american journeys   


To The Golden Gate
George Nellis' 1887 Wheel Across The Continent

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HERKIMER AND GEORGE NELLIS
Herkimer, situated on the Mohawk River and the Erie Canal, is in the beautiful valley formed by the Mohawk River that extends 100 miles from Albany to Utica/Rome, New York. The Valley was caught up in the bloody frontier struggle between the British/Indian forces and the American patriots during the Revolutionary War. The Nellis family and their relations, who had been in the Mohawk Valley since 1723, played a part in the struggle for independence. They were part of the Palatine Germans who had come to the Hudson Valley in 1710 and soon began moving into the Schoharie and Mohawk regions in search of land and prosperity. In the French and Indian War they had fought with the British to defend their homes, but during the Revolution they opposed the English and fortified Herkimer by constructing Fort Dayton.

With the coming of peace and the building of the Erie Canal along the banks of the Mohawk the region prospered, and by the end of the Civil War the town of Herkimer was a bustling community of 3,000. A respected resident of the village was George W. Nellis, Sr. who was born in 1835 and married Melinda Witherstine before the War. The couple had four children who lived to maturity - Irving, Byron, Clara, and George, Jr. who was born in 1865. The family home was at 44 Eastern Avenue and city directories indicate that the father engaged in farming and was a teamster and a cabinetmaker. He was also interested in public education and for a number of years served as a trustee of School District #2. His children attended the District's one-room school and although records are incomplete, it is known that in 1877 three Nellis children were enrolled - Byron age 18, Clara age 17, and George age 12. A good basic education allowed Byron and his older brother, Irving, to go on for medical training. Irving practiced in Herkimer and Byron moved to Weedsport. It is not known when George left school but by 1881 he began a three-year apprenticeship with the Herkimer Democrat newspaper and lived with his parents at 44 Eastern Avenue. He also served as the Utica Globe's correspondent in Herkimer and in 1885 the Globe published his scholarly account of the history of newspapers in Herkimer County.

By the middle of the 1880s, Nellis became interested in bicycling and acquired a high wheel, perhaps one that had belonged to an elder brother or to another wheelman. Herkimer had discovered cycling quite early and in the 1860s local machinist Henry M. Quackenbush built several velocipedes. Quackenbush also acquired an early high wheel bicycle in partnership with his cousin, Charles Rasbach, and late in the century the Quackenbush Company was manufacturing a Bicycle Rifle.

In 1886 or 1887, Nellis acquired the fully nickel-plated Columbia Expert used on his cross-country ride. He may have obtained it for below the retail price of $150 since by 1886 he and partner Charles Avery had a sideline business selling Columbia bicycles. This business probably consisted of having catalogs and sales literature used to take orders from venturesome men who wanted to keep up with the times. There was no formally organized bicycle club in Herkimer at this time but there was a group of wheelmen who sported about on their high-wheel machines.

Nellis was an active rider, although one local paper reported that his rides seldom exceeded fifty miles in length. He also showed curiosity about the development of cycling and must have read numerous books and periodicals about the subject. In May 1887 he published a solid article on "Cycling in America" in the Herkimer Citizen. He explained the slow adoption of cycling in this country and blamed the situation, in part, on English machines that were not well constructed to withstand the rigors of American roads. The turning point, in his view, was the organization of the Pope Manufacturing Co. in 1877. "So rapid was the growth after the first machines were turned out that other manufacturers were attracted to the business and we now have eight firms engaged in cycle making of various descriptions. From a simple means of pleasure, cycling has advanced to a practical, safe and constantly enlarging vocation, of gigantic proportions….We now boast of better machines, better riders and will soon possess better roads than any country on the globe."

