“A Dancing River of Fire Rushing Along at Breakneck Speed”

August 10, 1893

A huge parade for bicyclists took place in Chicago as part of the 14th annual meeting of the League of American Wheelmen (LAW). The specific venue for the LAW meeting was the World’s Columbian Exposition. (This extravagant international fair was being held in the Windy City to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s maiden voyage to the New World; while there were dedication ceremonies for the exposition in October 1892, it was not actually opened to the public until May 1893.)

Cycling had grown in unprecedented popularity throughout the United States by the early 1890s, so the exposition officials could hardly ignore or shortchange this mode of transportation. Consequently, with LAW members gathered at the exposition for their annual meeting and with less than three months left before that world’s fair shut down altogether, the date of August 10, 1893, was declared Wheelmen’s Day in Chicago.

The highlight for Wheelmen’s Day was a parade in which hundreds of LAW members and other bicyclists would pedal on an avenue that coursed past several large buildings constructed for the exposition. This parade was held as planned on that Thursday evening, despite the ominous clouds above and a brief downpour of rain that finally did take place. The Chicago-based Inter Ocean reported that the parade was “a brilliant success despite the treacherousness of the weather.” The newspaper also noted, “There were about one thousand wheels in line, and it took the procession twenty-three minutes to pass the Art building.”

There were at least two Chinese lanterns attached to the handles of each of the bicycles being used in the parade. “It was an illuminated carnival,” reported the Chicago Tribune. “When stretched out on the long, smooth avenue it looked like a dancing river of fire rushing along at breakneck speed.”

The parade was further distinguished by other unique features that many bicyclists brought to the event. Someone named F.J. Morse, for example, rode a bicycle featuring not only a giant umbrella covering the front wheel but also an immense banner proclaiming “His Royal Majesty King Wheelman.” Another bicyclist, Arthur Smith, dressed as Uncle Sam for the parade. The two Engle brothers from the nearby city of Evanston rode a tandem bicycle displaying a large cloth decorated with LAW’s logo and initials in bronze.

The centerpiece of the entire exposition was the Ferris Wheel that had been designed and constructed by George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., and someone identified as J. Bills paid homage to this amusement ride during the parade. The Chicago Tribune asserted that Bills “attracted the attention of everybody” as he pedaled a tricycle towing a small replica of the Ferris Wheel.

Several of the parade’s participants carried likenesses of pagodas on their bicycles. The largest version, including 60 lanterns on it, was transported by Mark Kennicott. Unfortunately for him, he lost half of those lanterns during the course of the parade.

An even more noteworthy aspect of the parade involved the large number of women bicyclists who took part in it. These women rode ahead of the men most of the time and were led by Lizzie L. Haggerty and Lucy Porter.

The “Wheelmen’s Day” parade, along with reflecting the overall sociocultural impact of an exposition that is still remembered today, underscored the high value placed on bicycles across the nation and particularly in Chicago during the late 19th century. Chicago had emerged by that time as one of the nation’s leading industrial powerhouses, and 30 of the city’s factories collectively produced thousands of bicycles on a daily basis. Later in the decade, the Chicago Bicycle Directory asserted that approximately two-thirds of American bicycles and accompanying accessories were made within 150 miles (241.4 kilometers) of the city.

Additional information on bicycles in Chicago during the 1890s is available at https://chicagology.com/cycling/.

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