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Remembering The Great California Cycleway

December 14, 2010

Photo of The Great California Cycleway in 1900. (Photo via Pasadena Museum of History)

All the excitement over a few lines painted on York Boulevard for bicycles last week, and Mark Vallianatos’ article on Eagle Rock Patch yesterday, reminded me of a time over a hundred years ago when bicycles ruled the day, and highways were being built just for them.

The California Cycleway passes over the Los Angeles Terminal Railroad near Glenarm Street in Pasadena. Circa 1900. (Photo via Pasadena Museum of History)

The Great California Cycleway opened in Pasadena around July of 1900. (Some sources say 1890, but its creator, Mr. Horace Dobbins didn’t start the Cycleway Company until 1897, and the only photos available of the cycleway date to 1900, likely when it was being shown.)

The California Cycleway was an elevated wooden bicycle highway that was designed to go from Hotel Green in Pasadena down the Arroyo, past Highland Park and into Downtown Los Angeles, ending at the Plaza on Olvera Street. Part of the design was to be a completely uninterrupted path by bridging over obstacles like creeks, roads, train tracks, and maintain only the slightest of grades (no more than 3%) over the 9 miles of smooth wooden track over an elevation of 600 feet. The entire project would have cost an estimated $187,500 at the time, and included a casino called, “Merlemount” to be placed midway in Arroyo Seco Park. (On top of where Debs Park is today??)

The Cycleway passes behind the Pasadena Grand Opera House on Bellevue at Raymond in 1900. Note the Pacific Electric trolley tracks, there was a special “Opera Car” that went just to the opera house from the line on Fair Oaks. (Photo via the Los Angeles Public Library.)

At the time of its opening there were an estimated 30,00o cyclists in the region. Which is quite impressive, considering the total population at that time was less than 500,000. The toll to use the bicycle super highway was 10¢ each way or 15¢ for a round trip. Part of the plan was to have bicycle rental available so that users could leave their bikes at either end of the cycleway. If Cycleway users wanted to forgo the climb back to Pasadena, they could take one of the 4 trains and trolleys adjacent to the cycleway.

Remnants of the Cycleway path in South Pasadena.

While many portions of right-of-way were secured for the Cycleway along the Los Angeles Terminal Railroad and Arroyo Seco, the grand plan was never completed. The only section of the Great California Cycleway to be built was the 1.25 mile section that went to South Pasadena from the Hotel Green. “Progress” stepped in. (Or should I say drove in.)

Photo taken from the 1906 Oaklawn Bridge built by architects Greene & Greene to accommodate the railroad and Cycleway. What looks like a dirt road left of the Gold Line is actually part of the Cycleway right-of-way from 1900. (Photo by Salaam Allah via Flickr)

By the late 19th century, the bicycle craze met the driving craze of the 20th century, and the cycleway was abandoned to become forgotten paths, alleyways, and roadways. (A popular belief is that the Cycleway became the Arroyo Seco Parkway / Pasadena Freeway. However, most of its path was east of the Arroyo Seco, whereas the parkway was built on the west bank and on area that was reclaimed by WPA flood control projects of the 1930s.)

The cycleway isn’t completely forgotten. In the years before his death, bicycle activist, Dennis Crowley, had tried to revive this dream of connecting Pasadena and Los Angeles with a New California Cycleway. Here in 90042, the sorely missed Cycleway Cafe honored the historical connection by naming their cafe after the utopian concept.

I’ve created a Google Map that shows part of path of the California Cycleway as best as I could guess it. (There must be a better map from 1900 out there somewhere.)

In the meantime, continue to enjoy the ever-increasing new bicycle lines in the pavement and please share the road.

Horace Dobbins, creator of the California Cycleway in 1900 showing off what would be the Cycleway’s downfall, an automobile. (Photo via Pasadena Museum of History.)

25 Comments leave one →
  1. December 14, 2010 8:42 pm

    Great post, thank you! Looking at the google map you made it seems like it would be possible to bring back some incarnation of the cycleway, perhaps not completely separated but a route, with some separate bike paths, signage, bike lanes, sharrows, stops along the route with historical information about the cycleway… and thanks for the link to the ‘new cycleway’, I had no idea about that and will be looking at the site. Thanks again!

  2. Ian permalink
    December 15, 2010 1:32 pm

    Excellent work! Really appreciate the research.

  3. December 16, 2010 12:12 am

    This is beyond awesome. I’ve written about the cycleway before, and never knew a part of South Pas I’ve photographed several times (the lovely little canopied path in your shot above) was actually part of the cycleway. You have some amazing old photos here I haven’t seen before, either.

    How have I missed your incredible blog until now?!

  4. December 18, 2010 9:26 am

    I’ve been hearing about this bikeway for a few years now. But only in bits and pieces. This gives me a full understanding.

    I’ve always been curious about that path running alongside the goldline (you have in your photo).

    I hope Patch is recruiting you. Your one of our best blog historians

  5. July 28, 2012 10:25 pm

    I am currently doing a research project on transportation in So. Cal, and one of the chapters was on the Cycleway. I thought I knew everything about it, including that the Pasadena Freeway used its right-of-way. We learn something new each day.

    About your map: I thought that the Cycleway was completed all the way to Columbia Street (Raymond Hotel) in South Pasadena. As it entered South Pasadena it would have curved along Raymond St. (the second picture on this page), not made a 90-degree jog.(The steam plant south of Glenarm didn’t open until 1927–I’m not sure what was there before…)

    As for the actual right-of-way, I do remember some short newspaper articles describing plots of land (along the proposed Cycleway?) bought by Horace Dobbins. If you are interested, contact me and I can try to dig them up….

  6. January 23, 2013 5:18 pm

    Hi there, I enjoy reading all of your post. I wanted to write a little
    comment to support you.

  7. January 29, 2013 10:16 pm

    Great article! Most people say it was cars that killed the cycle way. But, in this video Dobbins’s grandson and Crowley say it was actually the railroads that killed the cycleway. The railroad fearing competition from the cycleway wouldn’t grant them permission to build over their tracks.

  8. June 25, 2013 9:56 am

    Can you imagine tearing that out? What a tragedy…


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