The Bellevue Hotel, part 6 – bicycles, new houses on Bloomingdale & Audubon

Another interesting sight along the Lancaster Pike in the 1880’s, but one quite different from the A. J. Cassatt tallyho described in last week’s column, was the “high wheel” bicycle. A later development of the first crude bicycle made in Scotland in 1839, the “high wheel”, or “ordinary”, as it was more commonly called, reached a high state of development both in this country and abroad about 1872, when bicycling became a popular sport.

By this time the heavy wooden wheels of the earlier bicycles had given place to lighter ones of metal, with their wire spokes set at a tangent to the center. Solid rubber tires were cemented to the rims, and the front wheel was made larger than before in order that a greater distance might be travelled with each revolution of the cranks. This tendency continued until the front wheels grew from 30 inches in diameter to 60 inches or more, while the rear wheel shrank to 12 inches or less. Racing models of this type could attain a speed of twenty miles an hour.

On these bicycles the rider sat almost directly over the high wheel, which was certainly not conductive to his safety. A fall from that high perch was a serious matter, but not an infrequent one, since roads were rough, and the going uncertain.

In 1876 the “Safety”, the forerunner of our modern day bicycle was invented. And from the time it was first marketed in a practicable form in 1885 the “Ordinary” was doomed, although it lingered until the early nineties, by which time it had been brought to a really high state of precision and lightness.

One of the quaint old pictures in Dr. Arms’ collection shows the “Century Club” of bicyclists as they stopped at the Bellevue Hotel en route to Lancaster from Philadelphia, or perhaps from Lancaster to Philadelphia. At any rate, it was a round trip which they were to make in one day, according tot he Century Club stipulations for the jaunt. Standing beside their high wheeled bicycles these riders present a quaint sight to present day travellers to whom such a trip would seem infinitely more hazardous than any by automobile could possibly be. Their costumes bespeak the era–tight knee length knickers with long stockings, equally snug shirts or jackets and small caps with almost invisible visors!

Henry Graham Ashmead’s “History of Delaware County” contains an excellent description of the neighborhood around the Bellevue as described by a reporter for the “Germantown Telegraph” in an article written for his paper under date of July 2, 1884. According to him, “a new town, or rather an aggregation of delightful suburban residences, is rapidly springing up within easy travelling distance of the city of Philadelphia, either by rail or Pike”. At that time not less than 50 “elegant residences” had been completed and occupied with about $600,000 invested in them. Still others were in process of building by the owners, Drexel and Childs.

The “Bellevue Mansion” he describes as “a charming summer resort . . . beautifully situated and approached by a fine macadamized road”. Plans had been drawn for seven “cottages” to be built just across the Pike from the hotel with indeed some of them already under construction. These “cottages” which today are considered homes of rather more than moderate size are still standing and in constant occupancy on the south side of Lancaster Highway between Bloomingdale and Audubon avenues. In addition to these seven new houses, Mr. Abbott of the Pennsylvania Railroad had already built “a fine cottage” in this same development, where according to our evidently news-conscious reporter, Mr. Abbott planned to spend his honeymoon!

Adjoining the Bellevue Hotel grounds on the East was the William D. Hughes homestead originally known as the old Cleaver Farm. Purchased by Mr. Hughes from J. Henry Askin in 1878 it remained in his possession until 1896 when it was bought by William Wood. Adjoining the Hotel on the west was “an elegant cottage” which in 1884 was just being built by Mr. Theodore Gugert, of the firm of Bergues and Engel. This house is still standing next to the automobile show rooms and offices on the corner of Bellevue avenue and the Pike. The big white stucco house just west of the Gugert house was originally built and occupied by Dr. Joseph Crawford Egbert, well known Wayne physician and for many years a member of the Radnor Township School Board.

Still further along the Pike to the west was the old Spread Eagle Inn, which had been purchased in the middle ’80’s by Mr. Childs in order “to sop the sale of liquor near his bailiwick”, according to report. The new owner had lent it to the Lincoln Institute for a country home for its young Indian wards who enjoyed “plenty of comforts and conveniences, and every opportunity for outdoor exercise, without being interfered with by outsiders”.

This then was the neighborhood that surrounded the Bellevue Hotel in its brief 20 years of existence before one of the most disastrous fires that Wayne has ever experienced razed it to the ground early on the morning of March 16, 1900. Large headlines in the Public Ledger of March 17 proclaimed the news:

“Bellevue at Wayne Wiped Out of Existence. Tramps Believed to be Responsible for the Blaze. Loss is $58,000; covered by Insurance–House Tops Protected by Snow against Flying Embers”.

Further simplifying the headlines is the statement that “It is believed that tramps, having made a fire in one of the large fireplaces on the first floor carelessly permitted the flames to spread. When the town watchman first saw the blaze the fire was progressing rapidly.

“Wayne is well supplied with fire apparatus, and has excellent water service. But when the firemen came to the scene it was evident the blaze was beyond control. However, heroic efforts were made to keep the flames in check and a stream of water was poured on the handsome stone stable belonging to William Wood which was but 20 to 30 feet from the hotel property. Persistent endeavor had its reward in the saving of this property and the Wood mansion nearby. The wind favored the firemen, but burning bits of wood found lodgment on the roofs a quarter of a mile away. That there was not further destruction was due to the encrusted snow that covered every house-top.”

This year was the first one in which the hotel had been closed for the winter. Mrs. A. R. Sank, the proprietor, had planned to reopen on April 1, after some alteration and improvements had been made. Her furnishings alone at the time of the fire were valued at about $8,000.

Not only was the Bellevue a popular summer hotel but for the four years preceding the fire it had been the temporary home of football teams coming to Philadelphia to meet the University of Pennsylvania players. Only the fall before the fire the Cornell and Michigan teams were housed at the Bellevue while three years before the University of Pennsylvania players had made the resort their headquarters.

This series on the Bellevue Hotel will conclude with personal reminiscences and anecdotes of the fire as given to your columnist by some of Wayne’s citizens who still remember it. Those who do remember it, and have not contacted Mrs. Patterson, are urged to do so by calling Wayne 4569. (The date for the fire has been definitely set as March 16, 1900, by a visit to the Newspaper Department of the Philadelphia Library where bound copies of Philadelphia newspapers are on file).