If you're a time traveler who's looking for a good cyclist's map of California in the 1890s, well, today's your lucky day.**
Rebecca Onion over at Slate's The Vault history blog has found this beautiful 1895 map of California that rated the state's major roads and their suitability for bicycles. Before the dawn of the automobile, a good road was indeed hard to find. Especially if you were looking to make a long-distance trek in a part of the country that's known for its valleys and mountains.
The 1895 map rated each road for its condition: Good (G), Fair (F), Poor (P), and Very Poor (VP), as well as rating its grade: Level (L), Rolling (R), Hilly (H), and Mountainous (M). Even a cursory glance at the map below shows that a good, flat road was rare — especially outside of California's urban areas.
One thing that's easy to forget here in the 21st century — where roads are often unjustly seen as the exclusive domain of automobiles — is that pedestrians and bicyclists alike used to feel perfectly at home on our nation's roadways. In fact, the "Good Roads Movement" of the 1890s was spearheaded by cyclists!
As Earl Swift wrote in his 2011 book The Big Roads:
Cyclists thus found their hobby not as pleasant as it could be, to say the least, and the League of American Wheelmen committed to doing something about it. A year after [Carl] Fisher opened his [bicycle] store, the league launched a magazine, Good Roads, that became an influential mouthpiece for road improvement. Its articles were widely reprinted, which attracted members who didn't even own bikes; at the group's peak, Fisher and more than 102,000 others were on the rolls, and the Good Roads Movement was too big for politicians to ignore.
Yes, the demand for roads was pedal-powered, and a national cause even before the first practical American car rolled out of a Chicopee, Massachusetts, shop in 1893. A few months ahead of the Duryea Motor Wagon's debut, Congress authorized the secretary of agriculture to "make inquiry regarding public roads" and to investigate how they might be improved.
Quality roads would eventually become the pet projects of people more concerned with automobiles and military mobility, but it's fascinating to think that there was an era — however brief — when cyclists had even a little bit of political clout.
**Which is important for time travelers to take note of, given that you can travel through time and return to your luckiest days whenever you please.