Matthew B. Gilmore
A daredevil bicyclist riding his enormous two-wheeler down the Capitol’s House-side east front steps — it’s a famous image everyone recognizes. Any work even casually mentioning bicycles in Washington will refer to it; it’s been on the cover of books about Washington, but there’s much more to the story — of the photograph itself, of the event, of the 1890s bicycle craze in Washington it represented.
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The image in question is a cabinet card titled “A Perilous Ride” taken by the Platt Brothers of Nantucket (and Washington, then at 1116 12th St., NW). The only date is indicated by the 1884 copyright date. Why is this image so famous? What kind of contraption was he riding? Who were the Platt brothers? Who was the rider?
Technology—American Star Bicycle
The American Star was a tremendous advance in bicycle technology — with the position of the large and small wheels reversed.
“The ‘American Star,’ by the use of levers and clutches, has a continuous power, which turns the wheel entirely around with the same motion and exertion required to move the crank one-half around the old machine, enabling the rider to go faster and easier with the same amount of labor, at the same time giving independent action of the levers, the rider pushing with one foot or both, at pleasure, or setting with foot resting on pedals, which do not move unless he moves them. The name of “Star ” is given this bicycle on account of the peculiar arrangement of the wire spokes, which form a double star at the center. . . .”
Despite the fame of this particular photograph, the Platt Brothers are rather obscure. Henry C. (Harry) Platt was the prime mover in the photographic business. He had two brothers, Jacob and Robert. It is likely that Robert was the other brother in “Platt Brothers.” The family was from Augusta, Georgia but Harry and Robert moved north. Robert lived in Washington, DC. Harry lived in Nantucket….
Washington’s Bicycle Craze
The Capital Bicycle Club (C.Bi.C.) was founded on January 31, 1879 by Frank G. Wood, Max Hansmann, Fred D. Owen. L.P. Einolf, Herbert S. Owen, Louis N. Jesunofsky, and (the younger) Charles Krauskopf. 
Early feats included a 100-mile race in downtown Washington in 1879 which followed a tight triangular route up 14th Street from K to Thomas Circle, down Vermont Avenue back to K, and over to 14th, and repeating for a total of 100 miles. The winner completed his laps in 10 hours, dismounting only once. Quite a feat, considering the bicycle technology of the day. But the following year the race was confined to Thomas Circle.
In 1883 The Wheelmen was praising Washington’s streets with extravagant gusto:
“Washington has always has been called ‘the city of magnificent distances.’ The stranger tourist finds it so . . . but to the wheelman, tourist, or native, the name loses much, if not all, of its significance, because the distance is so completely lost in the superlative magnificence of its broad, asphalt paved streets. The home of the Capital [Bicycle] Club, therefore, has earned another name . . . ‘the bicycler’s paradise.’”
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