american journeys   


George W. Nellis, Jr. - 1887

By Charles Meinert
Web Site Bicycle History Consultant
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This wheelman was born in the Mohawk Valley town of Herkimer in the same year as Van Meerbeke and Spier, 1865. Herkimer is located about 20 miles from the East Springfield home of transcontinental rider Theron Gray and 40 miles from the Nelson Bradt's boyhood home, Johnstown, New York. For unknown reasons all high wheel riders who crossed America, except Stevens, came from the northeast.

The Nellis's were part of the Palatine settlers who had been in the Valley since the early 18th century. George's family valued education, but George was more interested in the newspaper business than he was in the medical education obtained by his two brothers.

As a young man he was of medium stature, as were most other transcontinental riders and he weighed about 150 pounds. He rode a 52" nickel-plated Columbia Expert, but seldom rode more than 50 miles on local rides. His article on "Cycling in America," published in the May 1887 issue of the Herkimer Citizen, revealed his thoughts and plans for a great adventure. "The next important event in cycling history is found in the wonderful trip of Thomas Stevens in 1884….His success persuaded others to attempt the journey and in 1886 George B. Thayer, F. E. Van Meerbeke, and S. G. Spier rode across the Continent on bicycles…. Autographed letters in the writer's possession from these wheelmen state that the trip is engendered with far less danger than is supposed….In touring across the continent one will meet with adventures to be had in no other way….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."

Nellis had done his homework. A route almost identical to that used by Stevens was planned, except Nellis would follow the northern, rather than the southern, shoreline of Lake Erie. Mail pickup cities about every 500 miles had been established, and former Herkimer residents living along his route had been contacted. The final details were arrangements with the Herkimer Citizen, the Herkimer Democrat, and the Wheel and Recreation of New York City to publish his letter accounts of the journey. He departed from Herkimer on May 24, 1887 in the company of a friend who rode with him as far as Niagara Falls.

In addition to viewing the Falls there were stops in other spots frequented by touring wheelmen: Chicago, Salt Lake City, and Lake Tahoe. Salt Lake City was seen as the place to consider the "Mormon Question". Although polygamy had been outlawed, there was still considerable curiosity about the practice and Stevens even reported meeting a Mormon with two wives.

Nellis' letters contained mileage details, complaints of terrible roads, and accounts of walking countless miles. Readers were also supplied with information about obtaining lodging and sufficient food since riders were always hungry and often lost 20 pounds in the early stages of a ride. Nellis found pleasure in describing an occurrence in a small Indiana town on June 8, 1887. "We repair to the corner grocery. Glory! A stem of bananas. Glorious! Some molasses cookies. 'Cookies 8 cents a dozen, and I'll give you all the bananas you can eat for 25 cents.' I take six bananas and a dozen cookies. Five minutes later I want six more bananas and in ten minutes later I want six more bananas. Bananas are going down fast. Extraordinary demand and two dozen have been laid away. 'Here, take your quarter and get out of this.'"

His letter reports are distinctive for reporting on developments in the West and assessing the opportunities awaiting those that leave their Eastern homes in search of fortune and a better life beyond the Mississippi. Most of his comparisons favored the East, but after reaching San Francisco in 72 days, on August 4, 1887, he was more willing to concede that there were great opportunities for young professional men who are not afraid of hard work.

Nellis was also impressed with the natural wonders of the Golden State. He marveled at the gigantic trees near Mariposa and Yosemite enraptured him. After about ten days of such pleasurable activity he booked passage home on the steamer San Blas, which left for Panama on August 15, with a stop at Mazatlan, Mexico. Travelers crossed the Isthmus of Panama by a four-hour train ride that cost $25. The steamship Newport carried its passengers to New York City. He arrived on September 7, 1887 and after a few days of sightseeing he made the three-day bicycle trip to his Herkimer home where he was accorded a warm welcome and presented with a gold medal inscribed "champion long distance bicycle rider, 1887." Nellis soon married and embarked on a successful journalistic career. His bicycle resided for many years in Henry Ford's museum, but it was eventually returned to Herkimer, as were Nellis' ashes when he died in 1948.

The three separate newspaper accounts of his ride totaled about 40,000 words. They provide an excellent description of his journey and they formed the basis of the three-part article on Nellis and his trip that appeared in numbers 57, 58, and 59 of The Wheelmen magazine.

Photo:  George Nellis in New Bicycle Suit, San Francisco, August 1887.  Source:  Collection of Gordon D. Riedell.
 

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