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Reviving Pope's Legacy Bicycle, Car King's Namesake Hartford Park Getting An Overhaul


August 09, 2009

On a sultry July evening in 1903, members of the Hartford Business Men's Association, together with the mayor and governor, bounded eagerly up the steps of the graceful Allyn House on Asylum Street in white tie and tails, to welcome home a man who until 1900 was the city's largest employer. Colonel Albert Pope, the world's largest bicycle manufacturer and, for a time, its largest automaker, was back after an unsuccessful fling at silver mining and back to stay, he said. Good news for Hartford, indeed.

Colonel Pope, who died a century ago today, may already have known his days were numbered. His legs had grown weak, an early sign of dreaded syphilis. But tonight he was "coming into my own again" as he addressed Hartford's leaders in his typically fractured syntax. The full-bearded manufacturer lived in a day when rotundity suggested success, and Pope was successful indeed. But by that gathering in 1903, much of his success lay behind him.

A young Detroit bicycle mechanic named Henry Ford had visited Pope with some big ideas, so the Colonel may have seen him as a comer in the mushrooming auto industry. Pope could not have foreseen that cars many built by Ford and limited-access highways would nearly kill the railroads and help destroy America's cities.

Nor would he have guessed that the legacy he gave Hartford, 90 rolling acres on both sides of Park Street for a public park that bears his name, would fall into disrepair in 75 years, only to be revitalized by a later generation's planned infusion of $13.6 million.

Pope had won a battlefield commission at age 22 and, ever after, insisted people call him Colonel. He was too restless for college, although he sent his twin sisters to medical school.

A Bostonian, he set up his bicycle factory next to a Capitol Avenue railroad track in 1878 only because Hartford had the best machine tools and skilled workmen in New England. He commuted by train from his Commonwealth Avenue townhouse, and proceeded to make Columbia bicycles a household name.

Pope sold sales franchises for the high-wheelers and later "safety bicycles" with equal-sized wheels, evidently so named by those who had felt a 70-pound high-wheeler land on them after a fall. By 1895 the bicycle market was saturated and Pope looked to Europe, where men named Daimler, Peugeot and Benz had hitched a gasoline motor to a bicycle frame and called it an auto-mobile.

To run his auto operation, Pope hired young Hiram Percy Maxim, who graduated from MIT at age 17, but dismissed Maxim's notion that he should focus on gasoline autos rather than Pope's high-end electric cars, some costing $11,000 at a time when workmen earned $1 a day. "Why would anyone willingly sit atop an explosion?" he sniffed.

By 1900, half of America's automobiles bore the Pope label. But when oil was found in Pennsylvania and then Texas, cheap gasoline had arrived. Detroit automakers were ready, and the electric car was history (or so they thought). By 1905, a 60-ish Pope was losing his grip, and other manufacturers were flooding the market. His eldest son, Albert Linder Pope, presided over the company's demise and sold off the Columbia Bicycle Co. to a firm in Westfield, Mass., which still makes them.

The Colonel, proud that his workers never unionized, had created upscale employee housing near his plant, an employee brass band and a library, and saw Pope Park as a peaceful retreat for his workers. But as the interstates gave people mobility, they devalued urban parks, and Pope Park entered a slow decline. By the 1990s, a grand copper fountain erected to Colonel Pope was inoperable and littered with cigarette butts.

In 1996, the city council and some of Pope's descendants united to raise $13.6 million to revitalize the park, aided by The Parisky Group. The Pope Hartford Designated Fund, aided by the Friends of Pope Park, built a handsome brick gateway at Park Street and Park Terrace and 2,400 linear feet of walks, recalling the original 1898 plan by the Olmsted Brothers.

The overall plan refurbishes the Pope Park Recreation Center, outside of which is a silver mobile of a safety bicycle; relocates the Pope fountain; and adds spray fountains for kids, an amphitheater and Hollowmead Pond. It recreates historic gardens and formal spaces, adds parking, and lets neighborhood residents help manage the park. The budget calls for $6 million from the state, $5 million from Washington, $1.7 million from the city, and $800,000 from private and foundation funds. More than a quarter of the projected cost has already been raised.

The Colonel spent little time in Hartford in his declining years, but what would make him proud is that three of his descendants Albert A. Pope IV of New York, Pharibe Pope Hannan of West Hartford and Matthew Pope of West Simsbury are actively involved in perpetuating his memory as board members of the Pope Hartford Designated Fund.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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