The Work of Wheelmen for Better Roads
Isaac B. Potter
Godey’s Magazine, 1897
“When a man rides a bicycle he begins to study the face of the earth.” The novelty of riding a vehicle of which the rider is himself the propelling power is in many ways an instructive one. The experience is delightful or dangerous; easy or irksome; inspiring or tiresome, and the pace of the rider is rapid or slow, just in proportion to the effort required to keep the vehicle in motion. And since this effort depends in a marked degree on the condition of the surface over which the bicycle is propelled, it has come to pass that the cyclist of to-day is tolerably familiar with the road question, and his familiar knowledge has been gained in that best of all schools - the school of experience. He knows, indeed, what all the horses and all the mules knew thousands of years ago, with the added advantage of being able to tell about it. The only beast that was ever known to speak is said to have called Balsam’s attention to the bad going. Every wheelman who talks for good roads tells the story that every horse would tell, and has the happy satisfaction of voicing the sentiment, not only of millions of his fellows, but of millions of dumb and patient brutes that have become galled and wind-broken and spavined and foundered and mangy in the service of millions of thoughtless and selfish masters, who, with an almost communistic fervor, are perpetually trying to dodge the road-tax.
And this leads me to say, in passing, that a tax is not a think got be afraid of; it is the tribute which savagery pays to civilization; the entrance-fee to community life; the price we pay for the privilege of living together, and for the right to fly a national flag. The wheelmen of America have considered these things, and have thought out and wrought out many problems which have seemed to impede the movement for better roads. They have formed a “League of American Wheelmen,” an organization now in its sixteenth year, whose main object is “to facilitate touring and to secure improvement in the condition of the public roads and highways.” The history of this League is a vastly interesting one. It began as a fraternity of young men banded together for mutual protection and for the attainment of the right to travel upon the public roads and parkways. Having, at the end of bitter opposition, accomplished these ends, the officers of the League, about eight years ago, took up the work of agitating the question of better roads. Many members of the League had travelled on their wheels over the splendid roads of France, Switzerland, Germany, and the British Isles, and knew of the wonderful internal development which good roads had brought to all of the great countries of Europe.
When Mr. Blaine was made Secretary of State in 1889, a letter was sent to him at Washington by the Highway Improvement Committee of the League, suggesting that our consuls, ministers, and representatives at the principal cities of Europe be directed to report at length concerning the various methods of making and maintaining public roads in the various counties in which they were officially located. Mr. Blaine, with his usual sagacious foresight, immediately acted upon this suggestion, and in 1891 there was issued from the Government Printing Office at Washington, a bound volume of Special Consular Reports on the subject of “Streets and Highways in Foreign Countries,” comprising nearly six hundred printed pages and copiously illustrated. The distribution of these reports did much to stimulate the movement in the United States, and in the fall of the same year the League of American Wheelmen established the Good Roads Magazine, an illustrated monthly publication, of which, during the three years of its existence, more than a million copies were distributed throughout the United States.
Meanwhile the several State Divisions of the League had given active attention to the subject, and in all the more populous States, Highway Improvement Committees were appointed and set at work. In many States highway improvement legislation was attempted, and in some it has been successful. In Massachusetts, the new system of highway construction under the provision of the State Highway Commission, has been highly successful, and the system there adopted suggests many features that might be copied with advantage by other States. The three members of the Massachusetts Commission are Hon. George A. Perkins, of Boston, an ex-member of the Massachusetts Legislature, Professor N.S. Shaler, of Harvard University, and William E. McClinstock, a skilled road engineer, all men of undoubted fitness, as the result of their work has shown, and all members of the League of American Wheelmen. In New Jersey the construction of improved roads through Union, Essex, and other counties, was largely the result of agitation begun by the wheelmen, and the adoption of the excellent Highway laws now in force in that State was brought about by the direct influence of wheelmen in the legislative halls at Trenton.
It is sometimes urged by thoughtless people that the interest of wheelmen in the improvement of the public roads is a purely selfish one, and that the public at large should not be taxed for the purpose of constructing roads for the convenience of bicycle riders; but most of this sort of argument runs to sophistry and works its own destruction.
