St Charles Avenue: New Orleans’ Bicycle Highway

The_Times_Picayune_Sat__Nov_28__1885_

This poem appeared in the Daily Picayune in November of 1885. St. Charles Avenue was at that time the thoroughfare along which New Orleans’ new suburban development was spreading upriver from the French Quarter, facilitated by mule-drawn streetcars that ran the avenue  along the route of the Carrolton Railroad. In contrast to the older Creole neighborhoods downriver, the upriver neighborhoods along St. Charles Avenue were the purview of the protestant middle class and their late-Victorian culture.

Bicycles and tricycles had only appeared in New Orleans five years before this poem was published, but clearly they had already become a staple of the modern street and symbol of the bon vivant life. These bicycles would have been the high-wheel “penny farthing” style machines, as the “safety” model familiar today would not really be on the market for another couple of years. The tricycles were not children’s tricycles, but machines built for adult riders. These machines had two large wheels in the back and one in the front, usually, although there were other designs. The tandem tricycle had a seat in front where a passenger—usually the daughter or sweetheart of the driver—could ride. Harry Hodgson, one of New Orleans’ most prominent cyclists of the era, rode and raced a tricycle.

In 1887, St. Charles Avenue was paved with the first asphalt in the city. The new smooth pavement that stretched four-and-a-half miles from Lee Circle to Louisiana Avenue was perfect for cycling. St. Charles soon became a bicycle highway on which young office workers daily rode their bicycles between their suburban homes and the Central Business District. That year the cyclists of the city put on a Carnival Lantern Parade on St. Charles. About a hundred cyclists appeared wearing costumes of mythological, Medieval, and Oriental characters, their machines adorned with Japanese lanterns. When the new Louisiana Cycling Club formed that year, they held road races on St. Charles Avenue.

The streetcar—now electric—still runs along St. Charles. Under the electric lights there appears to be very little promenading by pretty girls, no swells on the corners. The asphalt pavement is now potholed and car-choked. Cyclists would be wise to choose another route for their dashing. But for a little while in the 19th century, St. Charles Avenue was essentially the grandest bike path in the South.

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