Sylvester Roper. Click on the photo for more pictures of him and his motorcycles.

June 15, 2009
Hopedale History
No. 134
Motorcycle Man

Hopedale in June

A few pictures from the
Hopedale High Graduation.  

My Hopedale history website may disappear, or, more likely, survive but get seriously messed-up before the end of the summer.
Click here to read about the problem.

Do you remember the South Hopedale Branch Library? Thanks to Betty Butcher, there’s now a written history of it.
Click here to read it.

There will be a "walkabout" in Hopedale on Thursday evening, June 18 conducted by Blackstone Valley National Corridor ranger, Chuck Arning.
Click here for more.

The trailer for The Surrogates, the movie made in part in Hopedale last summer, is now on YouTube.Thanks to Jay Appell for mentioning this.

American Local History Network – Massachusetts


Motorcycle Man

“Entering Hopedale – birthplace of the motorcycle.” How about signs like that on roads entering town? Ahh…but you’re thinking, “Malloy, what have you been smoking?” Actually, though, there’s a possibility that the first motorcycle was made by a Hopedale man. Motorcycle histories generally agree that the first one was the invention of Sylvester Roper. According to a biography of Roper in a history of Worcester County, “In 1854 he became a resident of Hopedale and there spent the remainder of his life.” Up until a few days ago, I was aware that Sylvester had invented a steam powered motorcycle, and I knew that his son, Charles, lived in Hopedale, but I hadn’t seen anything about Sylvester living here until I ran across the following article. (Click here for pictures of Roper, his motorcycle, links to related sites, and a longer version of the story)

Sylvester H. Roper was born in Francistown, Vermont, November 24, 1823. October 28, 1873. When a boy, he displayed a remarkable degree of precocity in mechanics, and his career as an inventor proved him to be without a rival in mechanical genius among those who have gone out from Francistown. At twelve years of age, although he had not seen a steam engine, he constructed a small stationary engine which is now preserved in the laboratory of the Francistown Academy. Two years later he made a locomotive, and shortly afterward saw at Nashua for the first time in his life a railroad locomotive.

He left home early in life and followed the trade of machinist in Nashua, Manchester and Worcester. In 1854 he became a resident of Hopedale and there spent the remainder of his life. He invented the handstitch sewing machine which was in many respects and improvement on the earlier machines. He invented a hot air engine in 1861, which was found useful until the day of gas and gasoline engines arrived. He made improvements on steam engines and invented breech loading guns of various patterns. He was most successful in a financial way with his hot air engines. During the war there was a large demand for his ammunition for field guns, of which he was the inventor. He invented a steam carriage, a steam velocipede and a steam bicycle, propelled by an engine fastened to the framework not unlike the modern motorcycle except that it was larger and the fuel was coal instead of gasoline. He invented a successful pocket fire escape, designed for the use of traveling men. He made several patterns of rotary engines. He designed a hot air furnace.

Mr. Roper’s death was dramatic. The Boston Globe in describing the incident, said, “This dramatic fatality occurred (June 1, 1896) yesterday morning at the new Charles River bicycle track, just across the Harvard Bridge on the Cambridge side. The deceased had for years enjoyed a reputation as an able mechanical engineer, who had perhaps been more identified with steam propulsion as applied to carriages and for general road use than any other man in New England. Ever since 1859 he has been at work on various contrivances for conveyances with steam as a motive power. He was exhibiting his engine applied to a modern safety bicycle with a view of ascertaining it qualities as a pace maker for bicycle racing. He demonstrated its utility, but did not live to receive the congratulations on his achievement. Away back in 1869 Mr. Roper equipped a heavy two-wheeled velocipede with a steam engine, and for thirteen years used it with great success. No great speed was developed on it, but the inventor proved that it was a practical machine. Recently, however, he again turned his attention to an attachment for a modern racing cycle, and interested a large local bicycle manufacture in his invention. His bicycle was taken out first a week ago last Sunday for a speed trial on Dorchester Avenue. That it was capable of being run forty miles an hour was demonstrated, and then Mr. Roper was anxious to try it out on a smooth track. With his machine the inventor appeared yesterday. When he arrived there were a number of cyclers on the track in training. As he was to make a few exhibition trips around the track, it was suggested that the wheelmen try to follow him. Mr. Roper mounted his machine just back of the start and, turning on the steam, was under full headway in a remarkable short time. The trained racing men could not keep up with him, and he made a mile in two minutes, one and two-fifths seconds. After crossing the line Mr. Roper was so elated that he proposed making even better time, and continued to scorch around the track. The machine was cutting out a lively pace on the backstretch when the men seated near the training quarters noticed that the bicycle was unsteady. The forward wheel wobbled badly, and then suddenly the cycle was deflected from its course and plunged of the track into the sand, throwing the rider and overturning. All rushed to the assistance of the inventor, who lay motionless beneath the wheel, but as soon as they touched him, they perceived that life was extinct. The only wound was a slight cut over the left temple. Dr. Wolcott, who was called, gave his opinion that Mr. Roper died before the machine left the track.”
Historical Homes and Institutions and Genealogical and Personal Memoirs of Worcester County, Massachusetts (Click here to go to the book.  The link will bring you to the pages about Roper.)

So far, the only source for the idea that Roper lived in Hopedale, is the article above. From several sources, it seems that he was living in Roxbury at the time of his death. Possibly he resided in Hopedale for a while and at some point sold his place to his son, Charles. Where was he at the time he was building his first motorcycle? I’ll keep looking and let you know if I find more on this.


Recent deaths:

Priscilla M (Hoel) Partridge, 67, Upton, May 31, 2009.

Wilton C. Anderson, 88, June 8, 2009.

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