An 1899 Plan To Build A Bike Highway In Los Angeles (And Why It Failed)

An 1899 Plan To Build A Bike Highway In Los Angeles (And Why It Failed)

Over a century ago, the California Cycleway promised an elevated, dedicated bike path from Los Angeles to the nearby city of Pasadena. In this excerpt from the new book LAtitudes: An Angeleno’s Atlas, author Dan Koeppel tracks its path through Southern California — and discovers why it was never finished.

Horace M. Dobbins plunged the shovel into the ground. It was November 1899, and in the decade since he’d arrived in Southern California, the Philadelphia native had become a prominent citizen in Pasadena, the city of which he would later be elected mayor. But for now, the thirty-one-year-old entrepreneur was launching what he believed would be a revolutionary and lucrative venture.

“The earth turns,” he intoned, tossing a clump of dirt to the side, “and we turn the earth.”

The crowd cheered. Bugles rang out. Within a year, Dobbins promised, something similar to Columbus’s short route to the Orient would rise above the hills of the Los Angeles basin. His “Cycleway” was designed to swiftly and conveniently transport people between a pair of key urban centres: the old colonial plaza in Downtown Los Angeles, and Pasadena, the burgeoning, modern suburb to the north that then rivaled the older city in size and ambition. The Dobbins route — which neatly anticipated and presaged the automotive freeways that now stretch across the region — would be a modern marvel. It would boast a state-of-the-art toll-collecting system. It would be elevated fifteen feet above the ground; the limited access would ensure that traffic flowed smoothly. “It can be said,” wrote the Los Angeles Times of the ground breaking, “that none of the new Southern California enterprises will …be more certain of financial success. The wheel must have a path of its own between these two cities.”

In the years leading up to the twentieth century, the idea that such a wheel would be a bicycle’s was not surprising: There was no alternative. America was in the midst of a massive bike boom. Over 3,000 American cycle manufacturers were founded in the final decade of the 1800s. Tens of thousands of bike clubs were formed, especially in Southern California, while mild weather made the activity a year-round pursuit.

One of the few photographs of the short segment of the Cycleway that was completed in 1900

Dobbins began building, promising that the entire thoroughfare — nine miles long and studded with diversions, amusements, and places of repose — would be completed within two years. For a while, it looked like he’d succeed. The only surviving photographs of the Cycleway’s first section show something resembling an idyll; the boardwalk-like track curves gently beneath shimmering arbors. A more hardscrabble image depicts the Cycleway reaching majestically above ramshackle homes and dust-laden surface roads. But the most telling picture is one that implies not how visionary the project — or its founder, who is the subject of that photograph — was, but how quickly it all went awry.

A pre-automobile path

The location of the northernmost piece of the Cycleway, the path’s first section, the one featured in those dozen or so extant pictures, is easiest to find. That’s because plenty of landmarks seen in those images are still there. But the farther one gets from the route’s Pasadena start point, the harder it is to follow the Cycleway’s path or find any traces of it. I decided the best thing to do would be to begin in Pasadena, on foot, and head south. I carried along a copy of B. O. Kendall’s Official City of Pasadena Real Estate Guide, printed in 1900. The Cycleway is one of the map’s most prominent features, depicted with a thick double line, the same designation used for railroads and major streets.

In addition to the old map, I was holding a photograph [left] of the Cycleway’s Pasadena start point (or end point, depending on your direction of travel), where Dobbins had erected a tollbooth.

Raising the image, it was easy to square it with a building that still stands, or at least partially stands, just south of the city’s restored “Old Town” shopping district. At the end of the nineteenth century, there was no more elegant place to spend the night in Pasadena than the Castle Green, which opened a few months before Dobbins broke ground. During those early days, the hotel consisted of mirror-image Moorish structures, connected by a footbridge. In 1924, the eastern building was demolished. Today, the remaining structure is part of a condominium complex, though it retains the oddness of the original design. The photograph I held shows the Cycleway and the exit kiosk, high above the ground, nearly dead-ending into the hotel’s brick facade.

