american journeys   


Thomas Stevens - 1884

By Charles Meinert
Web Site Bicycle History Consultant
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Stevens was born in England on December 24, 1854 to a respectable family of modest means. He received a sound basic education that ended when he was 14. Three years later he had sufficient funds to pay for his passage to America. He sought opportunities in the West and tried his hand at jobs clerking, farming, and ranching. In the early 1880s in was employed in the Union Pacific rolling mills in Laramie City, Wyoming Territory. He contributed some material to the Laramie newspaper, became familiar with the Laramie Bicycle Club, and knew of their newsworthy bicycle expedition to Yellowstone (Stevens, Vol. I, 63). He also heard of and possibly met some of the men who had made unsuccessful efforts to ride across America (Pauly, iv). He was stimulated to formulated plans to not only ride across America, but to ride around the world. The idea of continuing the ride after crossing America probably reflected the broader worldview resulting from his youth in the hub of the British Empire.

First of all he needed to learn to ride a bicycle. He purchased a painted 50" standard Columbia and practiced riding in the parks of San Francisco. Although still subject to taking headers on his bike he began his ride from that city on April 22, 1884 and was able to cross the snow covered Sierra Mountains by following the Central Pacific Railroad through forty miles of snow sheds. He continued to follow the rail line, taking advantage of section houses along the route for food and lodging. In Ogden, Utah Territory the rail line became the Union Pacific and it led him on to its terminus in Omaha, Nebraska. From this point he crossed Iowa and reached Chicago on July 4, 1884. After a few days rest the ride continued on the Great Lakes route that ran from the tip of Lake Michigan across Indiana to the western end of Lake Erie in the vicinity of Toledo, Ohio. From that location Stevens followed the southern shore of Lake Erie to Buffalo where he rode along or near the Erie Canal across New York State to Albany. The original plan of riding from Albany to New York City had been changed in route to make Boston the termination point for his ride across America. The change probably reflected recognition that Boston was the home of the influential Columbia bicycle czar, Colonel Pope.

The Boston Daily Globe of August 5, 1884 reported Stevens' arrival. "He is of medium height (5'5") and well built (about 140 pounds), he has a very pleasing manner. He is naturally the fairest of blondes, but so thoroughly have the sun and the wind done their work that, were it not for his light moustache, his face would be taken for anything rather than a white man's. He is an Englishman by birth, and is about 29 years of age. His attire consisted of a blue flannel shirt, brown knickerbockers, blue stockings, canvas shoes, and a once white military helmet hat. A notebook was strapped to the head of his machine. His clothing showed unmistakable signs of hard usage. His knickerbockers have been replaced many times."

Stevens used his recollections of the trip and the information recorded in his notebook to write a wonderful 38,000 word description of his trip that appeared in the April, May, June, and July 1885 issues of Outing magazine. His larger two-volume work, Around the World on a Bicycle, that includes most of the material in these articles, was published after the completion of his world tour in January 1887. Steven wrote other books and articles about travels he made without his bike. He returned to England about 1895, married, led a productive life, and died in January 1935.

His Outing articles must have stimulated others to undertake a transcontinental bicycle journey for in 1886 three men undertook the great ride.

Photo:  Thomas Stevens:  A Good Likeness According to Karl Kron.  Source:  Frontispiece, Vol. II, Around The World On A Bicycle.

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