This 1904 photograph, taken by E. I. Whitney of Waltham, Massachusetts, depicts members of the Waltham Cycle Club and their bicycles at Chestnut Hill Reservoir. The Reservoir was a favorite destination of local cyclists, renowned for its “smooth roadway, with its broad sweep and gentle declivities [affording] superb facilities for fast and enjoyable riding.”
Waltham, today a city of more than 60,000, lies about 11 miles northwest of Boston and was a prominent manufacturing center in the nineteenth century, home to the Boston Manufacturing Company and Waltham Watch Company. The city was also a center of bicycle manufacture and racing.
Charles H. Metz was born in Utica, N.Y., in 1863 and sold Columbia bikes as a teenager. He was also a competitive cyclist in his own right. A skilled mechanic, Metz began designing bicycles for Union Cycles of Highlandville (Needham Heights), Mass., before striking out on his own, establishing the Waltham Manufacturing Company, makers of the “Orient” line of bikes. An 1898 entry in the magazine Outing touted the Orient line, which by then included tandems, but also “triplets, quadruplets, quintets, sextets, and septets (the commonly accepted names for machines seating three, four, five, six and seven riders respectively)” priced from $200-$600, while eight to ten seaters could be built upon request. Perhaps contributing to the decline in popularity of his own product, Metz began attaching motors to bikes (originally for motor pacing bike races) and later manufactured automobiles.
With the rise of recreational cycling came an increase in interest in the sport of bicycle racing. Some 15,000 people were on hand for the opening of the Waltham Cycle Park, the first race track in Massachusetts dedicated solely to bicycle racing, when it opened on 30 May 1894. Soon thereafter, the dirt and gravel surface was replaced by “methalithic composition,” providing an absolutely smooth, even, and weatherproof surface for even faster racing. Renowned racers flocked to the Waltham track in their bids to establish world record times. By 1902, however, the track had been sold and was increasingly used for other sports and even as an Army recruiting camp during World War I. During this time, bicycle racing was also featured at tracks in Cambridge, Revere Beach, and Springfield, Massachusetts.
As Stephen Hardy wrote in his book How Boston Played, “Pioneer sportsmen and sportswomen needed emotional support. They found this in the club, a group of like minded deviants who formed a subculture based on enjoyment of a certain activity.” Boston was home to the very first cycling club, the Boston Bicycle Club, organized in February 1878, which required its members to have 10 years of cycling experience under their belt, but less than 20 years later, the state was home to no fewer than 139 cycling clubs—catering to various proclivities (racing or recreational), genders (although some clubs were co-ed, many were not), and races and nationalities. In 1879, the year the Waltham Cycle Club was established, clubs were also founded in Amherst, Brockton, Essex, Fitchburg, Harvard, Lynn, Salem, and Worcester! Although some clubs merely rode together, others maintained lavish headquarters where members could indulge in other social activities. Cycling clubs also proved to be a vital lobbying group, advocating for better roads and protections for cyclists who were often considered a nuisance, if not an actual menace on the roads.
With these words, in 1892 the Boston Pilot concluded that, far from a fad, bicycling would be a permanent and widely accepted and adopted part of society. In reality, by the time our featured picture was taken in 1904, the recreational cycling boom begun in the 1880s and 1890s was already on the wane. Stephen Hardy attributes this to the rise of the automobile and improvements in public transportation, but Lorenz Finison posits that cycling’s very popularity led to its falling out of favor. When the price of a used (or even new) bike decreased to a level where the “lower order” of people could afford to buy one, the middle and upper classes who had fueled the meteoric rise of cycling during this era moved on to other entertainments thereby avoiding having to mix with the hoi polloi.
Although bicycles have never gone away, when the Covid-19 pandemic locked down American life in Spring of 2020, the popularity of bicycling again spiked, with dealers and manufacturers unable to keep up with the demand for bikes of every description—from kids’ cruisers to mountain and road bikes. Once again, bicycling became an important escape and cyclists crowded the streets and bike paths in Boston and the suburbs. It remains to be seen whether the pandemic cycling craze will be the one that sticks.
Annis, Robert. “Bike Shortages Will Likely Last into Next Year, and Possibly into 2022,” Bicycling, Nov. 6, 2020.
The Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation provides an excellent overview of Waltham’s contributions to cycling.
Finison, Lorenz J. Boston’s Cycling Craze, 1880-1900: A Story of Race, Sport and Society Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014.
Hardy, Stephen. How Boston Played: Sport, Recreation, and Community, 1865-1915 Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1982.
History of the Old Stone Walls at Nipper Maher Park. [Waltham Historical Commission, online resource.]
19th Century Bicycle News provides access to digitized copies of articles on bicycles and bicycling from nineteenth century periodicals.
Prominent Wheelmen, and Bicycle Club Directory of Massachusetts, 1894 Boston: Garfield Publishing Co., 1894.
Ritchie, Andrew. Early Bicycles and the Quest for Speed: A History 1868-1903 Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland Publishing, 2018.
Sieber, Ronald D. “Charles Metz: The Man, The Company, and the Speedster,” May 22, 2020.