John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.
No trace of the primitive people mover remains, except an extremely colorful history.
Way before the Shweeb was just a glimmer in Google's immense coin purse, a 19th-century visionary named Arthur Hotchkiss was already planning the future of American bicycle commuting. His brainstorm: A monorail for bikes that would let blue-collar workers fly over farmlands to their factory, never mind if the trip occasionally involved outrunning a snorting, enraged bull.
Hotchkiss couldn't complete his endeavor without a backer, and in 1892 he found one in Hezekiah Smith, an inventor, bigamist and U.S. congressman. Smith had built a thriving industrial center in his self-titled hamlet of Smithville, New Jersey, where the H. B. Smith Machine Company was cranking out about a quarter of America's woodworking gear. Smith also happened to be involved in the production of an interesting little side project, the American Star Bicycle, and so naturally was all ears when Hotchkiss came knocking with his fanciful blueprints.
At the beginning, the Smithville Bicycle Railroad Company seemed like a brilliant idea. Before, workers had to either walk or teeter on primitive bicycles down rutted roads to get to work. (Many historical details in this post come from Anthony J. Bianculli's entertaining book, Iron Rails in the Garden State.) A people-moving track that cut some of the distance from Smithville to Mt. Holly, where many workers lived, seemed like the cat's whiskers. And so it was born: A 4-foot-high, roughly 2 mile metal track that promised to reward its financiers' $10,000 investment with a lifetime of punctual employees.
The bicycles that glided along the rails were not like today's Schwinns. They had mismatched wheels, one at 20 inches across and the other spanning a foot, and instead of pushing on pedals to create propulsion a rider had to repeatedly depress a ratchet mechanism, like he was pumping air into a tire with a hole in it. But in other ways they adhered tightly with modern bike design. They had mud flaps to guard against the track's kicked-up dew, and there were even tandem bikes (for very good work buddies).
The bicycle railroad ran to 11 p.m. and cost 10 cents for a round trip, although the entrepreneurial Hotchkiss also sold monthly passes for $2. It was among the fastest bicycling options in the country, with a top speed of 18 m.p.h. It was also among the most exciting. For riders on this curious people mover, you never knew what might happen between Point A and Point B.
For instance, storms might cause the local Rancocas Creek to flood, making people slog through a slow-moving river of muddy water. (The needle-straight track ensured that bicyclists encountered the Rancocas at 10 separate crossings.) And farmers were continually opening "gates" in the track to cross into different pastures; if they forgot to close them, a rider could launch off the railway and wind up with a mouthful of gravel and mud.
That's another thing: Because this was farmland, there were bound to be farm animals. Bulls, in particular, which seemed to take great enjoyment from chasing these weird, wheeled creatures invading their territory. It wasn't unusual for a factory hand to get to work coated in the sweat of physical exertion and fear, having had to motor like the devil to cross a field with a bull's horns inches from his rear end.
There were non-environmental problems, too. Most of the railway was single-tracked. In the daytime, riders approaching from opposite directions had to have a conversation about who would get off to let the other pass. At night, sometimes they simply crashed into one another, solving the problem niftily. And for you regular commuters, tell me if this issue sounds familiar (as per Bianculli's account): "Many tempers were frayed when 'fast' riders overtook 'slow' riders and were frustrated by their inability to pass."
Perhaps one of those aggressive riders was behind the unfortunate incident in which a bicyclist was shot at, and then beset by somebody's attack dog. Or maybe that was the work of a regular railroad bandit looking for a greener job. Evildoers seemed to know the bike monorail was a source of continually arriving prey. One jilted lover, figuring his ex would be peddling the track a certain night, hid in the bushes and leapt out to knife her when she wheeled past. She died from a cut throat.
By 1898, however, traffic on the monorail began to get sparse. Part of this decrease was because Hotchkiss had moved his attentions elsewhere, and nobody took the initiative to suitably manage it. But it was also advances in bicycle technology that doomed the New Jersey project. With better-designed bikes – eliminating that weirdly giant wheel did wonders for stability – people could finally use the roads as a suitable medium for commuting.
Despite Hotchkiss' hope that bicycle railroads would soon become America's secondary circulatory system, only a few more ever opened up around the world before the concept sunk into the mire of history. The New Jersey railway went bankrupt in 1898. The H. B. Smith Machine Company was thrashed by the Great Depression and never fully recovered. You'll find no trace of the Hotchkiss Bicycle Railroad standing in the woods near Smithville today. But if you stand real silent-like under the trees, you might just hear the ghost of a bygone monorail passenger, yelling, "Get your damned carcass out of the way, and let me pass!"
Top image of a Hotchkiss bicycle by Randal J. (RJFerret).