From the Castle Green, the Cycleway extended south, according to the map, paralleling a set of railroad tracks. Those tracks were once used as the approach to Los Angeles for the transcontinental lines run by the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad. They have been heavily modified in the past hundred years, but the same basic right-of-way today accommodates the Metro Gold Line, part of a regional light-rail system that began operating in 2003. The proximity of the Cycleway to the railroad gives a hint of Dobbins’s marketing strategy. It wouldn’t be enough, he knew, to offer an unimpeded journey between the cities at both ends of the Cycleway. The thoroughfare would also have to connect existing, established attractions. About a mile south of Castle Green stood the establishment’s main rival, South Pasadena’s Raymond Hotel. The facility was built by railroad mogul Walter Raymond and offered two hundred rooms to accommodate “particular people” — well-heeled passengers who needed to bathe, relax, and refresh after the long journey across America.

The elevated Cycleway travelled above the railways and unpaved streets of the city, shown here passing Pasadena’s Grand Opera House in 1902

Dobbins saw Raymond’s inn as the perfect “second exit” on the Cycleway, and set up a tollbooth directly in front of the hotel’s driveway (in his business plan, Dobbins predicted that he’d garner about $US30,000 annually in tolls, equal to about $US2 million today). Walking from the Castle, it took thirty minutes to reach the Raymond site, where only a single structure survives, the caretaker’s cottage where Walter Raymond and his wife, humbled by the catastrophic losses of the Great Depression, lived out their days.

From the Raymond, Dobbins’s wooden boardwalk turned briefly west, curving into a lumberyard built to process the thousands of feet of oak planks needed to build the elevated structure. It crossed through Lincoln Park, once an independent town that’s since been absorbed by South Pasadena, before reaching the Arroyo Seco. The Kendall map shows the Cycleway extending from there to the Cawston Ostrich Farm, a tourist attraction widely considered to be the region’s first theme park, though with a rather odd theme that included several hundred live, flightless birds and the products made from them, including (elegant) feather hats and (delicious?) oversized omelets.

The site of the Cawston farm is now occupied by a pod of modern apartments (going rate for a one-bedroom in the Ostrich Farm Lofts: about $US700,000). From here, Dobbins hoped to extend the route another seven miles into Los Angeles. The conventional view, expressed to me by the owners of a coffee house that stood at the dividing line between South Pasadena and Los Angeles from about 2000 through 2008, is that Dobbins got no further, that he never actually entered the city he hoped to connect with his adoptive hometown of Pasadena (the owners were cyclists, named the Cycleway Café after the Dobbins construct, and claimed that their location stood at the Cycleway’s southern boundary). But a story published in the Los Angeles Times on February 19, 1899, hints that construction of the lower portion of the Cycleway was ongoing even as Dobbins struggled with financing the already-built segments. The article included a conceptual illustration of the Cycleway’s midpoint, along the narrowest section of the Arroyo Seco. Because of the way the river cut between hillsides, there was a lack of flat, navigable terrain, making this the only section of the route that would sit on a slope, a potential negative for bike riders (Dobbins had promised, in defiance of physics, that the route would be downhill in both directions).

Cawston Ostrich Farm was one of the stops on the proposed route, and it appears to have welcomed the development with least one ostrich-powered bike

There were no fancy hotels or established tourist destinations between the Ostrich Farm and Los Angeles, so Dobbins had to invent them himself, and what he proposed would be more populis — and more grand — than the existing attractions along the route’s northern segment. “Among the most attractive features of the enterprise are the plans for the ‘Merlemount Park and Casino,’ an up-todate pleasure ground and resort about midway on the line,” the Times wrote. The article continued: “The company has secured 115 acres of desirable land for this purchase, situated on the hills east of Highland Park, three and a half miles distant from the plaza in Los Angeles.”

Today, the spot where Merlemount was to have stood is within another utopian construct — this one an actual success. Debs Park consists of two distinct halves. On the east, over an 800-foot hilltop and away from the river, is a traditional city park, with basketball courts and baseball diamonds. The Arroyo side, on land flattened by Dobbins, had been overtaken by nature during the following decades, a patch of chaparral lonely enough to have become habitat for a marvellous assortment of native plants, and, at its lower reaches, a less salutary enclave that sometimes attracted prostitutes and drug dealers. The proposed casino site was reclaimed in 2003, when the California Audubon Society took control of the park and built a nature center. It isn’t quite a casino, but the grounds are pleasurable enough.

