December 18th, 1868: Detroit’s first bicyclist

On Friday, December 18th, 1868 – only 143 years ago today – Detroit’s first bicyclist hit the street.

That is according to this colorful Detroit Free Press article, “The First Detroit Velocipedist,” which was published on the 19th:

Yesterday the first Detroit man that had the temerity to bestride the (not foaming, but very restive and treacherous) velocipede and show his skill (?) in the public street, might have been seen moving slowly along Jefferson avenue, followed by a large crowd of men and boys of all ages, classes and conditions. The bold rider was no other that the irrepressible Ben Fletcher, of the Michigan News Company. Sometimes he got along bravely by himself and seemed likely to run away from the crowd, but the next moment it would take a man on each side of him to keep him steady, while a third person behind pushed the machine along. Now the perverse front wheel would turn crosswise, and besides slopping all headway would make it pretty warm for the rider’s shins. In coming back it would usually lurch the other way, not infrequently seating the rider on the damp sidewalk. A horseman present thought he would as soon ride a “quarter horse”[Note 1] while a large portion of the crowd were of the opinion that the velocipede had by some mistake been oiled with a superior brand of unstamped “tangle foot” or “forty rod.”[Note 2] A gentleman in the crowd fancies he has discovered the way of balancing the concern, which he thinks is to turn the great wheel crosswise as soon as there is any danger of an upset. Ben allows him to put his theory to a practical test. He mounts the vehicle and dashes off at a fine rate; at the first waver of his balance he applies his new discovery; but the inturned handle takes him in the place where Jonah was[Note 3], and presently the velocipede is uppermost. Yesterday the velocipede had to be helped over crosswalks and steadied in rough places; but this state of things will not last a great while, for before long velocipedes will be as plenty as carriages in the streets, and velocipeding will become as popular as driving or skating[Note 4]. The Michigan News Company has the agency for the Hanlons’ Patent Velocipede in this place[Note 5], and there can be no doubt that they will push their business so that in a short time velocipeding will be all the rage.

Notes

  1. Quarter horses excel at short sprints and speedy maneuvers. The breed is often used in rodeos.
  2. “Forty rod” is a facetious name for a “cheap and strong” whiskey “so called for its alleged ability to kill at forty rods” or one-eighth mile.
  3. The “place where Jonah was” is a Biblical reference to the stomach.
  4. In 1868, driving means driving horses, not cars. Skating refers to roller skates, which were around at that time.
  5. The Hanlons were an New York acrobatic group that used velocipedes in their show. They modified their bikes and patented the improvements.

More details on the ride

It’s likely that Fletcher’s first ride began outside the offices of the Michigan News Company. They were located on Jefferson, a half-block west of Woodward.

Thirty-three years later, the Detroit Free Press had a follow up interview with Fletcher, who was now a traveling passenger agent for the Grand Trunk railroad.

He said that bike weighed around 100 pounds and was built in France. He eventually sold the bike to Daniel Soper of Newago, before Soper became the secretary of state for Michigan.

Fletcher also recalled the local music publishers selling a composition called the “Velocipede Gallop” and there was a cigar called “The Velocipede.”

This was not the first velocipede in Detroit, according to Fletcher. There was one on display in a specialty exhibit.

In our searches of the Free Press archives, the first velocipedes advertised in Detroit were in December 1851. However, these were for children and likely had three or four wheels.

Velocipede School

A new velocipede school was opened a couple months after Fletcher’s first ride. It was a 12-foot wide track around the outside of an indoors skating rink. Nine laps equaled a mile. The school rented velocipedes by the hour.

We’re not sure how successful this venture was as it did not appear in the 1869 city business directory.

These types of indoor practice areas became popular because it allowed people, especially women, to practice riding with less public embarrassment. It seems Ben Fletcher could have benefited from one.

Also, it wasn’t until 1878 that the first velocipedes were manufactured in Detroit. Velocipedes had become quite popular by then and their riders were starting to organize in order to establish their legal rights within Detroit.

As for Ben Fletcher, he died in early 1902 and is buried at the Forest Lawn cemetery.

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