american journeys   


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

 

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 REFLECTIONS ON THE TRANSCONTINENTAL JOURNEY OF GEORGE NELLIS
George Nellis' youthful adventure of riding his Columbia ordinary across America in 1887 provided him with memories that lasted a lifetime. His written account of the journey has also provided modern wheelmen with some vicarious pleasure. To help place Nellis’ accomplishment in context it is useful to compare his ride to that of the first and most famous transcontinental rider, Thomas Stevens.
 
A comparison of Stevens and Nellis is undertaken without any desire to extol one man over the other. They were both fine wheelmen with ample pluck. They would have enjoyed each other’s company although they might have debated whether it was best to make a transcontinental crossing from west to east (Stevens) or east to west (Nellis). The east to west route of Nellis was better in tune with American history and the flow of pioneers toward the frontier. Neither man, however, expressed a strong sense of historical precedence. They simply started from where they were. They were both fully capable of riding in either direction.

At the time of their respective rides Stevens was 29 and Nellis was 21. Stevens rode a 50-inch standard Columbia ordinary with straight bars and Nellis rode a heavier 52-inch Columbia Expert with cow horn bars. They wore somewhat similar clothing and each carried a satchel strapped on top of the bars. Some illustrations suggest Stevens also had gear attached to the backbone of his machine. Nellis was the more experienced rider. Stevens had only learned to ride in preparation for his journey.

Stevens had emigrated from England in 1871 and the Nellis family had been in upstate New York since 1723. Stevens had been a farmer, storekeeper, and mill worker. Nellis had a taste of farming, clerking, and newspaper work. Nellis made constant reference to his home in Herkimer and looked forward to mail from his family and friends. Stevens didn’t seem to have a strong sense of home since he had been moving about the West for several years.

Stevens did not think of himself as a journalist before his ride and he did not have any firm arrangement for the publication of the narrative of his journey. He presented himself at some newspaper offices along the way in hopes of receiving notice. The Boston Globe did give him some coverage when he concluded the trip, but he soon went to New York City in an effort to obtain support for a world tour. He had the good fortune of meeting Karl Kron, pseudonym of Lyman H. Bagg, in August 1884 and in the course of several meetings Kron extracted considerable details Stevens' trip that he put in his book, Ten Thousand Miles on a Bicycle. These conversations may have helped Stevens formulate a 38,000-word account of the ride that appeared in the four issues of Outing, April to July 1885. It is not clear if Kron or Pope helped arrange for the publication but the account did cause Pope to use his influence to have Outing support the world tour. During the winter of 1884-85 Stevens was reported to have prepared a 140,000-word account of his ride that could be published as a book if the world tour did not materialize. This long account disappeared and only the 38,000-word version that first appeared in Outing was later incorporated into Volume One of Around the World on a Bicycle.

This series of events was in contrast to Nellis’ situation for he thought of himself as a journalist before the ride and he had firm arrangements with three papers to publish, during the ride, separate day by day accounts of his journey, a total of 40,000 plus words. He did stop at newspaper offices in some towns along his route to meet fellow correspondents and tell his story. He also sent telegrams from the West to the Herkimer Democrat so that they could be posted outside their office, and one or more telegrams were sent to the czar of American biking, Colonel Albert Pope. Since he was not planning any foreign tour after he completed the transcontinental trip Nellis did not seek additional support in the fall of 1887, nor were any negotiations concluded to publish a book or embark on a speaking tour.

Nellis timed his ride well in terms of weather conditions. Stevens left too early and had to struggle with snow and wet conditions in the mountains. The routes followed were very similar in West since both men used pioneer trails and depended upon the Union Pacific and Central Pacific section houses for food and lodging. An indication of the dependence upon the railroad routes can be seen by fact that of the 271 stations, some only flag stops, on the Omaha to San Francisco route of these two lines, Nellis specifically mentions passing through 134 of them.

The major difference in the routes followed by Stevens and Nellis came east of the Mississippi where Nellis followed the Canadian coast of Lake Erie and Stevens passed along the Ohio shore of this Great Lake. Their paths parted at Albany since Stevens went on to Boston and Nellis came from New York City to the capital of the Empire State.

Both men had many similar experiences during their rides. They were threatened by coyotes, saw mirages, walked and pushed their wheels often through mud and sand and over railroad beds, visited Niagara Falls, and both carried guns. Stevens had a “Bulldog” and Nellis was armed with a multi-shot derringer. Nellis may have been the better shot since he killed a coyote and Stevens only frightened a mountain lion. Nellis’ wheel held up well and he only reported breaking the handlebars by his headers. Stevens had many headers and his machine was refitted in Chicago and repaired in Buffalo. Neither man carried a bicycle lamp. Nellis had a cyclometer that he used constantly. Stevens only estimated his mileage and Karl Kron recalculated the distance at 3,416 miles.

Kron's preference for details on mileage and road conditions may have influenced Nellis to give these matters more attention in his day by day accounts that were written to be read during the trip, primarily by newspaper readers in his hometown. Stevens’ travel account was written after the journey for a national audience. It provided much less “guide book” data on mileage and riding conditions. The Stevens account is also selective. Rather than giving events space in accordance with the associated mileage, he gave significantly more space to the interesting sections of the journey. For example, the long but more routine trip from Chicago to Boston only constitutes about one-quarter of the published narrative. Stevens did not mention home or old friends that he met along the way because he was an intensely private man.

