleston Moves, a nonprofit working to enhance conditions for biking and walking in Charleston County, is spearheading many of the local events, including new “bike commuter workshops” at various locations throughout the month.

Kurt Cavanaugh, executive director of Charleston Moves, says the idea for the workshops was “percolating in my head for months” and that the team at the locally based Bike Law embraced it.

“Many more people than the growing number of bike commuters currently riding to work across the region are interested in and eager to start riding to work,” says Cavanaugh.

“For obvious reasons, they can forgo the gym membership, save money on gas, auto upkeep and parking, and have a more enjoyable commute. But some are unsure about the logistics, such as how to ride with work clothes and a briefcase, for example, or are unsure about the rules of the road.

“Other people interested in commuting by bike feel unsafe, and rightfully so. We have very little bike infrastructure. That needs to change.”

Cavanaugh adds that efforts to get people biking to work, school and for errands, as outlined recently in Gabe Klein’s report to the city of Charleston, can’t be achieved by putting up “Share the Road” signs.

“It takes infrastructure and calm traffic for most people to ride a bike for transportation. These workshops will give the basics on ‘how-to’ and bike safety, including cyclists’ legal rights to the road,” says Cavanaugh.

Even before those workshops in kick off in the coming week, Charleston Moves has already started making this Bike Month the most productive ever.

Today, it is joining an array of other area nonprofits seeking donations for matching grants via Lowcountry Giving Day, a 24-hour online giving challenge sponsored by Coastal Community Foundation. Minimum donations start at $25 and every dollar given will be matched.

From 5-7 p.m. today, Charleston Moves will host a Lowcountry Giving Day and Bike Month happy hour celebration at Revelry Brewing, 10 Conroy St.

Wednesday is National Bike to School Day, but schools can participate throughout May by registering to host an event and they will be entered into a drawing from the National Center for Safe Routes to School and Schwinn to win bicycles and helmets for their school. Contact Jennifer Senn at or 864-642-5412 for more information.

The workshops kick off with the Peninsula Bike Commuter workshop at 6 p.m. Thursday at Rutledge Cab Co., 1300 Rutledge Ave. and continue with the West Ashley Bike Commuter workshop at 6 p.m. Monday at The Original Ms. Rose’s Fine Food and Cocktails, 1090 Sam Rittenberg Blvd.

The official Bike to Work Day, held nationally May 15, will be celebrated with a police-escorted ride over the Legare Bridge. The ride will depart from the Earth Fare parking lot at 8:45 a.m. People are encouraged to arrive up to 30 minutes early. (See the box for more events later this month.)

Meanwhile, the National Bike Challenge, which encourages tens of thousands of people to ride bikes from May 1 to Sept. 30 every year, started on Friday.

People for Bikes has teamed up with Kimberly-Clark Corp.’s (Scott Naturals)., as well as 3M, Thrivent Financial, Volkswagen and Wells Fargo, to get people to log bike miles via the app Strava for fitness, saving money and cutting pollution.

In 2014, more than 47,000 riders across the U.S. and around the world participated, logging more than 23 million miles (equivalent to 48 round-trips to the moon). Along the way, they burned 1.76 billion calories, saved $13,188,380 dollars and saved 21.7 million pounds of carbon emissions. The 2015 Challenge aims to unite at least 75,000 riders to pedal 35 million miles from now until Sept. 30.

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Cavanaugh, who took the reins of Charleston Moves in July, has had some time to settle in and, with the perspective, says the area is “ideal for riding a bike.”

“It’s flat. The weather is great. The (Charleston) peninsula is dense and traffic speeds in the urban core are slow. The challenge, outside the core, is the built environment. Our region grew around the automobile and all the ‘good life’ promises of the middle of the 20th century,” he says.

“Beyond the peninsula, we’re now stuck with sprawl, with streets with wide lanes, high speed limits and faster ‘design speeds,’ and uninviting surface parking lots and big box stores. We’re now trying to pick up the pieces by realizing people want to go shopping, meet friends and basically have a life without having to getting into a car.”

As far as the cycling “community” is concerned, he says the recreational side is “very strong,” as evidenced by regular group and shop rides in all areas and the vibrant Coastal Cyclists club.

“But, we live in an extraordinary place with a very ordinary problem. More people want to bike for everyday transportation but they feel it’s unsafe. We hear from them and meet them every day. The intrepid one to two percent are already riding today. That needs to be much, much higher,” says Cavanaugh.

“The job of Charleston Moves is not to get more people on bikes. That will happen naturally with better infrastructure — bike lanes, protected bike lanes, more sane intersections — it’s the law of ‘if you build it, they will come.’ Our job is to advocate for infrastructure improvements that can be installed now, not in three, five or 10 years.”

Reach David Quick at 937-5516 or