Just a few miles north and across the Willamette River from downtown Portland lies the Swan Island Industrial Area. Rich with history, it’s now filled with office buildings, heavy industry, and warehouses that few people think of when they think of Portland. At the northern tip of what is now technically a peninsula (it was dredged in 1927) is the headquarters of the seven companies in the Vigor Industrial family. It’s a 56-acre industrial park where — quite unexpectedly — the preferred mode of transport is a bicycle.
I first saw the heavy-duty, industrial cruiser bikes ridden by scores of ship builders, ship painters, and other tradespeople when I first visited the area last October for a bike fashion show. Ever since then I’ve wanted to go back and last Friday I finally did.
Alan Sprott is the VP of Development for Vigor. After setting me up with a hard-hat and safety glasses (something everyone in the shipyard must wear), he told me bikes have been a mainstay in the yards since World War II. “It’s just such a big place, pretty much everyone down here owns one.” With about 850 employees, that adds up to a lot of bikes.
There wasn’t a lot of bike traffic during the hour or so spent being whisked around in a golf cart, but I hear during shift changes and during busier times (things are slow with the economy), it can get quite congested with bikes.
What I did see were big and tough guys piloting just-as-tough cruisers to lunch and in between work sites. I love the utilitarian bikes, with that rusted patina and banged up character. Many of the bikes have also been given names like “Pipe Shop” and “Brian Jones.” What I think I like best about these bikes is that I work in a world where “bicyclists” are maligned for being elitist-hipster-righteous-scofflaws, yet for the folks down in the yards, it’s just about getting from A to B in simplest, most efficient way possible.
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I love it. This is the way it should be and how bikes should be seen. “getting from A to B in simplest, most efficient way possible”
I know WorkCycles, the Dutch brand that Clever Cycles sells also sells a lot of bikes to industrial firms like this both for transportation on large facilities and for carrying freight around the facilities as well.
Pretty ingenious, if you ask me, seems like a great use for a bicycle.
Nice story, Jonathan. Great photos of the type of biking that we don’t often get to see from our public viewpoints.
This reminds me of my Dad and my uncles and visiting them at the shop when I was a kid. The bikes have subtle flourishes. A decal here, a nameplate there – simple but as creative as how the workers attach a handle to their Thermos bottle. Lots of big, comfy seats. And in this world where the highest degree of respect is demanded for somebody else’s set of tools, I don’t see a lock in sight.
Cool story and good timing. My dad is retiring at the end of the month so he gave me his work bike a week ago. It is a heavy duty yellow Schwinn with a big basket on the front and a huge seat with springs. He bought it years ago from the Boeing surplus store, it still has the little metal Inventory Number Plate riveted to the frame (one of my favorite features of the bike), some bright orange safety tape on the handle bars and a custom fender on the back wheel.
I agree, the best part is that these are big tough guys, riding bicycles…
I bet if they were riding on the street they wouldn’t get yelled at as much as us elitist hipsters… some of those guys could probably punch a hole through a car door…
I remember touring a GM assembly plant in the mid-90s as part of a class trip. They had several ancient Schwinn Heavy Duti bikes for riding around from one part of the building to another.
Great pictures, Jonathan. Thanks.
Here’s an article that ran in the Portland Mercury’s last bike issue about these hidden bikers of Swan Island:
This story made my day!
and the smiles on their faces…awesome story! dig the ape hanger handlebars.
I remember visiting the Texaco refinery (now Shell) north of Seattle in Anacortes, Washington 19 years ago and it was the same deal. Bikes everywhere. Industrial versions just like these. If you visit a large industrial site like a refinery, ship yard, paper mill, Boeing, etc. you’ll find bicycles. I work in Camas, Washington and over at the Georgia Pacific paper mill there are a number of bicycles there, too.
They use bikes to get around the Columbia waste water treatment plant as well.
Are they bike-commuting back and forth to work, or are they just using the bikes to get around the shipyard (and leaving them there)?
I don’t see much bike traffic coming to or from the shipyard.
They are using them for riding at work only… the vast majority of them do not ride to work from what I could tell. FWIW, Swan Island – especially the location of the shipyard – is not a very easy place to ride to on a number of levels.
Super nice photos, Jonathan. I hope you sent them copies – those are the best kinds of photos for things like retirement parties.
The guy in the third photo down should be the poster-child for biking in Portland.
Seeing somebody like that on a bike would do so much to get people out on bikes!
