The recent death of cyclist Alan Grahn on Saint Paul’s Summit Avenue has rightfully fueled a movement to improve Summit’s bike infrastructure with protected bike lanes and improved intersection design. As the city’s main east/west cycling corridor, Summit is heavily used year round by both commuters and recreational cyclists but lacks the protections of the Midtown Greenway or the Cedar Lake Trail in Minneapolis.
Unlike the Greenway, however, Summit Avenue is an Historic Preservation District and is subject to design standards consistent with its historic use. It has been suggested by some, most notably in the pages of the Villager newspaper, that protected bike lanes would be inconsistent with historic preservation.
In fact, Summit Avenue has a long and storied history as a bike route which predates the automobile and many of the historic homes along its long run from Cathedral Hill to the Mississippi. It is cars, not bikes, that are ahistorical on Summit, a fact which is understandably counterintuitive given our living memory of Summit as an automotive thoroughfare. Many still remember that, prior to the re-installation of bike lanes in the early 1990’s, Summit was a 4-lane road much like Lexington Avenue is today.
Summit’s cycling history dates back to the advent of the “Safety Bicycle” in the late 1880’s, when bicycle racing and touring became new American obsessions. In an era dominated by railroads and horse-drawn transportation, however, bicyclists lacked sufficient infrastructure. Roads were unpaved and frequently muddy and rutted, even in cities. Formed in 1880, the League of American Wheelmen founded the Good Roads Movement to improve the country’s bicycle infrastructure.
The Wheelmen (and Wheelwomen, as they often noted) were certainly the Victorian era’s cycling hipsters, riding their fixies through town and country in their dashing plaid bicycle suits. But they were on a mission to promote “wheeling” and improve roads. In Saint Paul, Summit Avenue was the center of their efforts.
In 1896, the Wheelmen petitioned the Saint Paul city council to construct a 10 foot wide bike path down the middle of the Summit Avenue boulevard (a protected lane!) from Lexington to the river. The council approved, and path construction began with the city and the Wheelmen sharing the expense. It opened June 13th, 1896, with a crowd of about 200 cyclists riding Summit to the river.
A full page spread in the Saint Paul Daily Globe touted the new Summit cycle path as the crown jewel of Saint Paul’s bike routes.
Other cities have constructed cycle paths earlier in the history of the present popularity than St. Paul, but few, if any have such routes which are more enjoyable or picturesque than will be that which the wheelmen of St. Paul are to build to a junction with a similar path constructed by the cyclists of Minneapolis….Starting on Summit avenue, It finds its beginning to be the most beautiful locality in the city. On either side beautiful lawns run back to beautiful residences, the buttressed walls of the old castles at one turn giving way to the lighter, but none the less pleasing modern architecture near by. Here and there, at the crossings of the intersecting streets, or through the green yards between, are glimpses of the broad river valley, with its panoramic spectacle of field and farm and factory, of wood, of water, and of wealth, of plain and precipice.
The section of Summit between Lexington and Snelling proved to be the hardest section of the Summit cycle path to complete, mostly because of the railroad bridge (in the same place as the bridge which now spans Ayd Mill Road). “The rider, unless he turns into the roadway, in which case it is practically impossible for him to get back upon the sidewalk without dismounting, must traverse the narrow side path of the bridge, where two wheels cannot meet without almost certain collision.”
Most cyclists took to the sidewalk through this section. “On most fine evenings this sidewalk is pretty nearly a solid mass of wheels, ranged in two long lines”, which made walking difficult for residents. By April of 1897, work had begun on completing this missing link while the Wheelmen observed that, even before the missing link was completed, over 4,000 cyclists used the Summit cycle trail on a spring Sunday.
By 1900, however, all problems had been ironed out and even Minneapolis was jealous. The Minneapolis Journal wrote:
Minneapolis riders who have tried the new cycle path on Summit avenue in St. Paul are loud in its praise. The path is constructed of crushed stone, which recent rains have packed down until the road is as smooth as a billiard table. This is held by most cyclists to be the finest path In the state….It leads through a stretch of country where song birds by the thousands are found, and, according to the descriptions of the poetical Minneapolis wheelmen is like a glimpse of the Garden of Eden.
These glowing words make clear that Summit Avenue owes a debt to the Wheelmen for making Summit something more than a toney address for Saint Paul’s elite. They made it an avenue to be experienced, to be traversed on wheels and explored. Just as St. Paul’s trolleys established Grand and Selby as mercantile avenues, the Wheelmen helped create the very idea of Summit Avenue as a touring destination that we still enjoy today. From the beginning, cycling was fundamental and foundational to the historical character of Summit Avenue.
By 1901, the Victorian “bicycle boom” began to wane somewhat as faddish urbanites chased other pursuits. The bicycle began to find its place as a reliable means of transportation. According to the Minnesota Historical Society, the city engineer of Saint Paul noted in 1901: “While the bicycle as a fad and vehicle for pleasure riding only, has passed by, it has come to be the means of transportation to and from business for thousands to whom the saving of time and carfare are important items.” Bicycle commuting had begun in earnest.
With the advent of the automobile, touring Summit Avenue became more and more a motorized activity. The Wheelmen’s Good Roads movement was co-opted by drivers, spurring into creation the network of paved city, state, county and federal roadways which we know today. And, as we know, mass production of the automobile has forced bicyclists off many of the roads their forebears helped to build.
As the city addresses the question of improving bike lanes on Summit, we should keep in mind the avenue’s rich bicycling history and acknowledge that, from the perspective of historic preservation, the question should not be about whether to accommodate the safety needs of cyclists, but how to restrain or eliminate the safety threat of that rough and rowdy modern interloper, the automobile.
Restoring protected bike lanes on Summit is historic preservation. For whatever reason they were lost along the way; bringing them back now will help recreate the urban landscape of the late Victorian era.