COLUMNS

As It Were: Bicyclists paved way for better roads

ED LENTZ
Ed Lentz

We tend to take good roads for granted.

We might complain about the occasional pothole and bemoan streets in need of repaving. But for all its occasional faults, the American road system is a wonder to behold, and central Ohio benefits from a remarkable interstate-highway system.

Such was not always the case.

Most of the original roads in central Ohio were dirt trails 4 to 5 feet wide. Many were paths created by the Native Americans who had lived here for centuries. And those paths often had been started by herds of bison, elk and deer that had traveled the land.

For a long time, these paths and an occasional military road were the only links among new settlements in the Ohio Country after the American Revolution.

Because the roads were not all that good, people traveled by water wherever a river was navigable. Those who did not live near a river had a difficult time traveling.

Understanding this, western congressmen like Henry Clay of Kentucky became advocates of what Clay called his American System. In short, it meant the federal government would subsidize roads, bridges and waterways.

The classic example was the National Road. Begun in 1811 in Frederick, Maryland, this was a well-constructed 60-foot wide gravel road with stone bridges over rivers and streams. The National Road reached Columbus in 1831 and, with a little help from the Ohio and Erie Canal, transformed the village of 2,000 people into a city of 5,000 in less than three years.

Because the National Road, the canal and later railroads made the movement of people, livestock and produce easier, it's easy to forget that the rest of the roads in central Ohio continued to be rather primitive. In 1897 -- 100 years after the first settlement in central Ohio -- a report listed the better roads in the area.

"Franklin County has at the present time 210 miles of graveled pike, 100 miles of macadamized pike and 30 miles of toll roads. Some of the older pikes however are about worn out and will soon have to have extensive repairs or they will lapse back into mud roads. ... Even the National Road east, running out Main Street to the county line is in a sad state of degeneration."

The same article explained why.

"The ordinary method of procedure is for a locality to work up a neighborhood sentiment in favor of road improvement. A road district is formed which embraces not only the frontage along the proposed route but the land extending back a mile on either side. ... A majority of the acreage must be in favor of the project before it will go through."

In 1897, this was not happening.

"The present suspension of activity is thought to be due not to a lack of interest or desire in the matter but to the stringency of the times."

The times had been stringent since 1893, as America experienced the worst economic depression in its history.

Yet for all the economic difficulty of the 1890s, there was another movement underway seeking to improve not only the highways but the country roads of central Ohio, as well.

"The thousands of Columbus cyclists who delight in country riding will be disappointed to learn that there will be little road improvement in Franklin County during the coming season."

In one form or another, the bicycle had been around for quite a while.

Two-wheeled travel in America took off after the Civil War with the advent of large front-wheeled bicycles, with the front wheel directly pedaled by the rider. The bicycles became quite popular in larger cities where there were a number of paved streets and avenues.

But the large "Wheels" were hard to mount and even harder to ride. Hitting a bump usually sent the rider flying into certain injury.

Even so, by 1880, a League of American Wheelmen was advocating better roads. With the advent of the "Safety Bicycle" -- the two-wheeler similar to today's bicycles -- in 1888, the hundreds of riders became thousands. Their advocacy made the movement to improve local roads even more popular.

In the end, this advocacy combined with the arrival of the motor car to bring forth direct government funding for road construction and maintenance.

It would take a long while, but the highways of today owe a lot to the bicyclists of a century ago.

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.