Nellis also gave attention to a special form of cycling. "As the sport widened and prospered, new converts were found at every turn and gradually long-distance riding became an attractive feature….The first noted undertaking was made in 1883, by Karl Kron, who rode from Detroit, Michigan to Staunton, Virginia, a distance of 1,422 miles in about 25 days. This trip was made on a Columbia bicycle and averaged 42 miles per day. The next important event in cycling history is found in the wonderful trip of Thomas Stevens in 1884. He started from San Francisco, April 22 and reached Boston August 4, covering the 3,500 miles in 105 days. Stevens also rode a Columbia and on reaching Boston, the Pope Manufacturing Co. furnished his expenses to continue his trip around the world (Nellis was not correct in this matter. The company provided Stevens with an Expert Columbia, but funds for the world tour came from Outing magazine). His success  persuaded others to attempt the journey and in 1886 George B. Thayer, F. E. Van Meerbeke, and S. G. Speir rode across the Continent on bicycles." We also learn from the article that Nellis had studied the route used to cross the country and conditions in the West. "The course usually taken by transcontinental tourists follows the line of the Union Pacific railroad and passes thro' New York, Ohio or Canada, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California. Autographed letters in the writer's possession from these wheelmen state that the trip is engendered with far less danger than is supposed. Mr. Thayer says that in crossing the Rocky Mountains, a rider does not notice the fact the grade is so gradual. The most to fear is an absence of water on the plains, a fact which cannot be remedied, but must be endured. At this time of year a rider will encounter continuous heavy trade winds, which last for three months and render riding at times difficult. The inhabitants of western farms are hospitable to a degree seldom found in the east, and we have yet to learn of a case when a traveler on a bicycle has been refused food or shelter."

The benefits of such an arduous journey were noted. "In touring across the continent one will meet with adventures to be had in no other way. The novelty of his position attracts universal attention of itself and a close observer of human nature can make the trip of vast benefit." Nellis also recognized the trip would contribute to his journalist career by providing a grand opportunity to provide a thorough report for the readers of the papers carrying his accounts. "The distance to be traveled each day entirely depends upon the roads one encounters as well as upon the nature of the country. Then, too, rainy weather is almost a complete barrier to a cyclist and on such occasions he usually puts in time rubbing up his wheel, seeing the town, and varying the programs by entertaining his companions with thrilling accounts of hair breadth escape on the Erie Canal of New York State." Practical matters were also considered. "No baggage is carried beyond articles of absolute necessity. Weight is an important desideratum and beyond a pair of hose, a wrapper and handkerchiefs, no extra clothing is necessary to the economical bicyclist. These are usually carried in a small traveling bag on the bicycle, and the entire machine and baggage will not weigh over 42 pounds."

We have no list of items actually carried on the ride, but his narrative does mention a satchel strapped to the bars or backbone, a derringer, a rubber tube for drinking, a road map, a L.A.W. Road Book, a railroad chart showing section houses, a few items of clothing, and some writing materials. It is not known how much money was carried, but additional funds could be telegraphed to him at stations on his route.

It is clear from the article that Nellis was quite familiar with the cycling situation in the era and that the trip was not a spur-of-the-moment decision. Many months of planning were needed to contact men familiar with riding conditions in the west. A route was selected and a tentative schedule was established so mail from home could be waiting for him at several cities, approximately 500 miles apart along the way. There was also correspondence with former Herkimer residents who now resided in towns he would pass through. They would be expecting him and accord hospitality and a link with his Herkimer home.

A late May departure was decided on in hopes of avoiding the worst of the muddy spring roads in the east and allowing an August arrival in San Francisco that would eliminate the danger of encountering snow in the Rocky and Sierra Nevada mountains.

Nellis may have sought support for his trip from bicycle czar Colonel Pope, but he did not obtain any assistance. When the Little Falls News reported that Pope was providing a bicycle and financing the journey, Nellis responded in the pages of the Little Falls Evening Times. "The Pope Manufacturing Co. did not furnish my bicycle nor do they pay my expenses. I purchased my own wheel and the cashier of the Herkimer bank will substantiate it. I also pay my own expenses and I leave it to the cashier to prove the same."

Even without Company support, Nellis certainly favored Columbia bicycles and often mentioned that he was riding a Columbia. He stopped at Pope Manufacturing headquarters in Chicago, mentioned Columbia dealers in other cities, sent at least one telegram on the status of his ride to Pope, and permitted Pope to borrow and exhibit his machine after the transcontinental ride.
 

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