The Jersey Bicycle Railroad

The history of the bicycle can be traced back to England, France and Scotland but NJ holds a special place in history as the birthplace of the bicycle railroad. It was September 13, 1892 when the Arthur Hotchkiss & the Mt Holly and Smithville Bicycle Company opened their bicycle railroad for business. The bicycle railroad was exactly what it sounds like… a specially built bicycle whose wheels rode on a track 4 feet in the air, almost like a monorail. The line ran 1.8 miles for the employees who worked at the factory. It was an instant success as it was convenient, safer and easier to ride then a regular bicycle, and provided direct access to the job site.

Bicycles of the day were a far cry from the simple to operate devices we enjoy today. Invented in 1839 by a Scotsman, it wasn’t until the 1860’s that practical designs that could be mass produced started appearing in Paris, France. Known as velocipedes, they didn’t have pedals and were moved by a walking motion. They weighed 60 lbs and earned the nickname the “boneshaker”. Despite the uncomfortable ride, the elite of France enjoyed them and by 1865 an entrepreneur named Lallement brought the velocipede to America. He spent 3 years trying to interest Americans in the machine but he failed and returned to Europe. Shortly after he left it somehow gained Americans interests and the velocipede were featured in vaudeville acts and in circuses.

The lack the lack of roads capable of riding a velocipede safely led to a demise of the velocipede industry in the US around 1870. Bicycles as we know them first appeared in England in the 1860’s, front fork and the rubberized tire were invented (prior to this, the tires were nothing more then steel wheels). The style was in the form of the giant front wheel, small rear wheel style. The introduction of the gear shaft and the import of rubberized wheels and pedals from England in the 1880’s led to an interest in the bicycle in the US, which brings us to 1892 and the Smithville bicycle company.

The public was allowed to ride the line for a fare of 7 cents, and eventually similar bicycle railroads were built in Atlantic City, Ocean City and Gloucester. Despite the initial success of the bicycle railroad there were problems. There were plans to build a dual track but only one small section had it, so when riders going in opposite directions encountered each other, one had to remove their bike from the track and give way. Another problem was if you ran into a slow rider, there was no opportunity to pass them. Complicating things was the fact that several parts of the track were hinged to allow farmers to pass thru. Sometimes they didn’t close the track completely, leading to riders crashing off the track.

Hotchkiss’s bicycle railroad interested the promoters of the World Columbian Exposition, which was to be held in Chicago in 1893. Scheduled to exhibit there, they brought their equipment, but none of the brochures or paperwork of the fair mention him or the bicycle railroad, so it appears as if the public never got to see the Hotchkiss bicycle railroad. The Smithville line eventually closed down in1898 due to swindling interest. The novelty had worn off, the problems with the design were never resolved, accidents grew more frequent, and increased safety of normal bicycles gave people the freedom to ride wherever they wanted, something the bicycle railroad could not give them. The shore rail lines kept running a bit longer, in part because of a different track design. The original bicycle railroad had the rider and the bicycle riding on top of the track. The new lines along the jersey shore had the bicycle and rider suspended underneath the track, giving them the sensation of flying. Rather then a transportation device, these rail lines were more like amusement park rides.

The bicycle railroad is now mere footnote of history, largely forgotten. The only remaining elements of the bicycle railine, (besides photos) is a bicycle on display at the Smithville mansion. The H B Smith Manufacturing company went out of business in 1989 and portions of the park complex are being developed as a historical park. There is one footnote to the bicycle railroad, however. In 1901 an English investor named W G Bean brought back to England some of the bicycles and plans. At a beach in Blackpool, he ran the railroad along with a carousel, which together they formed the basis of an amusement park. The railline only ran for 9 years, but the park was once called “Europe’s greatest amusement park.”

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