Old Wheelways

Old Wheelways

Traces of Bicycle History on the Land

By Robert L. McCullough

How American bicyclists shaped the landscape and left traces of their journeys for us in writing, illustrations, and photographs.





How American bicyclists shaped the landscape and left traces of their journeys for us in writing, illustrations, and photographs.

In the later part of the nineteenth century, American bicyclists were explorers, cycling through both charted and uncharted territory. These wheelmen and wheelwomen became keen observers of suburban and rural landscapes, and left copious records of their journeys—in travel narratives, journalism, maps, photographs, illustrations. They were also instrumental in the construction of roads and paths (“wheelways”)—building them, funding them, and lobbying legislators for them. Their explorations shaped the landscape and the way we look at it, yet with few exceptions their writings have been largely overlooked by landscape scholars, and many of the paths cyclists cleared have disappeared. In Old Wheelways, Robert McCullough restores the pioneering cyclists of the nineteenth century to the history of American landscapes.

McCullough recounts marathon cycling trips around the Northeast undertaken by hardy cyclists, who then describe their journeys in such magazines as The Wheelman Illustrated and Bicycling World; the work of illustrators (including Childe Hassam, before his fame as a painter); efforts by cyclists to build better rural roads and bicycle paths; and conflicts with park planners, including the famous Olmsted Firm, who often opposed separate paths for bicycles.

Today's ubiquitous bicycle lanes owe their origins to nineteenth century versions, including New York City's “asphalt ribbons.” Long before there were “rails to trails,” there was a movement to adapt existing passageways—including aqueduct corridors, trolley rights-of-way, and canal towpaths—for bicycling. The campaigns for wheelways, McCullough points out, offer a prologue to nearly every obstacle faced by those advocating bicycle paths and lanes today.

McCullough's text is enriched by more than one hundred historic images of cyclists (often attired in skirts and bonnets, suits and ties), country lanes, and city streets.


$37.00 T ISBN: 9780262029469 384 pp. | 7 in x 9 in 118 b&w illus.


  • …[A]nyone who's interested in the history of cycling, or the history of infrastructure and landscape, will find the images McCullough has collected fascinating.


  • Based on extensive research, Old Wheelways is a confident and detailed recounting of the surprising ways the first bicycle boom transformed both the northeastern landscape and those who beheld it.... Old Wheelways can guide these future explorers, inspire newly penetrating visions, and change the way that we see a nation whose history we thought we already knew.

    Environmental History


  • Every bump in the road, vista, dispute, and triumph, Old Wheelways identifies and analyzes in a taut narrative deftly sited in period technological and social frameworks: here scorches a significant book.

    John R. Stilgoe

    Orchard Professor in the History of Landscape, Harvard University

  • Robert L. McCullough has created a highly readable, scholarly book about 'landseeërs' in America who, in the late nineteenth century, toured on bicycles and developed a new understanding and appreciation of the world around them. Old Wheelways will cause readers to begin looking for remnants of the bicycle paths that were so prevalent before the automobile took over the roads and became the primary way of getting out and around. This book greatly adds to our understanding of the role of bicycles in the creation of America's modern society.

    Gary W. Sanderson

    Coordinator, International Cycling History Publications, and Editor, The Wheelmen Magazine

  • In this engrossing study, the author examines the golden age of American bicycle touring, before the arrival of the automobile and general demotion of cycling as child's play. We learn a great deal about who these adventurers were, where they roamed, how they improved cycling conditions, and what they left behind in the way of souvenirs, literature, and landmarks.

    David V. Herlihy

    author of Bicycle: The History and The Lost Cyclist