Around the World on a Bicycle

The first trip across the Sierra, across the No. Am. Continent, and around the world by bike. There are lots more pictures in our March, '15 Heirloom newsletter.

In April of ’14 a fellow stopped in to see Norm at the DSHS on his way across Donner Summit by bicycle.  Crossing the summit by bike is not unusual.  Many hundreds do it in good weather, relishing the effort going up and then the exhilaration of the speed going down.   It’s the agony and ecstasy of bicycling on Donner Summit I suppose.  They’ll start at Cisco and go over to Donner Lake on Old 40 or vice versa.  But that’s another story and not for the Heirloom.  

The fellow who stopped in to see Norm was on his way to reprise a 19th Century trip around the world by bike.  Norm and the fellow spent some hours together. The fellow was taken with the Heirloom article of the bicyclists who came up from Sacramento by bike in 1901 to go camping, which was in our May ‘14 issue. Then the fellow hopped on his bike and left, promising the mention Norm and the DSHS in the book he will write about his adventures circumnavigating the globe in 2014.  

That story set off a search by our research department.   

We thought we’d hit pay dirt, and there were “high fives” all round, when we came to Annie Londenderry (or Annie Cohen-Kopchovsky) who was the first woman to bike the world and did so in 1894.  Alas, after tracking down articles and books, there was a summary of her route. She did not cross Donner Summit.  Annie’s story is interesting though, even if it’s not about Donner Summit history.  She left New York in June, 1894 on a 42 lb. bicycle.  In Chicago she traded it in on a bike half the weight that had no brakes or gears.  She also changed her dress for bloomers and then changed her direction, turning around and going the other way around the world.  Annie was Jewish, but hid that with the Londenderry name. She also hid the fact that she was a mother of three who’d left the kids at home with her husband. She foresaw the age of sponsors by pasting advertisements on her and her bike.  She also did a lot of travel by ship and train rather than on the bike,  but that’s all a different story too.   You can read about her in Around the world on Two wheels by her great nephew, Peter Zheutlin.

Back to the research and with a bit of tenacity, there was success.  Thomas Stevens did cross Donner Summit by bike in 1884 and was the first to circumnavigate the world by bicycle.  On the way he was also the first to cross the North American Continent by bike, and probably the first the cross Donner Summit by bike. Here it might be more accurate to say that he crossed Donner Summit with his bike.  Long distance bicyclists in those days had no compunction against hopping on a train, a steamship, or walking.  Some played very loose with the facts which is not to say our new hero did any loose fact playing. Read on.

Stevens must have been an interesting guy.  He was born in England.  His father came to America and was going to send for the family but ended up having to go back to England when his wife became sick. At that point Thomas asked his father if he could go to America alone.  You can imagine the father’s response but then Thomas showed his father that he’d saved up his passage money.  Thomas, age 17, came to America and worked in a railroad mill in Wyoming and then in mining in Colorado. He got into a little trouble and ended up in San Francisco.  He’d gotten the idea to ride around the world on a bicycle before he’d ever ridden a bicycle.  He rectified that lack of experience with a two hours’ trial in Golden Gate Park. That little tidbit comes from and 1887 book, 10,000 Miles on a Bicycle which is really a reference book of long distance riding, just one of the sources that was used for this article.  The author, Karl Krone, dedicated his book to his bulldog, “the very best dog whose presence ever blessed this planet.”  That was just fun to include here but completely irrelevant.  Stevens was still on his around the world journey when “10,000 Miles…” was written but Krone remarked that Stevens would continue to set records on his journey as long as he was not killed.  Bicycling was more dangerous in those days.

After the round the world travel Stevens was a bit at “loose ends” and when the offer from the New York World came for Stevens to go to Africa to look for the explorer Henry Morton Stanley, he jumped at it.  He didn’t find Stanley but did have African adventures and collected African souvenirs.  He later traveled the world, sending reports back to American newspapers, and wrote a couple of books.  Then he tired of travel, went back to England, married, and settled in to a conventional life.

Stevens began his journey around the world on April 22, 1884 in San Francisco, CA. He said, “The beauties of nature are scattered with a more lavish hand across the country lying between the summit of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the shores where the surf romps and rolls over the auriferous sands of the Pacific, in Golden Gate Park, than in a journey of the same length in any other part of the world.”  He should know.  That is the opening sentence of his book, Around the World on a Bicycle.  Some editions come in Part I and Part II.  The picture to the left is obviously just the first part of the journey.

Stevens crossed the Bay on a ferry and then started cycling from Oakland. From there he traveled to San Pablo, Suisun, Davis, Sacramento, and Rocklin. By the time he got to Rocklin people were asking, “What’ll you do when you hit the snow?”  In April there is typically still a lot of snow on Donner Summit.  Unlike others who tried traversing the Sierra before snowmelt, Stevens had made plans.  “…the long snow-sheds of the Central Pacific Railway make it possible for one to cross over, no matter how deep the snow…” 

Today we travel Placer County to the Sierra on an Interstate at high speed.  Stevens was traveling considerably slower and so saw a lot more: abandoned mine shafts, decaying sluice boxes, washed out gravel, water ditches, heaps of gravel, etc.  It all told “in language more eloquent than word or pen, of the palmy days of ’49…”  He traveled through Auburn and Clipper Gap sticking mostly to the path that followed alongside the rail line.  The path was “occasionally rideable” whereas the roads were not. It snowed a bit at Clipper Gap and that was when a railroad employee told Stevens that there was so much snow up high that the trains could barely squeeze through the snowheds (snow blew into the sheds through the cracks in the boards), leaving no room for Stevens and his bicycle.  Stevens decided to keep going anyway.  Next it was through Dutch Flat where the streets were shallow streams as water poured “in torrents from above [in elevation].”

