Skip to content

Against the Current

Teacher, voting rights activist, writer, adventurer - and in this excerpt, champion cyclist. The remarkable Agnes Dean Cameron.

Editor's note: the following is an excerpt from Against the Current: The Remarkable Life of Agnes Dean Cameron by Cathy Converse.

Named one of the top 150 most significant individuals in the history of British Columbia, Cameron was an extraordinary woman. She was a women's voting rights activist, BC's first female school principal, an internationally-published writer, an adventurer (the first European woman to travel 10,000 miles down the Mackenzie River in one short season), and if that wasn't enough, a trailblazer in sports, becoming the first “Lady Centurion” in the West. 

Full copyright details follow the excerpt.

Early in the 1890s a new phenomenon hit the province; it was the era of the bicycle and it took Victoria by storm.

It was not the first time bicycles captured people’s attention, but earlier versions were nothing more than short-lived fads. They were uncomfortable, difficult to ride, and dangerous, but changes in technology made the bicycle safer and easier to control. Once they were mass-produced they were within reach of the average wage earner. Victoria had always been sport oriented and the bicycle fit right in with cricket, yachting, baseball, horseracing, rowing, lawn tennis, and bowling, which were all popular pastimes. The newspapers published daily columns on upcoming competitions, particularly between Victoria and their American neighbours to the south. They even added a new section to their papers, which they called “The Wheel.”

For most, the bicycle was seen as progressive, avant-garde, the newest item in cutting-edge technology, but there were those naysayers who worried over its potential influence on the morals of young people. Young couples might be tempted to engage in courtship away from family controls, they argued, and to see a woman straddling a bicycle was simply indecent.

Whatever one’s opinion, the bicycle left an immeasurable imprint on the city, becoming a strong cultural and economic force in its own right. It created opportunities for businesses specializing in new technologies and influenced everyday fashion. For women, the looser-fitting bicycle suit allowed them to get rid of constricting corsets and billowy skirts, which had effectively diminished their ability to breathe and restricted their movements. Advice from one of the cycling books suggested the appropriate clothing for women “both for service and appearance, is a skirt of medium length, not too full, and of fairly substantial material, with long leggings or gather to match the skirt. The bloomer costume seems to meet with much favour and has apparently come to stay. Some women think they ride better without corsets, but certainly tight lacing is unadvisable, if not absolutely out of the question.”

The bicycle also helped shape laws governing transportation and allowed people the freedom to explore rural areas, which in turn translated into improved roads. Racing and touring clubs became popular and families flocked to Beacon Hill Park on the weekends to enjoy a ride. Bike paths were hastily cobbled together and seemingly overnight there were trails leading to Cadboro Bay, Gordon Head, Cedar Hill, Cordova Bay, and even out as far as Metchosin and Sooke.

Cameron family, Michigan Street [187?]. Courtesy of City of Victoria Archives, M07345
Not everyone could afford a bicycle—prices ranged from forty dollars up to eighty-five dollars for the top of the line—but those who could, both men and women, took to the streets, eager if somewhat wobbly, riding their new bicycles. Initially there were no rules governing right of way or safety. Consequently, cyclists caused no end of trouble between themselves, pedestrians, and carriages. Horses were spooked and pedestrians were wary of crossing the street for fear of getting hit. Letters to the editors flooded in to local newspapers complaining of the near misses with bicycles on the streets of downtown. Cyclists were “inconsiderate,” “thoughtless,” and “careless,” angered citizens wrote. But the bicycle was here to stay.

A simple machine with two wheels, pedals, gears, and a chain gave a tremendous sense of freedom to women. For the first time, they could easily get to any place they wanted to go on their own. The bicycle changed women’s lives so significantly that it became a symbol used by suffragettes and the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement.

Susan B. Anthony, the famous women’s rights advocate and key organizer of the International Council of Women, wrote about the significance of bicycles for women: “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel . . . the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”

The bicycle also brought an awareness of the health benefits of exercise and opened up to women the chance to increase their physical prowess. Women began competing with men in this new sport, which created a tentative equality between the genders. It fit comfortably with the image of the New Woman.

Beacon Hill Park was a great gathering place for cyclists and the city began hosting racing events showcasing well-known figures in the racing world. In one such event held on Saturday, June 7, the city arranged a demonstration bicycle race featuring Miss Jessie Oakes, the world champion female bicyclist. She was slated to race against Diamond, a speed demon of a racehorse owned by Mr. Campbell. The race was held at the Driving Park horse race track. There had been a few demonstration races prior to Jessie Oakes, but none reaching the fame of Oakes.

The cable car company arranged to run extra trips to take people to the event. When Oakes, on her mechanical steed, lined up wheel to nose with Diamond, it was anyone’s guess as to who would win.

At exactly one o’clock the starter pistol went off. The track was exceptionally bad and Oakes was facing a head wind. Flying around the track, Oakes rode with her characteristic strength and managed to keep ahead of the seasoned racehorse as the crowd roared with anticipation. It was a tense race, but she crossed the finish line before her opponent, winning the day. From that time on news of cycling events, both local and international, began appearing in the news. Entrepreneurs, recognizing a business opportunity, rushed to be the first to set up bicycle shops.