Bicycle riding is neither a trade, a profession, nor an industrial occupation. A million people in the United States are to-day the owners and possessors of bicycles, and the time is soon to arrive when it will be no more proper to speak of a man as a “bicycle rider” because he occasionally rides a wheel, than it would be to style one a “carriage rider” who finds frequent occasion to drive his horse over the public roads.
The wheelmen of the United States include men engaged in all the learned professions, in all branches of trade, manufacture, and commerce, and they include thousands of farmers whose acquaintance with the bicycle has induced a more useful and intimate acquaintance with the miserable condition of the public roads, over which they and their fathers and grandfathers have dragged their weary way for more than a century.
There is really but one argument on the good roads question, and that is the argument in their favor. We all know, in the first place, that we are have never had really good going. We may as well admit that these country roads are about as bad as roads can possibly be; that they are frost-laden and wet, and soft and soggy in spring and fall; dry and dusty in summer, and rough the year around. These roads are all out-doors, in plain sight; everybody knows they are bad, and every honest man will admit it. As farmers, let us admit that these bad roads keep us from town and from each other; that we can’t get to market when prices are good; that we are hauling scant loads, racking our wagons, killing our horses, and rasping our tempers; that they keep our wives shut up like cattle in a pen; that they increase our solitude, keep our children from school, and send our young men to the cities with a solemn oath upon their lips that they will never till the soil.
Last year our railroads carried a thousand million tons of freight. Every year the amount increases. Every pound of this freight is carted and carried over our streets and roads before it gets to the railroad. Million os tons more are hauled in wagons and sold in the country towns and consumed by the local buyer. Here is the farmer’s end of it: hay, fifty-four million tons. Think of it! ... - ninety million tons of potatoes; two million tons of cotton; total, one hundred and fifty-two million tons, not counting the mud on the wagon wheels. Five hundred million dollars paid for farm implements and machinery to harvest it. Twelve hundred millions invested in farm horses and mules to drag it to market. Think of it! Think of waiting for the mud to “dry up.” Sixteen million horses and mules idle in the stable. Four million dollars a day for the horse feed; twenty-eight millions a week. Think of the loss of time and labor; the dwarfed and shrunken value of our farms; of the slack supply and good prices when the roads are impassable; think of the procession of farmers that rush to town and glut the market in the first days of dry weather, and think of the paltry prices they get when everybody is trying to sell to an overstocked merchant.
And so the wheelmen are trying to encourage the movement for better roads, not only because good roads are needed for bicycle riding, but because they are needed by everybody. Every improvement is a herald of prosperity; every good country road increases the value of every farm that fronts it. Raise the value of real estate on American farms five per cent, and you make our farms richer by six hundred and fifty millions of dollars. Put a like increase on the value of farm products, live stock, and farm machinery and you gain three hundred and fifty millions more. Decrease the cost of hauling one year’s crop of hay, cereals, potatoes, tobacco, and cotton, by only ten cents per ton, and you save fifteen millions of dollars. A good road, therefore, is a splendid investment. There never was a good road made in any civilized country on earth that didn’t pay a hundred percent a year on its cost. It raises the value of every acre, invites us to market when prices are good, and takes us out of the clutches of the commission pirates who sell our goods behind our backs at their own figures, keep their own accounts, and pay us a pittance for our toil and trouble. A good road shortens distance, saves time, wagons, horse-flesh, and harnesses, increases the load and lessens the burden, and makes it possible to haul two tons to market with the same power that now leaves one ton stuck in the mire. And good roads bring us closer together, drive out the gloom, make neighbors of hermits, discount every farm mortgage, and bring joy and contentment to every community. Imagine a man, knee-deep in the mud, trying to look cheerful!
... If, therefore, the wheelmen are seeking to divert the efforts of our statesmen into a new and promising field, should they not have substantial encouragement? Years of experience have taught them the lessons of fortitude, and they have been repelled too often not to understand that a lost battle is not a lost victory. The year 1896 finds the League with a larger membership than ever before, a membership that grows with the growth of wheeling, and that promises in the near future to make the subject of better roads a political issue, and to declare a platform from which the more or less important but well-worn question of a tariff on tomato-cans will give place to one of greater public concern."