This Was Then: Tricycle girl vs. the runaway

The ‘Tricycle Wars’ of 1880s Oak Bluffs.

Tricyclists pass the old Corbin house, not shown, left, on Ocean Avenue. Union Chapel and the Tucker Cottage Tower are visible behind the cyclists; Ocean Park is on the right. —Courtesy Chris Baer

The Vineyard correspondent for the Boston Globe reported in 1886, “Cottage City has the crookedest streets in the world. They lead nowhere, and are good for a return trip any time within thirty days. Nobody can tell you the way here. The streets are so complicated that it is impossible.” The New York Herald agreed in an 1889 column, describing the town as a “labyrinthine place.”  

But unlike most 19th century roads, they were paved. The Globe noted in 1891, “The first thing which strikes a stranger [to Cottage City] is the long expanse of tarred streets; not only the sidewalk but the roadbed itself is concreted. This makes a perfect paradise for cyclists. Men, women, and children own or hire their machine here. Since I have been here I have seen more women riding bicycles than I ever saw in my life before. Occasionally you see a family party divided up on several tricycles and bicycles, taking an outing in this convenient way.”

Headline in the Boston Globe, August 24, 1884. —Courtesy Chris Baer

Cottage City was renowned for its cycling in the 1880s and 1890s. And not just bicycling, tricycling. Professional women’s tricycle races were held on Naumkeag Avenue in 1890. The annual Cottage City Carnival, which combined the Grand Illumination and fireworks display in one vast party, included competitive bicycle and tricycle races by day, and a musical, torchlit bike and trike parade in the evening. In 1886, the Globe reported that tricycles were “innumerable” here, and even moonlight cycling had become fashionable. The New York Herald wrote, “Bicycles and tricycles are seen flying along the hard drives, frequently bearing double burdens.”

“There is another interesting character here — I may add her name is legion — and that is the tricycle girl,” reported a Globe correspondent in 1890. “She shoots past you like the well-aimed arrow from a bow, as you turn the corner of almost any fashionable avenue. She rides like an expert. Her attitude is not always graceful, but she has a terrible ‘get-there’ expression upon her sun-browned face. The tricycle is the vehicle of Cottage City, and the concrete streets, so smooth and clean, make the place the tricycle girl’s paradise.”

But Tricycle Girl’s arrival was not without controversy. The Globe reported, “It is hardly safe for children to be on the street for fear of being run over. If any one wishes to transplant his little ones from the terrestrial nursery to the celestial home, all he has to do is turn them out into the street, and let someone run over them with one of these modern chariots.” By 1884, town authorities had banned tricycle (but not bicycle) riding on Circuit Avenue.

The Globe reported on Martha’s Vineyard’s “Tricycle War” of 1884: “Tricycles constantly parade with pompous demonstration the loyal citizens’ walks and highways, and excited groups of seaside ramblers are rudely dispersed by this formidable weapon, which is almost as effective in execution as the battering ram of old inquisition time. It is of daily occurrence to learn that some child has been run into, knocked down, bruised, and has received other little indulgences of a like nature, or that some lady, by the tremendous propelling force of the machine, has been taught somersaults and other acrobatic accomplishments. These murderous weapons are rented to inexperienced gunners at fifty cents per hour.”

But any danger wrought by tricycles stood in the shadow of a much older and deadlier threat — the runaway horse. In crowded summertime pedestrian traffic, even one spooked, galloping, out-of-control horse could and did cause serious injuries and sobering damage. (In one minor 1880 example, one runaway horse pulling a truck wagon down Spring Street in Vineyard Haven crashed right into James Taber’s store on Main Street, knocking the door from its hinges and smashing the front window. No injuries were reported, fortunately.)

The epitome of 19th century bystander bravery was the hero who dared stop a runaway horse. In 1896, the Globe reported, “‘Ned’ Fennessy of the Harvard University crew showed good nerve Tuesday when he stopped a runaway coal team on Ocean Park. Some women and children in baby carriages were in actual danger for a time.” (If the name rings a bell, you may be thinking of his great-nephew and namesake, the retired MVRHS tennis coach, Ned Fennessy of Oak Bluffs.)

So it was inevitable that some Tricycle Girl would ultimately face a runaway team. It happened in 1886. The Hartford Courant reported, “The steamer Nantucket, near to the Highland landing, saluted the vast crowd with a prolonged blast from her deep-toned steam whistle. A pair of horses attached to a hack suddenly whirled about on the wharf and started at a breakneck speed, on around Lake Anthony with the hack, most of the time on two wheels, going with terrific velocity. When just turning into Lake Avenue, headed for Oak Bluffs, it was noticed that Miss Emma L. Waldo of Hartford with her tricycle had just come upon the narrow avenue only a little in advance of the running team. With almost superhuman effort, she kept ahead until reaching a narrow passageway, when she turned suddenly to the waters of the lake. A few seconds later the hack crashed against the electric light pole. The breathless crowd, who were held in that dreadful suspense, rent the air with cheers, and voted Miss Waldo, not only the best, but the fleetest tricycle rider on the island.”