Cyclists see the Monumental City on Baltimore Heritage history tours

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The stately Lee – Jackson Monument depicts the famous generals last meeting. (Justus Heger)

There was a time in Baltimore’s history when the best way to get around town was on a bicycle.  So popular was the bicycle as a means of conveyance that around 1890 the city began to pave streets which previously were accessible only by foot or upon horseback.

In the early part of the twentieth century, Baltimoreans could choose a bike from one of over 90 specialty stores or watch as riders from dozens of bike clubs raced around Druid Hill Park.  Even H.L. Mencken took up the sport, learning first to ride from the owner of a small bicycle shop at West Baltimore and Paca Streets; not far from his Union Square home.

Revolutionary War Memorial. (Justus Heger)
Revolutionary War Memorial. (Justus Heger)

In time, the paved streets would accelerate the acceptance of a new invention – the automobile – which would overtake the bike as a choice of daily transportation.

With the advent of high speed transportation, the health benefits of cycling were lost, as were some of the opportunities to leisurely take in the sights and the history Baltimore has to offer.

A century later, the bicycle has once again become ubiquitous around town, as energy costs and urban living spur a new generation of enthusiasts.  Aided by dedicated bike lanes and a series of trails, today’s intrepid riders may once again traverse the same streets groups like the Lafayette Wheelmen rode so long ago.

For the second year in a row, Baltimore Heritage is offering a series of history-centric bike rides.  The rides explore the stories behind Baltimore’s intriguing landmarks while searching for hidden and sometimes lost treasures from the city’s past.  The rides average between six and ten miles in length and are comfortable for a wide range of cyclists.  Past rides, such as the Civil War History and the Bakeries of East Baltimore tours have included children as young as seven, senior citizens and one hardy rider on a big-wheeled unicycle.

Kicking off this season was a Memorial Day weekend tour of Monuments and Memorials.  Led by Ralph Brown, a seasoned cyclist and engaging amateur historian, and Eli Pousson, director of Preservation & Outreach for Baltimore Heritage, this reporter joined the tour, which gave riders a glimpse of both well known and seldom seen war-related monuments.

Inscription at the Lee - Jackson monument. (Justus Heger)
Inscription at the Lee – Jackson monument where the ride began. (Justus Heger)

Starting at the Lee-Jackson Monument on Wyman Park Drive, our group crossed to the south side of Wyman Park where it entered the switchback access portal to the Jones Falls Trail. Continuing south along Falls Road and then west on Lanvale Street past Penn Station, we picked up the separated south bound portion of the trail at Mt. Royal Avenue.  From there we rode past the Farmers Market to the War Memorial Plaza.

Originally dedicated as a memorial to those who fought in World War I, The War Memorial building now honors Marylanders who have served in every war.  Across the plaza stands the Negro Soldier Monument, which was relocated in 2007 after thirty years of relative obscurity on North Calvert Street to its present more prominent place in front of City Hall. (It is also known as the Negro Heroes of the U.S. Monument.)

The tour proceeded west from City Hall to the Battle Monument on North Calvert St.  It was here in 1827 that then President John Quincy Adams bestowed upon Baltimore the moniker, “The Monumental City.”  At that time, Baltimore led the entire country with a grand total of two monuments.

Spirit of the Confederacy. (Justus Heger)
The Spirit of the Confederacy Memorial – easy to find when you’re on a bike. (Justus Heger)

A stop at the imposing Washington Monument included the reading of a passage from Moby Dick that mentions Baltimore:  “Great Washington, too, stands high aloft on his towering main-mast in  Baltimore, and like one of Hercules’ pillars, his column marks that  point of human grandeur beyond which few mortals will go.”

This was followed by a trek to the Maryland Line Monument across the street from The Lyric Opera House.

Brown added two interesting detours from the itinerary.  One was a ride by an urban garden just to the west of Bolton Hill.  The other was a stop at an old swimming pool in Druid Hill Park.  We learned the pool was built for, and used exclusively by, African-Americans in the days of racial segregation.

The final stops on the tour reflected Baltimore’s historic southern heritage.  The first was the mostly hidden Spirit of the Confederacy Monument in the median park on Mt. Royal Ave.  The second was a return to the Lee-Jackson Monument across from the Baltimore Museum of Art on Wyman Park Drive.  Brown ended the tour there by reminding us of the true meaning of Memorial Day and urged the group to take a few minutes to reflect on the sacrifices so many have made.

Baltimore Heritage’s Baltimore-by-Bike rides continue this week with a tour of Italian inspired architecture and a stop for dessert in Little Italy.  For those new to the idea of seeing Baltimore this way, the Baltimore Post-Examiner offers the following observations.

First and foremost, helmets are a must, as city streets provide numerous potential hazards.  It is also essential to have a bike that is in good working order, with sound tires, true spokes and ready, reliable brakes.  Most bike shops will tune-up your bike for far less than it would cost to buy a new one.  Each tour group is accompanied by volunteer repair support, but riders are also encouraged to pack an air pump, rubber patch kit and a replacement inner tube.  Also bring water or a sports drink along, as the history tours do not include a stop at a well.

The Negro Soldiers monument was rescued in 2007 from relative obscurity. (Anthony C. Hayes)
The Negro Soldier monument was rescued in 2007 from relative obscurity. (Anthony C. Hayes)

One more note of advice for those who would like to tour but do not presently own a bike.  Carefully consider the kind of riding you will be doing on your new bike.  I discovered this axiom the hard way, when a good friend graciously gave me a beautiful mountain bike as a get-well gift.

The mountain bike is cool and a lot of fun on woodsy rides along the NCR trail.  But it is not well suited for city riding.  My first few history tours were unnecessarily taxing to say the least.  Luckily, I still owned a classic English racer; my cherished bike from my junior high school days.  For less than $125.00, I got the sleek old racer back on the road again.  Today, my city rides are a breeze, plus I am thoroughly enjoying the thrill of speeding past the city’s many red light cameras.

So talk to the pros and to other riders.  They are a friendly font of information.  And if possible, rent or borrow a bike before you actually buy.  Doing so will help your gauge your comfort level as you take in the sites around Baltimore.

Baltimore Heritage’s Baltimore meets Florence bike tour will take place this Saturday 9 a.m. through noon. Riders will get a taste of both Italian-inspired desserts and architecture on this three-hour tour.  Tickets are $10 for members and $15 for non-members.  Information about this and other Baltimore Heritage tours may be found Baltimore Heritage’s website.


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