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Living history: An incredible journey via motorized bike across 1903 America

First Published      Last Updated Apr 02 2016 07:11 pm

On May 16, 1903, George A. Wyman set out to ride, push, prod, drag, patch, and pedal his gasoline-powered, motorized bicycle from San Francisco to New York by way of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Nevada's rugged highlands and Utah's salty West Desert.

Wyman's bike of choice was a new 200 cc, 1.5 horsepower California Moto Bicycle, designed and built by Roy C. Marks. Mounted on a traditional bicycle frame, the American-made model had wooden rims, was equipped with a leather and spring saddle, and front and rear brakes. It promised speeds of up to 25 mph.




The wheelman's epic journey — nearly 4,000 miles in 50 days — was a first for coast-to-coast, motorized-cycle travel. A competitive cyclist, his story was published in The Motorcycle Magazine.

Nearly 10 years before the historic Lincoln Highway was built, there were no printed maps or serviceable east-west routes but for the transcontinental railroad line that shadowed the early Oregon, Mormon and California trails.

Stowing gear and few amenities, the 27-year-old Wyman motored over steep hills, "ran full tilt into a patch of sand," landing ungracefully 10 feet away. He bruised his muffler, became disoriented, was derailed by swollen rivers, but finally located the Southern Pacific railway.

"The crossties of the roadbed make bicycle riding of any sort dangerous when it is not absolutely impossible," he wrote. "I walked the road-bed and 'bumped it' across the trestles."

Three days in, while "nursing" an overheated bike with oil every 10 miles or so, Wyman made it across the Emigrant Gap in the high Sierra Nevada and stumbled upon a six-mile stretch he considered "the vilest road that mortals ever dignified by the term" and lost his oil can.

Floundering next in deep snow, Wyman took refuge in a series of slant-roofed snow sheds. He lugged his bike from one structure to the next. Reaching Reno, he slept soundly in a hotel bed and departed under an overcast sky.

Alone in the middle of Lahontan Valley's Forty Mile Desert, Wyman wrote his tire was punctured by "a fragment of a beer bottle," one of many most likely tossed from passenger trains. Plugging it with a 2-inch wad and binding it with tire tape, he was relieved to ride on hard-packed sand abutting the rails, but confounded by the loss of his second cyclometer. The first one had bounced off a Sacramento bridge.

Wyman bought gas and a third cyclometer in Lovelock. He pulled out his Kodak pocket camera to capture Humbold's grandeur. Several miles west of Winnemucca, he took a shortcut away from the railroad tracks and got stuck in sand dunes.

"This is the place where automobiles that try to cross the continent come to grief," he later wrote.

Heeding rail lines into the Great Salt Lake Desert toward the Central Pacific railroad town of Terrace, Utah, Wyman got a rare glimpse of the town's 16-stall roundhouse, eight-track switchyard and bustling population before it became a ghost town.

Wyman tended to frostbitten ears and sunburned eyes on the same day. Seeing a mirage, he raced toward a Conestoga wagon that didn't exist. But when an overnight rain hardened the desert floor, Wyman joyfully cruised 104 miles along the northern shore of the Great Salt Lake and roomed at a section house that offered clean sheets and a good mattress.

In Ogden, Wyman picked up a new set of tires and oil. He met bicycle shop owner and future car dealer Louis H. Becraft, noted in 1899 for being Utah's first to own a gas-powered, single-cylinder Winton. Wyman purchased new handlebars (after using a wooden stick for 100 miles) and replaced 10 wheel spokes. He also befriended S.C. Higgins, who offered hospitality and sporting his own custom-built, gas-powered bicycle accompanied Wyman onto the next set of rails.

Eileen Hallet Stone, author of "Hidden History of Utah," a compilation of her Living History columns in The Salt Lake Tribune, may be reached at ehswriter@aol.com. Special thanks go to motor aficionados Michael Hallet and Robert Rampton.

 

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