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Photo: Devan Marr (Apt613 Flickr Pool)

A brief history of cycling in Ottawa from 1877–2017

By Apartment613 on August 30, 2017

Photo: Steve L.M. (Apt613 Flickr Pool)

Photo: Steve L.M. (Apt613 Flickr Pool)

By James Powell

On September 9th the EnviroCentre is hosting the Bicycle Film Festival at Saint Brigid’s Centre for the Arts. The Ottawa Historical Society will be there to inform filmgoers of Ottawa’s long history of biking.

The High-Wheeler

A “high-wheeler” like the one made in 1877 by Mr Back. Howard Morton/ Library and Archives Canada, C-002624.

A “high-wheeler” like the one made in 1877 by Mr Back. Howard Morton/ Library and Archives Canada, C-002624.

2017 marks the 140th anniversary of the first bicycle in the Nation’s Capital. In 1877, Mr. Back, a piano tuner at Orme’s Music Store on Sparks Street, made himself a “high-wheeler” also known as a “penny-farthing” bicycle—an old fashion model with a huge front wheel and a small rear wheel.

Just 18 years old at the time, Back had read about bikes in the United States and was eager to acquire one. However, he couldn’t afford the expensive machine that cost as much as a worker might earn in six months. Undeterred, the enterprising young man made his own machine using carriage wheels. The frame and handlebars were made from flat iron and pipe, while the pedals were fashioned from blocks of wood. Not surprisingly, the bicycle was heavy. But it rode well, and became the talk of the town. Back went on to sell four copies to other Ottawa residents.

The Safety Bicycle

By the mid-1890s, the high-wheeler had been replaced by the more familiar “safety bicycle” that had two wheels of the same size. This launched a biking craze in North America and Europe among both men and women eager to adopt this effective, invigorating and liberating form of transportation.

By 1895, Ottawa had roughly 250 cyclists who, like bicycling enthusiasts elsewhere, sought good, smooth roads on which to ride. At that time, city streets in Ottawa were mostly made of crushed stone, wooden blocks, or cobbles. Even when well maintained, which they seldom were, such roads quickly became heavily rutted.

Bicycling in Ottawa, 1897, 54 Main Street, Norman and Allan Ballantyne by Mary Ballantyne, Library and Archives Canada PA-132226.

Bicycling in Ottawa, 1897, 54 Main Street, Norman and Allan Ballantyne by Mary Ballantyne, Library and Archives Canada PA-132226.

The Mayor’s Bicycle Races

In 1895, Sparks Street was paved with asphalt from roughly where the National Arts Centre is today to Bank Street. The smooth, dark surface attracted much attention with people poking it with the umbrellas and canes. On August 26th 1895, the newly-paved street was inaugurated by bicycle races sponsored by Mayor Borthwick and City Council. Thousands of Ottawa residents turned out in the early evening to cheer on competitors in three races.

The first race was from the old Russell Hotel, which stood where the War Memorial is today, to Bank Street. It was won by T. Harvey of Hull with W. Besserer in second place. Mr. Harvey also won the second race from the Russell to Bank Street and back, three yards ahead of A. Parr. In the third and final race, in which contestants had to had to go twice around the same course, dismounting at each turn, W. Besserer emerged victorious beating out T. Harvey.  

By 1895, Ottawa had roughly 250 cyclists who, like bicycling enthusiasts elsewhere, sought good, smooth roads on which to ride. 

Of course Sparks Street has gone full circle, its asphalt replaced by granite stones. But while the “high-wheelers” and “safety bikes” of the nineteen century have long past into history, bicycling remains a popular, healthy and environmentally-friendly mode of transportation and pastime.

Bicycles have long brought us together, and we know The Bicycle Film Festival is going to do the same. It’s going to be a great night! Apt613 is giving away two passes to one lucky Instagram follower, and entering the contest is as easy as riding a bicycle.


The Bicycle Film Festival is happening on Saturday September 9 at Saint Brigid’s Centre for the Arts (310 St. Patrick Street). There are three screenings at 5pm, 7pm and 9pm. Tickets cost $20–50 online. Secure bike parking is available on site.


This post was co-created by EnviroCentre and the Ottawa Historical Society.