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Finding Sidepaths

How an enterprising librarian helped me find an obscure source that uncovered new bicycle history — and how I’m making sure it’s no longer difficult for other researchers to locate.

For historians, it’s all about the sources.  These are mostly written documents, but not always; they could be photographs or recordings or physical objects.  But no matter their form, the sole meaningful support for our claim to understand the past comes from whatever evidence we can locate.  We often call these sources “primary,” meaning that they were created as close to the historical events as possible; closer, in any case, than other accounts that are merely “secondary.”

Put simply, it means that we are trusting that someone thought to save the written records from the moment that history happened, and that we are hoping that those records were not destroyed in the years since that moment, whether through intent or neglect. We’re dependent on the work of archivists, curators, and librarians to preserve historical evidence and make it available for us, and for those who might follow our lead.  Without that evidence, there is little that we can say with any authority.

Put even more simply, it means that in 2010, I was up the creek.  I had no sources with which to tell a new bicycle story.

That year, I had started work on a new research project.  After finishing my doctoral dissertation six years earlier (and seeing that research on the history of 1960s air pollution control in Pittsburgh and the nation into print), I was looking for a new project.  For many reasons I had started thinking about the place of the bicycle in the city, but I was largely stumped: I wasn’t at all certain that I could find anything new to say on the subject. Sure, I had a general idea that historians hadn’t taken the bicycle seriously as a subject, and had thus missed important opportunities.  But there was still a possibility that they had not written more about the bicycle because other sources of evidence didn’t exist.  Maybe historians had written the stories they had chosen because those stories were all that could be documented with evidence.  Maybe there was nothing more to say? Maybe I was barking up the wrong tree?

For a few months I cast around for alternative sources, looking for something new that would expand the story of the bicycle beyond the research in manufacturing and design, military usage, competitive cycling, and the battle over the bloomers in the 1890 — all topics that I thought were already well-covered by other, able historians.  For a while, I started reviewing census and economic records, to find out if statistical sources could reveal new details of bike history. Those types of sources aren’t my forte, though, so I also began investigating lawsuits and injury claims in the late 19th and early 20th century courts, thinking that these sources would take me in a new direction.

The reading room at the Wisconsin State Law Library in Madison.

My first break — the first link in a chain of historical research that led to new sources — came in the Wisconsin State Law Library in Madison.  It’s an interesting institution, one that exists in similar form in every state; a law library that’s meant to serve lawmakers and officers of the court, but is also open to the public, with the intent of making it at least theoretically possible that all citizens might represent themselves in court, or at least understand the process better.  I was reading appellate court decisions in tort law — accident and injury claims from the 1880s and 1890s — when I first came across a strange word: “sidepath.”  It seemed to describe a special kind of late-19th century bike infrastructure that I’d never heard about.  What could it mean?

I immediately began searching for more information about this thing, at least initially without much success.  I did begin finding the many state-level sidepath laws, and a few mentions in League of American Wheelmen publications. But I didn’t understand how a “sidepath” was different from a “bike path”.  I didn’t understand where these laws had come from or why the LAW generally opposed them, at least until 1900 or so when they came around to support the movement for sidepaths.

One research lead was incredibly tantalizing, however, and promised that I might be able to find more about sidepaths as a movement in the words of advocates and supporters, and not just the laws needed to create them or the disputes they engendered.  Using full-text search in a journals database, I had found an advertisement (below) in the American Newspaper Directory soliciting advertisers for an entire journal or magazine dedicated to sidepaths.

An advertisement for "Sidepaths" in the American Newspaper Directory, volume 32 number 1, p 756.
An advertisement for Sidepaths magazine in the 1899 American Newspaper Directory, volume 32 number 1, p 756.

But I couldn’t find the actual journal.  The search for Sidepaths was on, and it would prove quite frustrating.  Over and over again, as I searched through databases of published journals or library catalogs, I came up dry.  Sidepaths seemed to have existed, sure, but no one seemed to have collected any copies in libraries or archives.  Or, if they did, at some point in the intervening 115 years they had thrown them out.  I could find traces of the publication — citations to stories within it, or references to its publishing history — but no copies of the magazine itself.

