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Bicycles on the Water



The modern bicycle and modern tourism were born in the late 1800s. One Portsmouth entrepreneur asked – why not a bicycle that travels on the water? In 1882 a founder of The Wheelman biked all the way to the Isles of Shoals. Read the full story below.




Aquacyclists Pedal on the PIscataqua
Major David Urch and the Portsmouth Marine Bicycle  

The notion that Portsmouth has recently become a heritage tourism Mecca misses the mark by more than a century. The first "golden age" of Piscataqua tourism began soon after the Civil War. Long before reconstructed "history towns" like Sturbridge Village, Colonial Williamsburg and Plymouth Plantation, visitors flocked to this region. They arrived from distant cities on a network of fast, efficient, public trolleys and trains. And they came to enjoy pretty much what they enjoy today – colonial mansions, historic sites, the fast-flowing Piscataqua River, street festivals, sandy beaches, lively concerts, good cooking, and healthful salt air.

By the closing decades of the 19th century, the once grand homes built before the Revolution were weathered, ramshackle and unpainted. Wharves rotted along the river and old forts crumbled. And that was exactly what people wanted to see. Along with her faded sisters like Ipswich, York, Salem, and Newburyport – the Port of Portsmouth represented a bygone era. Tourists toiling in the grimy, crowded, modern cities of America spent vacations searching for "the good old days" and found them here. By the summer of 1873 this region was so crowded, according to one account, that a visitor would be lucky to find "a cot by the sea" or an unused pool table to sleep on.

A burst of new hotel construction followed in Kittery, York, Hampton, Rye and other resort towns. Wentworth by the Sea in New Castle and The Oceanic Hotel at the Isles of Shoals were built at this time and are among the rare surviving examples. Victorian-era tourists often stayed for many weeks, exploring the region on hikes, in buggies, on horseback and by bicycle. Cycling became so popular that by the 1890s a reporter counted upwards of 500 bicycles on the lawn of the Wentworth Hotel during an outdoor summer concert.

Portsmouth Marine Bicycle Co.

Although crude bikes existed from the dawn of the 19th century, the sport of cycling follows the rise of the vacationing middle class after the Civil War. The velocipede or "bone shaker" – literally a saddle on a metal frame connecting two metal wheels and no pedals – was replaced by the familiar high-wheeler or "Penny Farthing" in the 1880s. The giant front wheel and tiny back wheel allowed for speed and flexibility, but mounting and dismounting was a daunting task. The bicycle as we know it, with its equal-sized wheels and shifting gears, also appeared at this time, kicking off the modern cycling sport for both men and women. The Wheelmen, a modern club dedicated to riding antique bicycles, has cataloged 3,140 bike manufacturers operating between 1890 and 1918.


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Thursday, February 22, 2018 
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