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Bicycling in the Mohawk Valley

By: Bob Cudmore

Date: 2017-10-21

Bicycling in the old Mohawk Valley
By Bob Cudmore, Focus on History, Daily Gazette, 10-21-17

An organization called the Clerical Bicyclists reached Amsterdam on August 10, 1886 and stayed the night at the Warner Hotel on Main Street.

The pastors and their machines, on a summer outing, then boarded a train for Canajoharie. There they went “to their wheels” and cycled to Sharon Springs for dinner.

Pedaling preachers were just part of the explosion of interest in bicycling in the late 1800s and early 1900s in America.

Amsterdam merchant Seely Conover, who served twice as city mayor, once rode a high-wheeler, a bicycle with a large front wheel and a smaller rear wheel. The chain drive bicycle, invented in 1879, kept the user nearer the ground and became the standard design.

The Amsterdam Wheelmen organized bicycle trips every summer starting in the 1890s. They staged “lantern parades” with lights attached to their bikes.

Amsterdam historian Hugh Donlon wrote that bicyclists did face a problem, “Dirt roads with deep ruts and large stones encountered in inter-village travel provided a kind of obstacle course, but when cindered sidepaths were built about the turn of the century the going was easier.”

The Sidepath Law had passed in 1899 when Theodore Roosevelt was New York State governor. Pedestrians had to give the right of way to oncoming bicycles on sidepaths. Wagons and cattle were supposed to stay off the sidepaths altogether.

In 1900 the Montgomery County Sidepath Commission collected a thousand dollars by issuing sidepath permits to bicycle riders. The permit cost a dollar a year. Within five years though the amount collected fell to $50. Donlon wrote, “Cycling scofflaws could be very nasty.”

Edward DeGraff of Amsterdam, who later moved to Albany, was a prime mover along with other wheelmen in constructing sidepaths along miles of roads east of Amsterdam.

Donlon wrote in 1934, “One of DeGraff’s prized possessions is a photograph taken forty years ago which shows him in cycler's costume on his trusty vehicle under the gateway to the sidepath he built out of Amsterdam.” The picture is in Donlon’s Amsterdam history, “Annals of a Mill Town.”

DeGraff was quoted as saying, “It was all we could do to keep the sidepath from being rutted by wagons. The truth was that the sidepath was much better than the road.” People gradually came to the conclusion that the roads themselves needed to be improved.

Perhaps Amsterdam’s most famous cyclist was E. Adelbert Payne. “Del” Payne was born near Oriskany. He married, settled in Amsterdam and operated a bicycle sales and repair shop on Chuctanuda Street.

Payne and DeGraff once traveled 201 miles in one day, going from Amsterdam to Saratoga Springs, Glens Falls and Lake George, returning by way of Albany.

Payne set a record in August 1901 by pedaling from New York to Buffalo in 42 hours and 55 minutes. He sold and repaired the “National” brand bicycle that he used in his racing career.

Fire destroyed most of Payne’s Amsterdam shop in late 1913 and he was only partially insured. In 1916 Payne got a job as a lock tender at the then new Mohawk River/Barge Canal lock adjacent to Guy Park Manor in Amsterdam.

On Friday, June 22 1917 Payne was on the bridge of the lock trying to remove a log that was impeding the water’s flow. He leaned out, lost his footing and fell into the rushing river.

Soldiers were guarding the lock against possible sabotage as America had entered the Great War that year. Private Albert Munton reached Payne but could not save him.

Payne’s body was recovered the next day. He was 45. He and his wife had no children.