There were hints along the way: I came across a reference in a pamphlet in the New York State Archives in Albany, New York.  The pamphlet is the “Sidepath Guide” for Monroe county, probably produced in 1900.  On one page of the guide, which appears below, the authors state that “toward the end of the year 1897, Messrs. Percy F. Megargel and William S. Harrison undertook to advance the sidepath movement by the publication of a magazine in the interest of cycle paths.” It goes on to say that they have published a bi-monthly magazine named Sidepaths, “brimful of bright and instructive reading,” first appearing on January 13, 1898.

Announcement of Sidepaths magazine in the 1900 Monroe County Sidepaths Guide.

In the end, I wasn’t the one to find Sidepaths — that honor belongs to Jenifer Holman, then an electronic resources and periodicals librarian at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Murphy Library.  I don’t entirely know what magic, librarian-only sources she accessed, but in the end, we still only ever found six issues of the magazine:  from volume 3 (1900), numbers 22, 23, and 24, and from volume 4 (1901), numbers 2, 3, and 4. These issues are collected in one, single, very strange place: the holdings of what is now known as the U.S. Department of Transportation headquarters library, under call number GV1040 .S53 1901.

The only holding of the journal Sidepaths that I've ever found.
The only holdings of the journal Sidepaths that I’ve ever found.
The holding doesn’t seem to show up in WorldCat or DP.LA or other concordance databases, though I’m not sure why, and I haven’t found other holdings of this publication anywhere else.  That includes the collections of the Rochester Public Library (near the journal’s place of publication), or in any microfilm or archival collection, or any digitized collection of 19th century periodicals. In fact, I have tried all kinds of research tricks to find more issues, some traditional and some off-the-wall; from trolling eBay to enlisting ILL specialists to going through outdated, print versions of the “union catalogs” of archival holdings in the hope that some individual collected the journal and included it in their papers.  These six are the only ones I’ve found; I would love it if someone could turn up some earlier numbers.  If you do, send me word at !
Sidepaths magazine, December 1900.
There are many unanswered questions about Sidepaths.  First among these is why it’s so difficult to find.  If the American Newspaper Directory advertisement is correct, there should have been thousands of copies in circulation in 1898 and 1899, and possibly more nationwide in the years to follow. Did libraries and archives fail to collect these because later decades of Americans thought of the bicycle as unserious?  Or were Megargel and Harrison engaging in a little light exaggeration, bumping up subscription numbers to drum up advertising business; were there few copies for archives to save?

Regardless of the answers, finding Sidepaths had meaning for me — locating this source set me on a path that I continue on today, convinced that there are more forgotten histories of bicycling overlooked by subsequent generations, just waiting for hapless historians and enterprising librarians to uncover them.

And it was the content of the journal that was most fascinating for readers.  The fact that there was an entire nationwide movement at the turn of the century to create dedicated networks of bicycle-only paths through and between American cities, protected by law and funded through collaborative county-level commissions — and that this network and its movement had been largely forgotten in the collective memory of Americans — that was what was amazing about the find.

Regardless if we ever find any more issues of Sidepaths, it’s time that I shared these primary sources with everyone, to fuel more research.  The Rochester Cycling Alliance recently reminded me that as of tomorrow — January 13th, 2018 — we are officially marking 120 years since the publication of the first issue of Sidepaths.  And though we don’t have a copy of that first issue, here are the pdfs of the six issues that we do have:

December 1900 V3 N22
December 1900 V3 N23
December 1900 V3 N24
January 1901 V4 N2
February 1901 V4 N3
February, 1901 V4 N4

I hope that other researchers find these pdfs useful; it’s far easier than trying to track down the originals.  And I also hope this leads to more discoveries, whether of additional issues of Sidepaths, or something else.

— JL, winter 2018