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Bicycles Scorchers


Grand Forks had a problem with bicycles in the 1890s. More specifically, the city had problems with bicycle riders who zipped along sidewalks, bobbing and weaving through pedestrians in what was called "scorching."

In 1897 a bicycle scorcher ran smack into Miss Emily Lister and knocked her down, rendering her "senseless." The scorcher did not even stop to help the stricken woman.

Grand Forks police cracked down on the scorchers, vowing to fully enforce the six mile-per-hour speed limit and slap the riders with a ten dollar fine for "rapid bicycling."

The city banned bicycles from most downtown sidewalks, ordering bike-riders to ride on the street, if it was paved. Bicyclists caught on the sidewalks were put in jail and were released only by paying a five dollar fine.

Bike-riders pointed out that Grand Forks had very few paved streets and that they rode on the sidewalks when muddy streets became impassible. The bicyclists complained about rude wagon drivers who took extreme "delight in making wheelmen get out of their way," and asked that police make an example of reckless wagon drivers by arresting them rather than going after bike riders.

This was the era of the 1890s bicycle craze, when old and young alike went wild for buying bikes. The bicycles brought greater mobility and freedom for those who could afford them, but the craze also brought greater headaches for police in their quest to manage the new traffic, which mixed bicycles with pedestrians, horses, buggies, wagons and carriages.

In 1898, Mayor John Dinnie expressed his frustration with the scorchers, the speeding bicyclists, when he delivered his annual speech. He decried the "numerous accidents" of the past year, especially the senseless knockdown of Emily Lister, and called for new and better laws to make "all the sidewalks of the city . . . perfectly safe for pedestrians."

And so, on this day in 1899, Grand Forks announced new bicycle ordinances, which prohibited riding bikes "on the sidewalks of any paved street." The laws set a speed limit for bicycles at eight miles-an-hour on streets and five miles-per-hour on sidewalks (down from six m.p.h.).

The law required that all bike-owners pay one dollar a year for a bicycle license-with all revenues used to make new bike paths and a bike park.

Bicyclists were outraged, pointing out that horses and carriages were not licensed and bicycles should not be. Bicyclists had as much right to be on public roads as anyone.

The bike-riders organized a permanent cycling club and assured city leaders that they supported the city's right to regulate traffic - so that "both reckless riding and reckless driving" would be punished. However, they would not buy any licenses.

Under this "storm of protest," the city repealed the license law, but insisted on strict enforcement of the new speed limits. Thus, Grand Forks resolved its bicycle scorcher problem. However, a greater traffic problem was on the horizon, for automobiles and motorcycles would soon zoom even faster than scorchers.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.


"Bicycle License," Grand Forks Herald, July 26, 1899, p. 6.

"Wheels And Wheelmen," Minneapolis Tribune, August 6, 1899, p. A8.

"City Fathers," Grand Forks Herald, July 25, 1899, p. 5.

"That Bike Law," Grand Forks Herald, July 29, 1899, p. 5.

"New Bicycle Club," Grand Forks Herald, August 3, 1899, p. 5.

Lister in "Bicycle Accident," Grand Forks Daily Plaindealer, May 3, 1897, p. 3.

6 m.p.h. limit in "News In Brief," Grand Forks Herald, May 4, 1897, p. 3.

Downtown sidewalks in "Should Be Observed," Grand Forks Herald, April 20, 1897.

Wagons in "Short Talks," Grand Forks Herald, April 22, 1899, p. 5.

"City Council; The Mayor's Message," Grand Forks Herald, April 20, 1898, p. 5.

Resolution in Ron Spreng, "The 1890s Bicycling Craze in the Red River Valley," Minnesota History, Summer 1995, 282.