Detroit’s Grand Bicycle Map Tradition

November 7, 2011

For a recent birthday, I received a framed copy of a 19th-century bicycle map of the city of Detroit. Now that the rumors are swirling about a possible collaboration on a new bike map for the city, it seemed like a good time to pay tribute to the 115-year-old original published by the Calvert Lithography and Engraving Company. This “Guide Map of the City of Detroit for Bicyclists, Showing Pavements” was copyrighted during the bicycle boom of the 1890′s, just as Charles Brady King and Henry Ford were tinkering on their “horseless carriages” and displaying them to the public (Ford, who built his using bicycle parts, didn’t get it on the road until June). Grand Boulevard, one of the map’s more prominent features, had just been dedicated the previous year by the venerable Hazen Pingree, for the enjoyment and recreation of the city’s equestrian and cycling communities.

The map’s title points out its most striking detail: the color-coded mish-mash of various pavement types, ranging from unpaved to wood to brick to asphalt. Even though the League of American Wheelmen had formed over a decade earlier, this map was published in the heyday of the Good Roads movement, when cities across America were responding to cyclists’ demands for better rights-of-way by paving their thoroughfares. While most of Detroit’s streets were paved with wood (tree trunk slices laid out like flat, disc-like cobbles), its large radial avenues and other high-traffic roads had been upgraded to granite or asphalt by 1896. Except for stretches where it crossed over railroads, Grand Boulevard was paved with macadam, an early form of pavement using coal tar which was eventually replaced by petroleum-based asphalt. While it may seem strange to 21st-century audiences that pavement was such an important map element, it serves as a reminder of a time before today’s asphalt ubiquity, when the nation’s previously poor road surfaces were being substantially upgraded year after year.

In addition to its meticulous documentation of Detroit’s evolving pavement conditions, the 1896 bike map includes other notable features that help explain what was important to the city’s Gilded Age cyclists. Along with the numerous freight railway lines (indeed, today’s Dequindre Cut greenway shows up on the map as a railroad track), Detroit’s equally numerous streetcar lines are denoted for cyclists’ convenience. Likewise, the locations of passenger ferry service across the Detroit River are also indicated. Perhaps as a way to provide points of reference, the city’s political ward jurisdiction boundaries are shown and labeled along the river, following the lines of the old French ribbon farms.

My favorite feature of the bike map, however, is the “Outside Runs” section located at the top margin. This section lists the various distances to places beyond Detroit that can be reached by following the radial avenues that extend out of the city. Among the cities and towns listed are some—such as Mt. Clemens, Inkster, and Wyandotte—with which I was already familiar, as well as others—Whitewood, Leesville, and Dentons—that I had never heard of before. I have two theories about this section: 1) the “Outside Runs” refer to the interurban streetcar lines which were then the principal means of middle-distance passenger transport, and which might have accommodated bicycles, and 2) the map provided “Outside Runs” information for cyclists who simply wished to ride to the destinations listed, and who would thus have appreciated distance measurements.

As someone who occasionally enjoys riding my bicycle out of the city, I am fonder of the second theory. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that long-distance cycle touring was a popular pastime during the late 1800’s, with some of my favorite stories involving Diamond Jim Brady and his raucous retinue. More importantly, though, the “Outside Runs” of the 1896 map help show how geographically small the city of Detroit was at the time. None of the 20th century’s urban sprawl (which Detroit had no small hand in facilitating) had yet taken place, and agrarian land uses could still be found relatively close to the city limits. Despite the fact that Detroit and its cycling community look considerably different today, I have every confidence that this forthcoming bike map will be just as useful, in its own way, as the 1896 edition.

4 Responses to Detroit’s Grand Bicycle Map Tradition

  1. Todd Scott on December 4, 2011 at 12:48 am

    Nice article and happy birthday too.

    Back then, a “run” was another word for a ride. I bet answer 2 is closer – an outside run is a ride outside of the city limits.

    Leesville was on Gratiot at French Road just south of the airport. Not sure about the others.

  2. [...] an 1895 bike map that has a list of the outside runs. It shows all the small towns outside Detroit and it shows the distances out to those towns, [...]

  3. [...] an 1895 bike map that has a list of the outside runs. It shows all the small towns outside Detroit and it shows the distances out to those towns, [...]

  4. [...] an 1895 bike map that has a list of the outside runs. It shows all the small towns outside Detroit and it shows the distances out to those towns, [...]

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