The next day Stevens began to travel through the snowsheds, “built at great expense to protect the track from the vast quantities of snow…”  The “roofs [are] built so slanting that the mighty avalanche of rock and snow that comes thundering down from above glides harmlessly over… The section-houses, the water tanks, stations, and everything along here are all under the gloomy but friendly shelter of the great protecting sheds.”

It turned out the “difficulties of getting through” were much less than rumors had said.  He could not ride in the sheds but could “trudge merrily along…”   Occasionally there were short breaks in the sheds and then he could trace the “sinuous structure” of the sheds as they wound their “tortuous way around the rugged mountains sides, and through the gloomy pine forest, all but buried under the snow.” He imagined the snowsheds were “some wonderful relic of a past civilization, when a venturesome race of men thus dared to invade these vast wintry solitudes and burrow their way through the deep snow, like moles burrowing through the loose earth.”  There were no living things around.  He heard only the “occasional roar of a distant snow-slide, and the mournful sighing of the breeze as it plays a weird, melancholy dirge through the gently swaying branches…”  Trudging “merrily along” he had a lot of time to compose evocative prose.

At the summit Stevens stayed at the Summit Hotel (see Art Clark Finds the Summit Hotel in the July ’13 Heirloom), “seven thousand and seventeen feet above the level of the sea.”  So much snow falls on the summit, he learned, that “thirty feet on the level is no unusual thing…” and “snow-balling” on July 4th is “no great luxury at the Summit House…”  Even with snow all around it was not cold and he traveled with just a shirt and a gossamer rubber coat to shed the water falling from the snowshed roofs.  Some water froze after dripping and froze into “all manner of fantastic shapes.” There were “whole menageries of ice animals, birds, and all imaginable objects… reproduced in clear crystal ice…”   Traveling forty miles through the dark snowsheds pushing a 48 pound bike must have made his mind wander. 

Traveling through the snowsheds was anything but “pleasant going” as he traveled the “gloomy interior” that was both “dark and smoky.”  Groping his way over the rough surface was not pleasant.  When he heard a train he’d “proceed to occupy as small an amount of space as possible against the side, and wait for the “smoke-emitting monsters” to pass.  The engines “fill every nook and corner of the tunnel with dense smoke, which creates a darkness by the side of which the natural darkness of the tunnel is daylight in comparison.  Here is a darkness that can be felt ; I have to grope my way forward, inch by inch ; afraid to set my foot down until I have felt the place, for fear of blundering into a culvert…”  “I pause
every few steps to listen” for an approaching train.

When he emerged from the sheds he climbed a pine tree to “obtain a view of Donner Lake, called the ‘Gem of the Sierras.’”  That of course brought up the Donner Party that became snowed in there.  Stevens’ version of events was that when the relief party arrived in the Spring, “the last survivor of the party, crazed with the fearful suffering he had undergone, was sitting on a log, savagely gnawing away at a human arm, the last remnant of his companions in misery, off whose emaciated carcasses he had for some time been living!”  That seems a bit lurid and at odds with the composer of the evocative prose above, but it was a common understanding of the travails of the Donner Party in the 19th Century.  Some news reports of the time are even more lurid or at least dwell on bones blanketing the ground and the tales of cannibalism.  The 19th Century public would have enjoyed our supermarket tabloids no doubt.  Next month we’ll have a review of the original Donner  Party book, The History of the Donner Party by C.F. McGlashan, published in 1879.

Then it was down the Truckee, a “rapid, rollicking stream” along which were dams and mill sites without limit.  There was little ridable road down to Truckee but Stevens eventually found good road at Verdi.

After the Sierrra it was on to the 40 Mile Desert in Nevada.  In Reno “the characteristic whiskey-straight hospitality of the Far West at once asserts itself” and he stopped for a few days to “paint Reno red.”
On August 4, 1884 Stevens completed his cross country jaunt.  He had gone 3,700 miles in 103 days. Then it was off to conquer the world. He sailed into San Francisco in January, 1887 completing 13,500 miles of bicycling and walking (he walked about a third of the journey*).    On the way he’d had to confront a mountain lion, deserts, lack of roads, 130 degree Indian heat, inability to communicate in foreign lands,  loneliness and almost being stoned to death.  He had to dissuade highwaymen and he had to  cross Afghanistan (where he was arrested as a spy and ended up having to take a steamer to India).  He lost 25 pounds from his 5’ 5” frame on the journey.

If you want to read his adventures, his book is available from various sources on the internet for just a few dollars. It can also be found for free as some variety of “ebook.”  It’s called Around the World on a Bicycle by Thomas Stevens, published in 1887.  It’s a fun read.

*although in Ten Thousand Miles by Bicycle by Karl Krone (1887) had interviewed Thomas Stevens about his trip and reported that for the initial part of the journey from S.F. to Utah, Stevens had to walk a half to two-thirds of the way.