Santa Rosa to Seattle by Bicycle in 1909

In the summer of 1909, following graduation from high school, Vic McDaniel and Ray Francisco bicycled from their hometown of Santa Rosa, California, to Seattle, Washington, in order to attend the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. With editorial support from their local newspaper, they started their adventure on August 9 and 54 days later, on October 3, they reached their destination, just in time to claim a $25 prize that had been offered them by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The distance they traveled was recorded on a Veeder cyclometer: 1,000 miles, 200 of them walking and pulling their bicycles behind them with a device that one of them had designed.

Vic and Ray rode used, single-speed bicycles, wore the garb that was customary among cyclists of the time, and carried camping supplies and other necessities for life on the road. A photograph in the book, taken on the morning of their departure, shows them carrying surprisingly compact loads. Given the primitive character of the roads they would ride, the less they carried, the better.

Their route was one that is familiar to everyone who has traveled through Northern California, Oregon, and Washington, whether on the Pacific Highway, old US 99, or Interstate 5: Vacaville, Corning, Weed, Medford, Eugene, Salem, Portland, Kelso, Olympia, and Tacoma. Since they made their trip before a system of roads had been established, their route consisted of wagon roads, horse trails, and railroad tracks. In a few towns, streets had recently been macadamized and part of the time they enjoyed graded gravel roads. In places, the road surface was corduroy planks; and once they traveled over a road made of corn stalks.

The two teenagers spent most nights camping along the trail, sometimes anxious because of wild animals. Because they had little money, they had to stop several times to work in order to replenish their meager treasury. They had to deal with tire troubles, and late in the trip one of the bicycles broke apart, necessitating time out for it to be brazed back together.

Although they encountered a few dishonest people along the way, the more common experience was friendship and encouragement. Near the end of the trip, one of the travelers encountered medical challenges: first, serious saddle sores and then a feverish condition they called the grippe. They persevered, completed the trip, claimed their prize, and enjoyed the exposition.

The story was reconstructed by Evelyn McDaniel Gibb, the daughter of one of the travelers. Day by day, as she developed her manuscript, she read it to her father who corrected her account, added details, and encouraged her to continue. Although Gibbs does not report when these conversations took place, it must have been several years before the publication of the book, which was in 2000, ninety-one years after the two high school graduates took their trip.

She draws upon post cards the boys sent home, letters to the Santa Rosa newspaper, stories written in the Santa Rosa and Seattle papers, and other research into conditions of the time.

Gibb writes the story in first person, with her father the narrator. She has created dialogue between the boys and with the people whom they met. Her language sometimes is contrived; it is hard to believe that the boys talked the way they sometimes do in this story. The author’s prose style, however, can be overlooked because the story itself is so strong. Although a few people from Santa Rosa had traveled to Seattle, they had gone by steamer or train. These two teenagers were the first to travel “overland not by rail.”

The story is interesting and suspenseful. It expresses the adventuresome character of travel a century ago. The book was winner of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association nonfiction book award. Two Wheels North: Bicycling the West Coast in 1909, by Evelyn McDaniel Gibb (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2000).

In 2009 a group of cyclists retraced this route. For details, click here.

2 Responses to Santa Rosa to Seattle by Bicycle in 1909

  1. Mike Eberts says:

    Do you have any idea what happened to Ray Francisco? I know Vic McDaniel was a successful accountant, and Ray seemed to be very much his equal.

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