Around the United States by Bicycle
Claude C. Murphy, 1906 356 pages
(Note: before we forget, here's the link to the crossing of Donner Summit)
Clarence Darling and Claude C. Murphy were 19 and 20 years old when their adventure began and they left their Michigan homes in 1904 to travel around the Unites States by bicycle. They had thought about some kind of trip like that by foot, train, or other conveyance for some years but hadn’t gotten to any planning. Then “the hand of providence intervened” when they heard about a bet some “eastern sportsmen” were wagering. Could a trip be made by bicycle through every state and territory within one year and six months? To complicate matters could “The traveler… start penniless, neither to beg, work, borrow, nor steal, and to make all of his traveling expenses by the sale of… some little trinket…” The two intrepid fellows “gladly hailed this opportunity… to gratify and satisfy our desire to ‘see the country’” and to win $5,000. To prove compliance the men had to see mayors or city officials around the country and collect affidavits of their visits. They also had to get postmarks from every post office they passed. Finally they had to make an accounting of expenses and “souvenirs” (the trinkets) sold. Claude said that all the “red tape” would have “made even a preacher use some very strong language.” But if you want $5,000 you have to make sacrifices.
The introduction says Clarence and Claude adhered to all of the conditions and “met with adventure of every description, in some of which the hideous countenance of Death stared them in the face…” The trip took one year, three months, six days, and forty-five minutes. They covered 13,407 miles. Of course, since this article here, the guys went over Donner Summit.
Presumably to keep away competition all planning of their trip was in secret until the week before they left. At that point it was a “bomb-shell.” Some said the guys were candidates for the insane asylum. Others gave it no credence. Even the people who thought it would be a good experience expected failure.
To finance the trip the men had little souvenirs (see below) of their ride which they were to sell on the journey. That was the only money they could have.
Their bicycles were standards “roadsters” which weighed 28 lbs. Loaded they weighed 75 lbs. The frames were 22” and had no brakes. Their bicycle handles were turned up so they could ride almost erect. Their baggage included a small typewriter for writing up reports and correspondence. The men wore “regulation bicycle suits.” Their sweaters were purple and yellow with scarlet insignias of the YMCA on the front and they wore bright orange bicycle stockings with whitish shoes. Their outfits were “such a dazzling display of color… [as if] part of a rainbow had broken loose and was perambulating around the country.”
Murphy and Darling had many adventures: a couple of times almost hit by trains in tunnels (once there was only three inches to spare -“The train had passed, leaving us limp masses of flesh, quaking in every nerve.”) or on trestles (being half way along a long trestle and hearing a train approach they climbed over the edge and hung on holding their “machines” – the framework of the trestle groaning, creaking, and vibrating “with the awful strain and weight, so that w are nearly shaken from our positions.”), confrontation with a hobo which ended when the men drew their guns, impassable roads, rain and mud, a Republican convention, carrying their bicycles to avoid cacti, running out of money, good hosts and bad, desert sun, storms, welcomes by bicycle enthusiasts, rescuing a horse from a burning barn and being accused of being the arsonists, riding through a forest fire (“a terrific bombardment, huge trees falling every minute, while the rush and roar of the flames are sufficient to strike terror into the stoutest heart… the heat was blistering”), broken bicycles, etc,
Over 13,000 miles there were a lot of adventures, most important to readers the Heirloom is the crossing of the Sierra at Donner Pass. See the next story.
A lot can happen in 13,000 miles; 15 months, six days, and forty-five minutes and Mr. Murphy included most of that in an almost day-to-day description. That can make the reading a bit tedious at times because one town is much like another and one smaller incident is much like another. One can skim though.
This book is also a slice of America in 1904. Murphy and Darling had no problem walking up to a house and asking to pay for dinner and to stay the night. It seems to have been a common thing. Their bicycling the country got a lot of attention in the towns they visited and selling the souvenirs of their around-the-country trip went well, at least to begin with. I can’t imagine those things today. Imagine someone coming to your door one evening begrimed by the road and asking to stay the night and that you provide dinner. That said, I must admit that a couple came to our door one evening on their way walking across the U.S. and we accommodated them on Donner Summit.
Prices, life, living conditions, local industries, the killing of a “negro” the body allowed to lie waiting for the coroner who never arrived (”Well, there’s another nigger got rid of”), how much “negroes” were paid in Louisiana (65c/day), what cities and towns were like, the use of snuff by women (“This is a most disgusting and loathsome habit, especially for the fair sex.”) and the way things were done are all interesting.
There is also the casual racism that Mr. Murphy exhibits about “negroes” (“the population consists of negroes, with which the streets are crowded, lounging here and there; about everything there hangs an air of indolence and sleepy repose” – Arkansas), the Chinese (their accents), or “Hebrews” (“hooked nose”), and his disparagement of some locals in “Indian territory” (“… a neglectful and dingy air hung about them… The inhabitants generally seemed to be an ignorant and indolent class, inclined to talk and gossip rather than work.”. – Texas). It was a different time and the young men were products of their time. It’s interesting to see how far we’ve come.
They saw and did a lot such as: the many, many memorials, statues, exhibits, and battlefields of the Civil War; the sights in the big cities; the subway; climbing the Washington Monument and the Statue of Liberty; seeing the Cliff House in San Francisco; visiting Coney Island; seeing Niagara Falls; etc.
Besides the distance it was a hard trip braving deep mud; carrying their bicycles for miles many times; enduring -29 degree cold; wading through icy streams; “roughing it” sleeping on floors, porches, or the ground; dealing with rain; navigating flood waters; trying to walk through “sticky adhesive clay, in which one sinks at least a foot at every step, and from which it is almost impossible to extract one’s foot;” and having to relay over and over when one of the bicycles was unusable.
By the time the men reached Maine they were down to $1 in funds. The East Coast had not been a good market for their souvenirs. By Vermont they were out of money. No one was of any help and by the time they reached Montpelier they’d been without food for days. In order to sell their souvenirs there they had to procure a $3 license, “This is the last straw, and we see that Fate is indeed against us…” They told their tale of woe to a lunchroom proprietor who agreed to feed them and let them work off the meals’ cost by doing dishes. The work, of course, violated the conditions of the wager after thousands of miles and 334 pages of text.
“It was with heavy hearts that we filled out the report which told of our inability to live up to the conditions of the wager, and thought of the times without number when we had nearly lost our lives, of the innumerable sufferings and hardships which we had been forced to endure in order to cover all but three states, Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky, of every state in the Union, and now virtually on the ‘home stretch,’ and almost within sight of home; and now it had all come to naught. Surely the cup of defeat is most bitter!”
They decided to continue their tour, however, even though they’d “failed to win the five thousand dollar purse.”
They pulled into their starting point one year, three months, six days, and forty-five minutes after they’d left. The picture of the finish is above.
This book is available as a reprint or for free as some version of “E” book on the internet.
For the adventure over Donner Summit (link)