Way before the Shweeb was just a glimmer in Google’s immense coin purse, a 19th-century visionary named Arthur Hotchkiss was already planning the future of American bicycle commuting. His brainstorm: A monorail for bikes that would let blue-collar workers fly over farmlands to their factory, never mind if the trip occasionally involved outrunning a snorting, enraged bull.
Hotchkiss couldn’t complete his endeavor without a backer, and in 1892 he found one in Hezekiah Smith, an inventor, bigamist and U.S. congressman. Smith had built a thriving industrial center in his self-titled hamlet of Smithville, New Jersey, where the H. B. Smith Machine Company was cranking out about a quarter of America’s woodworking gear. Smith also happened to be involved in the production of an interesting little side project, the American Star Bicycle, and so naturally was all ears when Hotchkiss came knocking with his fanciful blueprints.
At the beginning, the Smithville Bicycle Railroad Company seemed like a brilliant idea. Before, workers had to either walk or teeter on primitive bicycles down rutted roads to get to work. (Many historical details in this post come from Anthony J. Bianculli’s entertaining book, Iron Rails in the Garden State.) A people-moving track that cut some of the distance from Smithville to Mt. Holly, where many workers lived, seemed like the cat’s whiskers. And so it was born: A 4-foot-high, roughly 2 mile metal track that promised to reward its financiers’ $10,000 investment with a lifetime of punctual employees.