On balance, Stevens comes through as mature and experienced traveler writing in the English tradition of travel narrative that does not dwell on difficulties and portrays the protagonist as calmly in control of events. This certainly was the tone of Stevens’ 38,000-word narrative in Outing. The 140,000-word account forced him to be more revealing. For example, the Outing account only provides a 95-word description of the day near Fort Bridger that was the “toughest twenty-four hours of the entire journey” because of rain, the need to ford cold streams, and the necessity of sleeping in a wagon. A fragment of the longer narrative that has survived provides a 1,400-word account of the same difficult day and it conveys a powerful sense of the misery and life threatening nature of the day in which Stevens wasn’t in control of events and was lucky to have survived. What a pity the full long account of the transcontinental journey has vanished.

Nellis, away from home for the first time, was, an intelligent young man with a flair for writing and a sense of humor. He wasn’t constrained by an English style of travel writing and he could grumble and complain about roads, weather, lodging, and other matters. He was inexperienced enough not to have recognized that he might have been killed by a flash flood when he sought refuge from a violent storm in a small ravine.

Stevens and Nellis also had somewhat different themes to their narratives. For Stevens the progress of the trip and daily events constituted the substance of his story. Nellis also included ample logistical information about his ride, but a second theme began to emerge, after he crossed the Missouri River. By 1880 most of the old frontier West of hostile Indians, gunfighters, and open cattle ranges had vanished. The order of the day was now settling the land, establishing farms, and developing cities. The prospects and opportunities offered in a West were matters of great interest in the America east of the Mississippi. Private developers and western railroads bombarded the public with claims of Western wonders. They advertised special railroad fares to the West and other opportunities for purchasing land that stimulated significant internal migration. Agents were also sent to Europe to extol the virtues of Western land to potential immigrants. The land to be sold and settled was vast. Prior to 1871 the United States government sought to stimulate the building of Western railroads by granting companies large amounts of public land along their rail routes. The acreage of these railroad lands equaled the area of New England, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Delaware, and Maryland.

It is not clear if Nellis planned to examine the merits of western migration on his journey to the Pacific or if the subject simply emerged in the course of his reporting. His narrative is sprinkled with descriptions of how former residents of the Mohawk Valley and new acquaintances were faring in the West, the type of crops that were grown, and how cities were emerging on the prairies. He was inclined to compare what he saw in the West with things back in New York State. His Eastern model usually came out ahead in these comparisons but after he experienced the climate and beauty of California and saw its fruit orchards and commercial activity he was more inclined to recognize that some areas of the West offered opportunities that at least equaled those in the East. Apparently his ties to his Eastern home were quite strong for he never revealed any inclination to remain in the West or to return in later years.

Stevens had been living in the West, but he had little to say about the opportunities it presented nor did he compare it to the Eastern United States or to his native England. He also had ties to the land of his youth. He returned to England by 1895, led a long, useful but undistinguished life, and never again visited members of his family in the United States.

Wheelmen past and present are interested in the time needed for a bicycle ride on the track or road. Most of the men who completed high wheel rides across America in the 19th century claimed that they were tourists interested in crossing the nation to see its sites, not cyclists seeking a record time. Even with these disclaimers and the occasional use of trains, which violated an unwritten rule of record seekers, most riders were conscious of the standard set by Stevens and at least one wheelmen was happy to point out that he had crossed Iowa in less time then it had taken Thomas Stevens.

Stevens of course was in a somewhat special situation since there was no established time for a ride across America prior to his journey. The challenge was getting across by wheel and there is no indication in his writing that he had a time goal. There were weather delays and stops to socialize and make repairs in such locations as Buffalo and Chicago. His stay in the latter city from July 4-13 was also related observing the Democratic National Convention.

Nellis was in a different situation since he was aware of the 105 days taken by Stevens and the time of his 1886 predecessors, Van Meerbeke, Spier, and Thayer. He felt that latter two men had used trains at times and that Van Meerbeke had taken 150 days on the southern route to California. Although it is never stated in his writing, it seems clear that Nellis planned to establish a new record by completing his trip in less than 105 days. After he had completed his journey one of the Herkimer papers reported that Nellis had expected to make the trip in 90 days. Even with weather delays and short layovers in Chicago and Salt Lake City he was able to complete the ride in an amazing 75 days. When he reached the pier in Oakland he considered the journey at an end for that is where Stevens had begun.

After the trip was concluded there was no need for Nellis himself to extol his crossing time since the national and local papers publicized the matter. The San Francisco Bulletin noted that Nellis had beaten Stevens's time by 30 days and the New York Sun recognized the same disparity in time. As early as mid-July the Herkimer papers had been predicting a record-breaking time and the medal he received upon return proclaimed him the long distance champion of the world in view of the speed and distance of his ride.

In the matter of crossing America, however, it was far better to be first than to be fast. Stevens recognized this fact, for a correspondent writing in the Bicycling World of June 20, 1884, stated that Stevens had remarked, "the journey is one which a fellow don't want to attempt above once, and I wouldn't give ten cents to be the second man to make it." Stevens also gained recognition by continuing his bicycle journey around the world and writing a popular book about the adventure. Stevens became famous. Nellis and the other transcontinental high wheel riders faded into obscurity.

 

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