Cameron was smitten by the new bicycle craze and took to it easily. She became a member of the Victoria chapter of the Wheelman’s Club, an international touring and racing group, and participated in many of the city’s bicycle events. She loved long-distance riding, often wheeling out to Sooke and back, a particularly difficult seventy-seven-kilometre round-trip trek.

It was not long before she wanted a more difficult challenge. Sometime during 1897 she obtained a copy of The Cyclers’ Guide and Road Book of California by George W. Blum, the undisputed bible for cycling in the state. It covered everything a rider needed for touring. There were articles on road conditions, maps outlining bike routes, distances between points, hotels offering reduced rates for wheelmen, bike maintenance for trail riders, and training ideas for getting in shape. California, her second home, would be a wonderful place to tour by bike, she thought.

Her decision was made. As soon as her summer break began in July she would take a biking holiday in California.

She made all the necessary arrangements and once in California she joined a group of other like-minded cyclists. Her goal was to bike from San Jose to Mount Hamilton. Her destination was the famous Lick Observatory to see the world’s largest refracting telescope.

The young teacher. Maynard, Hannah photographer. Courtesy of City of Victoria, CVA 1477-

She dressed comfortably, looked her bike over, and fine-tuned her seat so her weight was placed more on the pedals and not on her saddle. Experience taught her that such an adjustment would to help with speed and most importantly prevent saddle sores. Starting in Sacramento, Cameron turned southwest into the Santa Clara Valley heading to San Jose to make the journey up into the Diablo Range to Mount Hamilton. It was an arduous thirty-one-kilometre ride up a hot, dusty, sinuous path. Her muscles screamed at her for what she was putting them through. She was relieved when the white dome of the Lick Observatory finally came into view. Once on top, the whole of the Monterey Peninsula opened before her.

It was breathtaking in its panoramic view, and well worth the effort.

Coming back triumphant from her trip, Cameron wanted more. To say she was ebullient was an understatement. Touring was exhilarating, and it motivated her to take up yet another challenge. She set her sights on becoming the first female Centurion in the West. Centurions, sometimes called the Century Riders, were an internationally recognized group of amateur bicyclists that completed a one-hundred-mile course within a specified amount of time. Male riders had to complete a course within ten hours, women had fourteen hours, and tandem riders had twelve. The prize was not only winning the Arrow Pin, a highly coveted tiny metal bar embossed with a pair of wings and an arrow, but also belonging to an elite group of cyclists noted for their skill and endurance.

Cameron chose to ride tandem. She partnered with another member of Victoria’s Wheelman’s Club—L. A. Campbell, holder of the Western Canadian long-distance record with a time of six hours, fifty-nine minutes, and thirty seconds. Known as a very strong rider who could keep up a gruelling pace over long distances, he had the reputation of being one of the most sportsmanlike riders in the history of cycling in the West. Campbell had earned his Arrow a month before his ride with Cameron. They knew each other through teaching. Campbell was a well-respected teacher and happened to be an official referee for the Victoria Junior Association Football Club, of which Cameron was president. It may seem unusual for a woman to be head of a football club, but one of the boys’ teams came from South Park School and was considered the team to beat.

The race was scheduled for an early six-fifteen start on Saturday, September 11, 1897. Their course was the Saanich Peninsula track. If they followed the usual route they would leave from City Hall in Victoria and report in at Wright’s Hotel in North Saanich, before returning for a second round. That would bring them to a distance of eighty-six miles. The remaining fourteen miles would take the riders up Yates Street to Oak Bay Avenue, along the Beach Road to Beacon Hill Park, circling once around the park then riding back to Oak Bay by way of Quadra and Fort. Most of the races ended at Mount Baker Hotel, an elegant place to take stock of the day’s achievement. Mount Baker Hotel was a popular resort in a majestic setting. It overlooked the Strait of Juan de Fuca and was directly in line with Washington’s Mount Baker, the snow-capped sentinel of the Cascade Mountain Range.

By 5:40 in the evening they had been on the road for over eleven hours; fatigue was setting in. They had just one hour to complete the race and had to dig deep into their energy reserves. When they finally took their feet off the pedals and dismounted from their bike, their time was eleven hours, thirty minutes, and thirty-five seconds. A bit worse for wear, they had accomplished what they set out to do.

They would have completed the race in a faster time but for a mishap along the way. They had pedalled the first sixty miles on an Adlake bicycle, chosen for its strength. It was when they switched to a lighter geared Crescent, an excellent racing bike that was deemed to be the fastest in the world, that they broke the front fork and were thrown from the bike. They were badly shaken and had a few cuts and scrapes but felt fortunate to have escaped serious injury. The clock continued to tick away as they spent precious time waiting for a remount.

As they came into sight of Mount Baker Hotel they noticed the large number of supporters and media waiting for them. Congratulations were offered all around. In a ceremony held on October 23, Mrs. H. Dallas Helmcken presented both Cameron and Campbell, along with five others, with the coveted century Arrow Pin. It was a big day for Cameron. She was immensely proud of her achievement. She was entitled to wear her pins at all times, signalling her accomplishment.

As record holders, both she and her partner put the West on the map for cyclists.

Reprinted with permission from Against the Current by Cathy Converse, 2018 TouchWood Editions. Copyright © 2018 by Cathy Converse.