Notre Dame prides itself on being one of the nation’s preeminent research universities. So I guess it’s no surprise that in 1869 some students at the still-new school in South Bend, Ind., were researching a new-fangled European contraption that would soon take America by storm: the bicycle.
The Rev. Edward Sorin, a priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross, had founded Notre Dame in November 1842. In 1868, after he had retired as president, he returned to his native France for a prolonged visit.
“Shortly after his arrival, while strolling the streets of Paris, he heard a frightening rumble,” Herlihy writes. “Wheeling around, he saw a man flash by, straddling a curious contraption. ‘What is that?’ he asked his companion. ‘A velocipede? I must have one for Notre Dame.’’’
Sorin wrote to Notre Dame students that he wished he could have bought a dozen of the machines, but could afford only one, and that it was on its way to South Bend. The bicycle in question had a solid iron frame, two wooden carriage wheels and pedals affixed to the axle of the front wheel. It weighed 80 pounds and cost 250 francs, the equivalent of about $50, “fully a third of the room, board and tuition that Notre Dame charged for an entire semester” at the time, Herlihy writes.
The bicycle finally arrived on Jan. 11, 1869. But — at least at first — it was not a big hit with Notre Dame’s students and staff. Several of them suffered scrapes and bruises as they tried to tame the “people’s nag,” as some called early bicycles because they were seen as replacements for horses.
A student committee, replying to Sorin, Herlihy writes, tactfully acknowledged their struggles: “Many thanks for the beautiful velocipede which you have so kindly sent. That it will be the source of immense amusement we have no doubt, but as yet it has not been found.”
A faculty committee also wrote to Sorin, expressing hope that he would return from France in time for the university’s silver jubilee in the spring and thanking him for the gift of the velocipede: “The only danger is that the reckless swift-footed creature may carry us all to destruction before your return.”
Despite Notre Dame’s misgivings about the velocipede, Herlihy writes, bicycle mania spread across the United States barely a month after Father Sorin’s gift arrived on campus. “The New York Times proclaimed, ‘Never before in the history of manufactures in this country has there arisen such a demand for an article.’ American carriage-makers worked around the clock to produce bicycles. Rinks opened in every major city to teach the new art.”
The St. Joseph Valley Register, published in South Bend, seemed to welcome the trend: “Those who have tried the velocipede say it doesn’t require any more strength and exertion to run it than it does to saw hard wood with a dull saw.”
“The Notre Dame faculty, however, found their model neither fast nor bearable,” Herlihy writes. “In May 1869, the student magazine Scholastic reported that several members had pedaled “some distance from the College,” but that “nearly every one of them returned limping, wincing, and rubbing parts affected.”
It’s too bad that Father Sorin didn’t dispatch a velocipede to St. Edward’s University, which he founded in 1878 in Austin, Texas. By that time, the bicycle was about to entire a golden age, before being displaced by automobiles in the early years of the 20th century. A bicycle from Father Sorin would have been a marvelous historical nugget in the story of Austin becoming the foremost city in Texas for cyclists and the hometown of Lance Armstrong.