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Mark Twain’s 1895 master plan for biking in Portland

Posted by on August 11th, 2010 at 1:45 pm

Mr. Twain in 1871.
(Photo: Wikipedia)

Just came across (via @cascadebicycle on Twitter) an amazing bit of Portland bike history via the Seattle-based Crosscut blog.

115 years ago today, America’s beloved nomad, author and commentator Mark Twain visited our little logging town and had some pretty big ideas about biking. Crosscut’s Knute Berger was researching Twain’s trip to the Northwest when he came across an article in The Oregonian from August 11th, 1895. In that article, Berger reports that “Twain expounded on his idea of how to turn Portland into a European-style bike town” and Twain suggested it happen through “public investment in bike transport.”

Here’s an excerpt from the 1895 article in The Oregonian (emphasis mine):

“Portland seems to be a pretty nice town,” drawled the author of Tom Sawyer, as the ‘bus rolled down Sixth Street, “and this is a pretty nice, smooth street. Now Portland ought to lay itself out a little and macadamize [an early method of paving] all its streets just like this. Then it ought to own all the bicycles and rent ’em out and so pay for the streets. Pretty good scheme, eh? I suppose people would complain about the monopoly, but then we have the monopolies always with us…”

You can read the entire article from The Oregonian here and more thoughts on Twain’s trip from Knute Berger on the Crosscut website.

— For more posts on our biking past, see our “history” story tag.

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  • Greg August 11, 2010 at 2:32 pm

    Mr. Clemens was well known for writing satire. ;)

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  • Sziszi August 11, 2010 at 3:35 pm

    Of course early cyclists were all about better roads. And many early cyclists and bicycle builders then became early- adopters of cars and and car builders. So, while it’s nice to see Mark as prescient — I think one would find calls for paving to fascilitate bicycling pretty common in the late 19th century. I like Mark and he’s always good for a pithy quote — I’m just saying.

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  • Eric August 11, 2010 at 3:58 pm

    Given the context of railroad monopolies and the Sherman Antitrust Act (1890), as well as Twain’s known propensities for humor, it is difficult to read this straight-up as a sincere proposal.

    As far as I can tell none of the principals in the United Wheelmen’s Association (1897) discussed it, nor was it mentioned in the debates around the Cycle Path Legislation of 1899. It’s tough to say it was never mentioned, but if it was a serious proposal, it left few traces.

    So with Greg and Sziszi, I would caution not to take this as too seriously. It’s a neat anticipation of today’s concerns, but it was probably mentioned ironically as a way for cities to skim monies, not as an egalitarian bike-sharing and paving scheme.

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  • Stig10 August 11, 2010 at 6:09 pm

    Get a bicycle. You will not regret it, if you live. ~Mark Twain, “Taming the Bicycle”


    Eerily still relevant today, but for an entirely different reason.

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  • K'Tesh August 11, 2010 at 9:46 pm

    I always loved reading Mark Twain’s stuff… Now I gotta go and read more…

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  • tony August 11, 2010 at 11:28 pm

    I find it hard to believe that the Oregonian ever published pro-cycling editorials.

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  • aaronf August 12, 2010 at 1:00 am

    When I read the title the first thing I thought was “I bet it hasn’t been funded yet!”

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  • Kt August 12, 2010 at 8:55 am

    I like the rest of the paragraph exerpted above:

    “Now, in European cities, you know, the government runs a whole lot of things, and, it strikes me, runs ’em pretty well. Here folks seem to be alarmed about governmental monopolies. But I don’t see why. Here cities give away for nothing franchises for car lines, electric plants and things like that. Their generosity is often astounding. The American people take the yoke of private monopoly with philosophical indifference, and I don’t see why they should mind a little government monopoly.”

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  • Joel Batterman August 12, 2010 at 9:02 am

    Eric – I think Twain may have been serious in this case. Leading progressives of the time advocated for expanding government ownership of municipal public services, like the “electric plants” and “[street]car lines” Twain mentions in the article. At the time, urban public transit was often controlled by private monopolies.

    As Cleveland Mayor Tom Johnson said: “If you do not own them, they will in time own you.”

    It’s remarkable how current Twain’s remarks appear: “Now, in European cities, you know, the government runs a whole lot of things, and, it strikes me, runs ’em pretty well. Here folks seem to be alarmed about governmental monopolies.” Health care, anyone?

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  • trail abuser August 12, 2010 at 9:52 am

    Did you find the article about the ‘Build It’ rally of 1897?

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  • Eric August 12, 2010 at 10:31 am

    @Joel – It’s possible. I don’t know Twain very well. The “taming the bike” piece was written in 1884, but apparently he didn’t like it and Twain never published it during his life. Its tone doesn’t exactly embrace bikes.

    1895 was the year Bull Run water started flowing in Portland. That’s a public monopoly and typhoid went way down in a clear demonstration of benefit (though not enough for Salem, who had to wait until the 1930s for mountain water). But these monopolies, public or private, also occasioned lots of anxiety and opposition.

    So yeah, maybe Twain was serious. It’s totally possible. As I read the quotes, I think he was not serious, but in the absence of more info an unambiguous reading is not obvious. Any Twain experts out there? I’d like to read more about Twain’s feelings about bikes! (There’s a new autobiography coming out!) It’s a fascinating question!

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  • Eric August 12, 2010 at 11:42 am

    Here’s the passage in the Oregonian, written by the reporter, that immediately precedes the bit about bikes:

    With that bushy growth tumbling over his big head, the bushy mustache and the bushy brows streaming tot he right and left, a face rugged as if chiseled by nature’s hand from a block of granite, Mark Twain is certainly about as striking and picturesque a character as ever looked out of the pages of any of his own books. And when to his anything but commonplace appearance is added the originality of his manner, its absolutely carelessness, its lazy, cynical good humor, he becomes one of the most interesting men in the world to meet…

    And shortly after the bit about bikes, about his next book, Twain says

    It will be a lazy man’s book. If any one picks it up expecting to find full data, historical, topographical, and so forth, he will be disappointed. A lazy man, you know, don’t rush around with the note book as soon as he lands on a foreign shore. He simply drifts about…

    The whole context, as the newspaper writer presents it, of the bike comments doesn’t suggest anything very serious. Laziness and cynical humor are the dominant notes – Twain is on stage and performing for an audience! It’s just so hard to take the utterance as offered seriously.

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  • JE August 12, 2010 at 12:09 pm

    Keep in mind that this was written before the automobile was available to the general public. The article mentions Twain waiting for a carriage, then taking the ‘bus to the train station when the carriage didn’t arrive. ‘bus could be an autobus or it may have been horse drawn. Point is, in 1895, the only affordable mechanized transportation available was the bicycle. A few years later, Twain might have suggested a city owned Model T sharing plan instead.

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  • Eric June 5, 2012 at 2:58 pm

    The Hollinger-Olshey bit about “bike lanes” is an interesting echo of Twain’s remarks, btw.

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