Category Archives: Bike

The More Things Change The More They Stay The Same

On digging through copies of the Fernie Free Press I stumbled upon the following fascinating report of June 3rd, 1899: “Bicycle riding on sidewalks is a dangerous pastime at best, but especially so in Fernie, and if it is not stopped soon someone is liable to get seriously hurt.”

Any pedestrian, cyclist or motorist in present day Fernie might think the sentence had been written this week in 2016. Edwardian Fernie will refrain from commenting too lengthily about this contentious subject beyond the following: Even today it is likely someone is going to be seriously hurt by this silly, strange and illegal practice. But from a historical perspective the activity of riding bicycles on sidewalks in 1899 in Fernie is an extremely interesting phenomenon.

The first verifiable practically used contraption that might be called a bicycle was developed by a German baron in 1817, and there were thereafter many different versions of bicycles, but it was not until the late 1880’s and 1890’s that the safe bicycle, much like what we still ride today, was developed. Suddenly a mode of transport that had been confined to daring young men transitioned into transport for the upper and middle classes and importantly women suddenly achieved a degree of freedom of mobility they had never had unless they could ride and had a horse. Though not as costly as horses, bicycles were comparatively expensive and thus a luxury until the beginning of the twentieth century when mass production methods made bikes much cheaper. Whether cheap or expensive by 1899 bicycles were a part of Fernie life and clearly were becoming hazards on the sidewalks.

Now let us ponder the subject of sidewalks in Fernie for a moment. To the modern citizen of any urban place the sidewalk is a taken for granted. But it was not so for any of the citizens of Fernie in 1899. At the beginning of 1899 there were no sidewalks in Fernie. The Saturday, April 15, 1899 issue of the Fernie Free Press reported, “The fashionable promenade of our town is a thing of the future. Perhaps when the sidewalks are built the shady side of Victoria avenue may be selected. Possibly when the slippery slopes and steep grades of the old town have dried up the “four hundred” of Fernie may on summer evenings gravitate towards the stately boulevards of the historic spot. It may be that under the genial influences of spring-tide young couples may stray beneath the leafy and ambient shades of the park – but at present the station platform seems to be the favoured spot at least for the “fair and frail” ones, who think they are in duty bound to “great the coming and speed the parting guest.” Verb. sap.” (Verb. Sap. Latin abbreviation for “a word to the wise”.

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June 9, 1899 – Victoria Avenue, plank sidewalks with coasting slides and dirt road. Photo courtesy of City of Vancouver Archives, photographer Major James Skitt Matthews

It is not clear if this article had the effect of ensuring the sidewalks were built, but by April 29, 1899, the Free Press reported the following: “The sidewalks, which are now completed on Victoria avenue, add much to the appearance and comfort of the town, whilst the coasting slides at the corners are a perpetual source of amusement to the groggy.”

This would suggest that the sidewalks on Victoria Avenue (also known as Second Avenue) were built in two weeks and that by June 3rd cyclists had already become a hazard on those new sidewalks.  A small but critical fact that needs to be considered is that the sidewalks of which the Free Press writes were plank sidewalks. A plank sidewalk is just that, a sidewalk made of wooden planks that were sometimes laid end to end and other times placed side by side. In the case of Victoria Avenue it would seem the planks were placed side by side in front of the commercial buildings and shops. It seems that the planks ramped down to the street to create the “coasting slides” at the corners.  The building of plank sidewalks explains the speed with which the sidewalks were built. Plank sidewalks such as were used in Fernie can still be seen in Fort Steele. Anyone who has walked on a plank sidewalk there will observe that they are not uncomfortable to walk on, and certainly made life for people, particularly women in long skirts, much easier than trundling over dirt.

Let us then return to the cyclist. Edwardian Fernie has to be fair to the cyclists of 1899, it is not to be wondered at, that like the ladies in skirts, the cyclists wanted to ride on the sidewalks. Unlike our well paved roads of today the roads of Fernie were not paved and at that time might in many cases be considered little more than mud bogs that hardened into dusty rutted tracks when the weather was dry.

Edwardian Fernie was amused by the following report in the Free Press writing about the spring thaw: “For the first time the inhabitants of Fernie have been able during the last week to appreciate one of their greatest (albeit hidden) blessings. The climatic conditions have been such as to prevent them discovering sooner that they had been “entertaining an angel unawares.” So long as the grip of frost held the earth it was possible to travel to the railway station with some degree of ease and celerity in spite of its distance, but now under the genial influences of the spring thaw the utmost that the most energetic traveler can do is to flounder through a sea of mud which stretches across the mile between our town and the depot. Some have said there is a good reason for this. Some have declared there was no reason at all; but whatever the cause, the effect is certain, viz.: the inculcation of that greatest of all virtues – patience. If you ascertain what time the train is expected you may catch it, but on no account hurry; you will only sink deeper into the slough; and in any case why hurry? The station is there all right – in the distance. You can see it, so just take your time. By and bye Job will cease to be the saint of the patient one and his mantle will descend on some Fernie worthy whose duties call him to walk to the station daily.”

Now recall if you will that the Free Press had suggested that until the Victoria Avenue side was built couples promenade on the station platform. One would not be foolish to ask how they would have gotten there, certainly not by bicycle! How happy the citizens of Fernie must have been when the plank sidewalks were built, even happier when the roads were improved and eventually paved. Whether you are a pedestrian, cyclist or motorist, just remember what travel was like in Fernie 1899, and contemplate how lucky you are today!

A few notes on some things you will have read in the excerpts from the Fernie Free Press in this article:

The “old town” refers to the first (1897) town site of Fernie on the banks of Coal Creek, which as anyone who has walked or biked along Coal Creek can attest has steep banks and would have provided much sliding. The Free Press is being ironic, and very tongue in cheek, because the “old town” of Fernie was quickly abandoned by the “four hundred” after the Crowsnest Coal Company laid out and began building the new town site, namely that area that radiates from Second Avenue (or as Edwardian Fernie prefers “Victoria Avenue”) – the present day “old town” of Fernie. The “old town” of 1899 was left to be inhabited by the poorest and roughest segment of the population of Fernie until the fire of 1908.

Who were the “four hundred”? This is may be an allusion to the Council of Four Hundred men who ruled Athens after 411 BC, or more likely, was an allusion to the four hundred people who supposedly fit in the Mrs. William Backhouse Astor Jr.’s ballroom in New York and came to mean the social elite of a community.  Probably both meanings would have been known to the editor of the Fernie Free Press, and he certainly meant it to poke a little fun, and at the same time backhandedly aggrandize, the elite of Fernie – who by this time had in most cases been in Fernie for perhaps a year.