This Was Then: Wild bikers

A lawless weekend on wheels in 1896.


In the 1880s, the booming metropolis of Cottage City (today Oak Bluffs) had a growing appetite for live entertainment. A massive roller-skating rink, located roughly where Santander Bank is today, offered up concerts and lectures, dances and parties, exhibitions of “fancy” skating, as well as polo tournaments featuring teams from Providence to Lowell. (Roller polo, that is — a rough-and-tumble game much closer to hockey than to any equine sport.) 

Also, bicycle exhibitions: Throughout the 1880s, the rink featured some of the top cycling entertainers in the country, like “Professor” Will Wilmot of Boston, who gave “one of his fearless exhibitions in Fancy and Trick Bicycle riding,” the day before the Grand Illumination, according to one early ‘80s advertising card. “Mr. Wilmot will attempt many new and difficult acts never before presented in public.” An 1886 article in The Wheel magazine described Wilmot’s “double unicycle act” in which his partner sat on his shoulders as he rode a single wheel across the rink.

The Springfield Wheelmen’s Gazette wrote of “Professor” Dan Canary’s act in 1885: “He was the first one to perform the wonderful feat of mounting in the saddle and, without touching the ground, turning his bicycle a complete somersault. The upside down trick, and the spider act, while balancing his wheel upon two step ladders, always bring forth merited applause.” Probably the most famous trick biker of the era, Canary is today credited with the invention of the “wheelie.” His most memorable stunt was in 1884, when he rode his bike down the steps of the U.S. Capitol building. Canary performed over several years in Cottage City, and spent the summer of 1885 on the Island.

In 1886, the skating rink was retrofitted with a stage, renamed “the Casino,” and transformed into a grand convention hall. As Oak Bluffs had become a nexus for cyclists, biker clubs from up and down the East Coast began arranging organized meet-ups in Cottage City. In 1887, the Massachusetts division of the L.A.W. — the League of American Wheelmen — decided to hold their annual meet in Cottage City, including a ball at the Casino, a hop at the Sea View, baseball games, tours, and a parade. Their headquarters was at the grand Sea View Hotel. The politically connected organization was well received, and their “meet” was a hit.

The Casino burned down in September, 1892, together with the Sea View and a number of neighboring buildings. Nevertheless, L.A.W. meets in Cottage City continued in 1893 and 1894, and even grew in size. In 1896, the Boston Globe reported, “It is universally conceded that there is no seashore resort where cycling is so pleasurable as on Martha’s Vineyard. There are over 40 miles of concrete avenues; 10 miles of state road which is as level as a billiard table; and a beautiful shell road extends to West Chop.”

In 1896, the biggest and best L.A.W. meet yet was planned for Oak Bluffs. Cottages were leased and hotel rooms reserved long in advance. (The Roxbury wheelmen rented the Hotel de Rome, the Tiger roadsters the Villa cottage; the Cambridgeport wheelmen the Gypsy Cottage, among others.) The night before the meet, a special train was arranged from Boston which met an evening steamer to Cottage City. “A large number of wheelmen and wheelwomen” were aboard, according to the Boston Post.

Huge crowds were expected. On Thursday morning there would be a bathing party, followed by a bike ride to West Chop in the afternoon, and the evening would be spent “bluffing” along the boardwalk. On Friday, a ride was planned over the “magnificent” new state road from Cottage City to Tisbury (for which the L.A.W. took political credit, with placards prepared for their Circuit Avenue headquarters reading, “Good roads are ours because we made them”) followed by swimming matches and coasting contests. On Friday night, an “Antique and Horrible” torchlit parade was planned, with prizes for the most “horrible” looking clubs and the most “disreputable-looking” individuals, followed by dancing. (The Boston Globe added, “A special permit from the board of health has been obtained, and no restrictions will prevent contestants from looking as bad as they can.”) Saturday was dedicated to baseball games and bicycle races (including categories for riders over 200 pounds, and riders over 50 years old.) Fireworks were planned for Saturday night. The Boston Post took the opportunity to publish the “Ten Bicycle Commandments,” which began, “Thou shalt have no other toys before me,” and ended with “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s bicycle, nor his wife’s bicycle, nor his costume, nor her bloomers, nor his cyclometer, nor his saddle, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s.”

L.A.W. president Sterling Elliott made a special request that no undue noise (or “any form of recreation which could interfere with those who wish to sleep”) be made after midnight. “In past years some of the good citizens of Cottage City have complained that a few wheelmen, during the ‘small hours’ of the night, did at times allow their joy to merge into unseemly hilarity, much to the disadvantage to those who would have slept,” explained the Boston Globe. 

The first day went well. Nearly 500 wheelmen participated, and more were still arriving, including delegations from as far away as Ohio. The bathing party went off without a hitch, as did the West Chop cycling excursion (“highly enjoyable over the smooth concrete roads”). 

But that night, the L.A.W. meet veered well off the pavement.

Various Boston Globe reports refer to the “unruly activities” of “a “disorderly crowd of riders” fueled by a whole lot of liquor. The word “riot” was used in some reports. One gun-wielding restaurant owner hosting a group of bikers threatened to shoot some of the more disorderly wheelmen. There was talk overheard of “burning the town” and “lynching the police.” The board of directors of the Martha’s Vineyard Campmeeting Association described it as “a succession of disgraceful scenes, drunken orgies, the destruction of property and many indecent acts, grossly repugnant to the time-honored traditions and christian sentiment of this place, necessitating the calling out of additional police force to repress the lawless element.” A local man (reportedly drunk himself) rang the fire bells “to suppress a riot.” The State Police were ultimately called and arrests were made.

The next morning, the selectmen announced that they were withdrawing their support for the meet, and specifically the use of their band for the parade. The Wheelmen were angry and insulted, and cancelled the afternoon activities. They moved the parade and fireworks to Vineyard Haven, where they treated residents to “some of the most grotesque costumes imaginable, some mounted on wheels.” But the damage had been done, and disgruntled wheelmen began leaving the Island that night.

The next year the L.A.W. met at Nantasket Beach instead. The organization still exists today as the League of American Bicyclists.

Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, was released June 2018.