A few days before Labor Day, Chattanooga hosted the River Gorge Omnium bicycle races. But few Chattanoogans know that 122 years ago, this city's Cycling Club hosted its first Labor Day Bicycle Races at a "driving park" (in today's Warner Park) on McCallie Avenue. The track and stands have long since been razed, so we are left to imagine the cyclists whirling around the track.
It was Sept. 2, 1895. The "safety bicycle," the forerunner of the common-day bike, was all the rage in America. This was the first bike that most folks could ride. But this new pastime brought controversy to many corners of American society. The "New Woman," an image personified by "the Gibson Girl" in artistic renderings, and fueled by a revolution in women's fashions, also took to riding "the wheel" in most cities around the country — except in the South.
Shock above all shocks many of these women wore bloomers!
That same September, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner proclaimed, " in almost every southern newspaper the appearance of a pair of bloomers is treated almost as would be the coming ashore of the sea serpent." Chattanooga's own Graham Cycle Co., located on East Eighth Street, advertised a women's drop-down bicycle in April 1895. But there is scant historical evidence to show that women were riding here, let alone in bloomers.
Such an activity was considered unladylike, if not scandalous!
Meanwhile, a rousing parade kicked off Chattanooga's Labor Day festivities that year. Just past the 9:30 a.m. start time, citizens lining Market Street heard music and caught sight of the first marchers as they turned left from Ninth Street (now M.L. King) onto Market and headed north.
The grand marshal, the advance guard, the platoon of police and Sheriff F.S. Hyde and his deputies were showered with confetti from rooftops and second-story windows and cheers from the crowd. Right behind them marched a 25-man brass band, followed by throngs of wheelmen set to participate in the bicycle races later that day.
Additional marchers and bands followed as the parade reached the end of Market Street, turned around and marched back on the opposite side of Market. After the parade, everyone headed out to East Lake for a citywide picnic, and then over to the track for an afternoon of bicycle races. Riders had come from several surrounding cities to participate in the various races.
The first race was the One-Mile Novice. First prize: a mandolin.
Will Stone pulled from his satchel an oversized pistol he had imported from Turkey for the occasion. He raised it high. A shot rang out and the race began, the crowd roaring its approval. But the judges ruled the race must be run again because the best time was more than the 3-minute limit! Races that followed: Half-Mile Open, One-Mile Boys Race, One-Mile Ordinary, Five-Mile Handicap and more.
It should come as no surprise none of the riders were women. Even in progressive riding cities like New York, female bicycle racing was discouraged. The New York World published a list of 41 "don'ts" for female riders in 1895, one of them being, "Don't race. Leave that to the scorchers." (Translation: speeders!)
Back then, the independence the bicycle offered to men and women was frowned upon. But pioneers like Annie "Londonderry" Kopchovsky, a 23-year-old Latvian-born immigrant and mother of three, changed everything with a stunt that has been long forgotten but was celebrated in her day. On a wager staged by two Boston businessmen in 1894, Annie became the first woman to ride around the world on a bicycle — wearing bloomers and men's pants along the way.
Around that time, social reformer and women's rights activist Susan B. Anthony said: "Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood."
What would have happened in the summer of 1895 if a young woman had the audacity to ride a bicycle on the streets of Chattanooga? How about in bloomers?
Read "The Great Chattanooga Bicycle Race," a new historical fiction book available through Amazon.com, to find out!
Mike H. Mizrahi, a resident of Los Angeles, is the author of "The Great Chattanooga Bicycle Race." Visit his website at mikehmizrahi.com and follow him at Facebook@author mikemizrahi. For more, visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org.