By the summer of 1899, Dobbins had fallen behind in his promises to complete the route. Though workers continued to excavate, money was tight. By the fall of 1900, Dobbins was having trouble paying his bills, and on October 8 of that year, the Pasadena Daily Star reported that the “Cycleway will do no more work now.”

Even though the Cycleway never made it this far west, its path appeared in maps published at the time (center image, just below the Arroyo Seco)

Over the next two decades, Dobbins tried mightily to complete his route. But the bike boom was ending. In 1901, the Pearson’s article appeared, leaving the impression that the pathway was complete, that bike riders were zipping between the two cities, except when they were stopping to dine, gamble, and take in the spectacular views. In reality, the Cycleway was doomed. In 1902, an entrepreneur named Ransom Olds introduced a cheap, reliable motorcar, the “Oldsmobile.” A year later, Henry Ford began producing his first internal combustion engines. The Pasadena section of the Cycleway stood, unused and deteriorating. In 1908, the California Supreme Court ruled that Dobbins had to return some of the land he’d received via eminent domain. A year later, under threat of losing more property, Dobbins made a last-ditch proposal for the route, which he’d rechristened “The Air Line.” This time, it would be a monorail to Los Angeles. For a decade, Dobbins pushed the project. On March 30, 1919, the citizens of Los Angeles voted on it.

Dobbins lost.

There would be new routes along the Arroyo. Construction on what would eventually become the Pasadena Freeway — “the 110” — would begin that same year, but Dobbins wouldn’t be a part of it. Could he have known? I think he did know. The telling photograph — one that was hung, framed, in the old Cycleway coffee house, and which is the only known photo of Dobbins himself on the pathway — provides evidence of the optimism, foolishness, and fate of the project. Dobbins is smiling. He’s proud. He’s on the Cycleway. And he’s driving a car.

A new future

If you want to ride a bike from Pasadena to Los Angeles today, you have to cobble together a route. You can follow the rough path of the Cycleway to South Pasadena on surface streets, pedalling past the old Ostrich Farm, then dropping into the 2.2-mile-long bike path along the Arroyo Seco. If it isn’t raining, you can take that modern path halfway to downtown before you’re unceremoniously ejected onto surface streets just below the Merlemount site.

The right-of-way from the Cycleway is clearly seen today as a trail of trees cutting through the neighbourhood on the right side of the 110 Freeway. The current-day bike path runs along the Arroyo Seco waterway in the center of the image

Recently, the city has begun trying to find a way to connect the Arroyo path to downtown. The plan is to add new bike lanes to existing streets. As recently as a few years ago, this meant doing little more than painting a stripe and putting up a few “Share the Road” signs. This more advanced lane would give a full three feet of room for bike riders, creating a safe and comfortable path, integrated with traffic. The proposal is controversial, though, with local drivers complaining that it would slow their commutes.

I like the idea of fewer car lanes, and I like the idea of cycling on the main boulevards, where bikes — legally considered full-fledged vehicles — have a right to be. But the spots where these modifications are being proposed are just yards from the overgrown right-of-way I discovered that still bears the Cycleway name. It doesn’t seem like it would take that much to clear that strip, pave it, and finally bring it to public use, as Dobbins intended. And the route could be extended along the hillside, passing the nature center, which could provide a Merlemount-like respite for fatigued riders.

The only thing missing would be the final attraction Dobbins dreamt up but never built, his “Swiss Dairy,” an ice cream parlor, located just before the route would have reached downtown. The question of ice cream is a serious one, as long as we’re dreaming and speculating. Riding a bike in Los Angeles is sweaty, hot work. Luckily, there’s no need to build something permanent. Modern Southern California is a paradise of frozen treats, ranging from pushcart vendors serving paletas — Mexican popsicles — to marvellous trucks offering soft-serve. Somehow, I imagine, if the Dobbins path were revived and rebuilt, the amenities would come. So would I. And as long as I’m channeling Horace M. Dobbins, I wouldn’t be alone. Thousands of others would join me. They’d empty the freeways and take to their bikes. And they wouldn’t just be playing on the great game board that is Los Angeles. They’d be living on it. They’d be creating it anew.

Dan Koeppel is the author of several books, including Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World, and the creator of The Big Parade, an annual urban hike through Los Angeles. This essay was adapted with permission from LAtitudes: An Angeleno’s Atlas (Heyday) a new book that explores LA’s landscape through 19 map-annotated stories about the city.