Historical Photograph of Long-Distance Woman Bicyclist in 1896!

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For everyone who enjoyed the lively photographs of sports and recreation at CCHS' recent Antiques Show, here is the story on one of the photos on display. The following blog was originally published March 26, 2010.

The caption on the negative sleeve read: “two wheeled bicycle marathon on Price St. August 17, 1896.”  What was even more curious was the image on the finished print – a lone bicyclist – a woman wearing a full skirt, jacket and a hat riding down the road. Somehow this was not what I expected!

The collection of glass plate negatives from West Chester printer Joseph Thorne has turned out to be full of surprises. Most of the plates had some sort of brief description, but even better, this one had a date.  I turned to the Daily Local News on microfilm to see what was going on August 17, 1896.

In the sports section I found an announcement from the Time Wheelmen of a 150 mile marathon to be held on Labor Day, September 5th, 1896. The bicycling club offered prizes for riders that completed the course and a trophy for the club that had the most riders finish.

There were to be two classes – 100 mile and 150 mile courses that were set up with organized time schedules and dinner breaks.  The 150 mile ride was to begin in Philadelphia at 3 a.m., traveling through Fort Washington, Montgomery Square, back to Philadelphia completing the first 49 miles in time for breakfast at 7:30 a.m. The group would then leave Philadelphia at 8:30 heading through Wayne, West Chester, Chadds Ford and then stopping in Wilmington for dinner by 1:30. The final leg of the journey would begin at 3:30 retracing the course back to Philadelphia by 8:45 p.m.

On August 17th the Local reported several of the riders checking out the course rode through West Chester.  Curiously enough on the same page next to this story was an advertisement for Crescent bicycles sold by Henry R. Hoopes on West Gay Street. His ad proclaimed: “Wanted 100 ladies to teach to ride free of charge, if you buy.”

So was the fashionably clad woman in the photo part of the marathon group? Could a “lady” participate in a wheelman’s club? Let’s see what the microfilm tells us about the ride on September the 5th.

The front page story on Labor Day told of 500 bicyclists coming into West Chester on the big ride. Among them were a dozen “Plucky Lady Riders” entered in the 100 mile course. The women were described as wearing “old-style bloomers,” several rode tandems.  The riders came through town on Church Street and headed west on Price Street towards Chadds Ford.

Only one woman was riding the 150 mile course. She was only identified as “Mrs. Rice” and she rode accompanied by her husband. According to the story in the Local, Mrs. Rice had survived the club’s three other “century runs” and was now ready for the longer course.

When the paper was printed that day it gave her a headline: “AND MRS. RICE LIVES: Mrs. Rice the Plucky lady rider of the Time Wheelmen came through town with the 150 mile class and was as fresh when she arrived here as she was at the start and did not show the effects of the 80 miles she had already ridden in the least. She has the reputation of being the pluckiest lady rider in Philadelphia and she was well sustaining that reputation today. She has never yet dropped out of a run, even when many of the gentleman riders were compelled to do so. Her husband was also in this class.”

So what happened? Did she win a prize? The September 6th edition of the local had an ominous headline “OUT IN THE WET.” It seems that all went well for the riders until there was a tremendous down pour at about 3 pm.  The riders on the 100 mile course had just finished their dinner break in West Chester and were heading back to Philadelphia. They rode in the rain and it wasn’t too bad while they were on macadam roads. When the course turned onto the dirt country road, the mud was so deep that the riders could only push their bicycles. Many abandoned the ride and got on the train at Fern Hill or Malvern.

For the riders in the 150 mile run, the rain struck when they were in Wilmington. Their group purchased some oil cloth and made improvised capes and continued the ride. A few of them reached West Chester by 10 p.m. after hours of difficult travel.

What happened to Mrs. Rice? According to the Local, “Mrs. Rice, for the first time of her life, was compelled to abandon her ride of 150 miles at Wilmington and took a train for home. She was with the pacemakers up to that time, but would not risk the ride through the rain.”

So could this photo be of the notable Mrs. Rice? What was her full name?  I am hoping some readers of this blog may know these answers.

CCHS received as a donation some years ago from Mrs. Ruth Maconachy, this wonderful cabinet card photo of a very determined woman bicyclist wearing bloomers. I have always loved this picture and use is in some of my slide shows, even though it is unidentified it coveys a lot of “pluck.”  The donor found it amongst some family photos, but did not know why here family had it. Perhaps it has something to do with a bicycle marathon on Price Street in 1896!
Pamela Powell, Photo Archivist