american journeys   




From Sea To Shining Sea
Nineteenth Century High Wheel Rides Across America

By Charles Meinert
 Web Site Bicycle History Consultant
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In the heady days prior to 1892 when the high wheel bicycle was the king of the dirt road, ten men crossed America entirely or primarily by this form of transportation. These crossings were not significant in shaping American history for the continent had already been spanned by wagons, the telegraph, and the railroad. It is not surprising that the Chicago Daily News of July 5, 1884 expressed the following view of cyclist Stevens' arrival from San Francisco. "When it takes a bicyclist seventy-two days to wheel from San Francisco to Chicago we are inclined to the opinion that he has more time on his hands than wit in his head. This man's experience does not demonstrate that the bicycle has any advantage over a first-class ox team on such a trip."

Following the completion of Stevens' ride to the Atlantic even the Bicycling World of January 2, 1885 commented, "beyond the slight notoriety he gained and the reported prospect of an account of his trip to appear in book form, his trip possesses no significance whatever, although it developed the suspected fact that there are great stretches of country where the cycle must for years to come be at a discount."

While the press was correct in the view that crossing the continent by bicycle was a step backward in terms of transportation technology, the critics failed to appreciate the appeal of such a journey to some riders and to a large segment of the newspaper reading public. For adventuresome riders this was an opportunity to test their hardiness and endurance, to break the routine of rather ordinary lives, and to gain some fame and possible material benefit.

Many newspapers were ready to capitalize on reports of these rides where the rider/correspondent was the story, as had been the case in Stanley's search of Livingstone in the 1870s and as would be the case with Nellie Bly's world tour in the 1890s. These stories sold papers and books to a public that enjoyed tales describing the actions and accomplishments of daring individuals in an age of industrialization that was subordinating the individual to the organization.

There was considerable variation in the coverage accorded the ten high wheel riders. Some men such as a Mr. Gray were almost unknown even in their day and only the "Lindbergh" of transcontinental cycling, Thomas Stevens, is remembered in modern wheelmen circles. There has been little attention given to other cyclists, in part, because the folk hero status accorded Stevens has overshadowed others. Another factor that has skewed our understanding of the past is that American cycling periodicals from 1880-1892 are difficult to access.

Sufficient information has been obtained, however, to provide the following brief descriptions of the ten high wheel riders and their journeys from sea to shining sea.  Click on a name below to display a detailed narrative.

Click on a name to display a detailed narrative

Thomas Stevens - 1884

George B. Thayer - 1886

Frank E. Weaver - 1890 

Frederick E. Van Meerbeke - 1886
 

George W. Nellis, Jr. - 1887
 

Dexter M. and S. Walter Rogers - 1890

Stephen G. Spier - 1886 

Charles Theron Gray - 1887
 

Nelson A. Bradt - 1891
 


Sources

Primary sources used have been cited in each narrative. Two important books related to the topic are available in reprinted editions:  Karl Kron (Lyman Hotchkiss Bagg) Ten Thousand Miles on a Bicycle. New York: Emil Rosenblatt, 1982 and Thomas Stevens, Around the World On a Bicycle. (A facsimile of the original two-volume edition with a new introduction by Thomas Pauly) Stackpole Books, 2001.

The account of transcontinental riders presented in this article is based in part on important research done by John L. Weiss in bicycle periodicals and in microfilm copies of West Coast newspapers. The latter source is of great importance since all except Stevens' ride ended on the Pacific Coast. Michael Wells has supplied helpful information on Frank E. Weaver and Nelson A. Bradt. Data has also been obtained from microfilmed East Coast newspapers, from census records, from county and township material, and from the descendents of three riders.

Research on a topic as large and complex as that addressed in this paper is a work in progress, for more information on the men and their rides will emerge and we may come to have new perspectives on their adventures. A version of this article appeared in the May 2002 (#60) issue of the Wheelmen magazine. Readers are invited to share information and views on the topic with the author.  Contact
Charles Meinert

 

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