Somebody show this to everybody in Detroit.
Also: the Bikeportland survey asked what kind of reporting we’d like to see more of. Well this is it. This short write-up could be a monthly ongoing series digging into the roots of the bicycle as a tool of industry going back to WWII in Portland. Give us more of this sort of story, connect people to their bike history, create a sense of tradition in the minds of people who think their cycle is a new ware novelty.
This article & pictures made my day as well! What a hidden gem of the bicycling culture in Portland. Just another reason I love it here 🙂
I really like the photo of Ron Ratley with the squeeze bulb horn on the ape hanger handlebars. Sure wish ther was more of this type story instead of cyclist having problems.
Great job Jonathan.
The Swan Island TMA is working with the City to get an extension of the Willamette Greenway Trail down Channel Avenue to the shipyards so some of these guys (and gals…there are a few) can bike safely in to work as well. The “Shipyard Spur” is one project in a series we call “Going to the River” that will extend the Going Street Bikeway at N. Vancouver to the shipyards on Swan Island.
Six months ago when they were a lot busier it was all bikes and forklifts when I was down there; quite a mix. It all works because the speed limit for all vehicles…bikes, cars, trucks, forklifts is 10 MPH!
Did you or have others seen a detachable trailer varient?
Mostly I’ve seen upright detla trikes with an unwieldy cargo & tiller combo (high Center of gravity) or 4-wheel bike versions of a golf cart.
Been thinking that they could have little 4’x4′ trailers that can hook to any bike or even to the rear of another trailer. Haven’t seen that yet though.
For America’s largest manufacturer of industrial bikes check out Worksman Cycles. In business since 1898, New York City. Latest issue of Bicycle Times did a great article on them. Over the decades they’ve supplied thousands of heavy duty basket equipped bikes to corporations with large manufacturing complexes. Schwinn also made a Heavy Duty bike, with one model called a Cycle Truck introduced in 1939. Bikes are simply the easiest way to run errands around a large factory area. I’ve worked in a shipyard setting and every shop had their own stash of bikes, all with large front baskets for hauling stuff. We would usually give ours a unique paint job to discourage anyone else from “borrowing” them.
Great story! This is a perfect example of how much business sense bikes can make. Imaging if those guys had to stroll from here to there by foot in that huge area. Tones of pay for walking. Then image paying for and maintaining a fleet of carts or cars for them to move around! Bikes meet the need perfectly it seems and they look like they enjoy it! Win Win Win!!!
It is a great story. It seems that many very large facilities have bikes for individuals to get around on. When I worked at UALSFO mechanics rode bikes to and from pulling their dog boxes on tethers behind them.(mechanic tool boxes on casters).
Great story. Good proof that, for most people, riding a bike is a conveyance, not some kind of lifestyle.
…and then there are those of us that ride bicycles to ride our bicycles.
GREAT story! Thanks, Jonathan!
The new magazine Bicycle Times has an article in their current issue about the Worksman Cycles company, whose core business are these “industrial bikes.” It’s a specialty in the industry–neither Schwinn nor the Chinese make anything that holds up to plant use.
I think some of the yellow “Schwinn” bikes in some of the photos are in fact Worksman Cycles bikes.
Not sure but Schwinn did badge Worksman-made bikes for a while. A friend of mine used to be a pipe fitter for some now-closed Portland factory. She purchased on of these Worksman-made Schwinn bikes when the factory closed.
Many of the pizza delivery bikes around town are Worksman bikes. There’s one sort of semi-permanently parked outside Pizza Schmiza at NW 11th and Glisan, for example.
Jonathan – great story and photos!
If you haven’t already, I heartily encourage you to chat with Lenny of the Swan Island TMA. He’s a largely unsung champion of non-car transportation to, from, and within the Swan Island worksites.
Granted, there is much work to be done to make commuting by bike for Swan Island workers more feasible, but it is happening.
Thanks for putting these triumphs in the limelight!
Whoops! I see now that Lenny’s already commented here…
Way to go Lenny! Your tireless work is getting some awesome recognition.
(are they riding them back and forth to work?)
Are you kidding? Real men drive trucks
Kudos on the story and photos, I thoroughly enjoyed it! It isn’t just heavy industry that uses bikes to get around, my friends at Google use bikes to get around their campus too (you interviewed one last year; Peter who manages Google Earth and has also toured extensively around the world on bike). Granted, the Google campus bikes aren’t as cool as these ones… 😉