An American Cycling Odyssey, 1887

An American Cycling Odyssey, 1887

An American Cycling Odyssey, 1887

An American Cycling Odyssey, 1887


In 1887 a twenty-one-year-old newspaperman named George Nellis (1865-1948) rode a bicycle from Herkimer, New York, to San Francisco in seventy-two days, surpassing the transcontinental bicycle record by several weeks. He averaged fifty miles a day pedalling a fifty-two-inch, high-wheeled Columbia Expert "ordinary" bicycle with a tubular steel frame and hard rubber tires, and he lost twenty-three pounds in the process.

He bicycled ever westward through sleepy villages, farmlands, and growing cities of the rapidly changing nation and trekked across uninhabited stretches of prairies and mountains that marked its shrinking frontier. Following his daily ten-hour rides, Nellis sat down and wrote letters about his adventures to his hometown newspapers and a national cycling magazine to finance his cross-country journey.

Nellis's epic journey over dirt paths, muddy roads, and occasional railroad ties was plagued by terrible weather, frightening experiences, and odd encounters; yet it was also enriched by breathtaking natural wonders and the generous spirit of many people he met. He nearly drowned in a flash flood, was chased by a furious bull, killed a coyote that accosted him one night, fell victim to mirages in Utah's Great Salt Desert, narrowly missed a tremendous fire that wiped out half of a California town only hours after he had left, and witnessed a horrifying accident on a train track. Nellis also managed to meet the legendary baseball player A. G. Spalding in Chicago, take in professional baseball games in Detroit and Chicago, participate in several bicycle races in Omaha, attend an opera in Cheyenne, Wyoming, enjoy a circus, and eat over two dozen bananas in one sitting in Osceola, Indiana.

Drawing on Nellis's letters and media coverage of the trip, Kevin J. Hayes recreates in compelling detail this amazing trip and the many ordinary and extraordinary faces of late-nineteenth-century America that were once revealed to a young bicyclist.


An American Cycling Odyssey, 1887, chronicles the record-breaking transcontinental bicycle journey undertaken atop a high-wheeled Columbia Expert by twenty-one-year-old George W. Nellis Jr. from Herkimer, New York. Having apprenticed in the newspaper business, Nellis financed his cross-country trek by writing letters during its course to hometown newspapers, the Herkimer Citizen and the Herkimer Democrat, as well as The Wheel and Recreation, a national cycling magazine. His detailed narratives not only depict his arduous experience, they also supply a vivid picture of what America was like in the 1880s from the growing metropolitan areas of Detroit, Chicago, Omaha, Cheyenne, and San Francisco to the hundreds of small towns he visited.

Traveling by bicycle, Nellis saw America differently from other contemporary travelers. Since the completion of the transcontinental railroad, nearly all who ventured through the West – at least those urbane enough to write and publish accounts of their journeys – traveled by train. For the most part, they missed seeing the nation outside of its major cities. Like Richard Harding Davis, they saw the West from a railroad car window. As a bicycle tourist, Nellis had an opportunity to see the nation at a more relaxed pace. He stopped often and met many people along the way. This book is not only Nellis’s story, it is also the story of the places he visited and the people he encountered. Wherever possible, I let Nellis tell his own story, and I often quote from his accounts. Nellis frequently recorded conversations he had with the people he met, and all conversations that appear here are taken from his various accounts of the journey.

Thanks go to many people and places: Heather Briston, Bentley Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Diane Mayer Day, Musser Public Library, Muscatine, Iowa; Amy DeGroff, Smithsonian Institution, Washington dc; Jane Dieffebacher, Fairfield Town . . .

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