Missoula to St. Louis in 1897

Sorensen-Iron RidersOn June 14, 1897, the bicycle corps of the Twenty-fifth Infantry, U.S.A., left Fort Missoula, Montana, headed for St. Louis, Missouri. They completed their journey, 1,900 miles in length, on July 24. On the 34 days they bicycled, they averaged 6.3 mph and 55.9 miles per day.

The contingent consisted of 20 enlisted men, all black soldiers who were often referred to as buffalo soldiers. Two white men were also members of the contingent: Lieutenant James Moss, who commanded the unit, and Assistant Surgeon J. M. Kennedy.

The cyclists were self-contained. Each man travelled with a knapsack, bedroll, and tent half strapped to his handlebars. Food supplies were carried in a narrow canvas luggage case suspended in the main triangle of the bike. Each man carried a rifle strapped to his back. The riders averaged 148.5 pounds per cyclist and the weight of the parked bicycles ranged from 67 to 86 pounds.

The purpose of the trip was to demonstrate the suitability of bicycles for military use. Lieutenant Moss and others who supported the trip were convinced that travel by bicycle was faster than walking and better than traveling as mounted cavalry.

This historic cycling enterprise is the featured article in Adventure Cyclist for May 2011, an issue that focuses attention upon “bicycling’s grand past,” to use a phrase in editor Michael Deme’s column. It was written by Dan D’Ambrosio and includes several photographs taken during the journey and a beautifully rendered map.

The first part of D’Ambrosio’s article describes a redoing of the historic ride in 1974 under the auspices of the African-American studies program at the University of Montana in Missoula. When this program was established in 1968 by Professor Ulysses Doss, it was one of only three in the nation. Among the riders on this renewal of the grand trip were students Marian Martin and Pferron Doss. D’Ambrosio recounts what these two student cyclists have done in later years.

He also tells of the strong interest of Mike Higgins, a middle-school teacher in Deaver, Wyoming, north of Cody. After spending five years researching the 1897 ride and route, Higgins decided to ride it himself. He made his first effort in 2009, a solo venture, but encountered snow and other trials of the road, including times when he was “practically hypothermic.” In Livingston, he abandoned the ride.

The next summer, with his 74-year-old mother driving his truck to provide support, he tried a second time, and was successful, completing the ride in 28 days. He was also able, with the truck, to take side trips in order to do further research on the ride.

In order to publish the materials he is discovering about this episode in cycling history, Higgins maintains a blog, www.bicyclecorps.blogspot.com. Although I have accessed the blog, I have not yet read the extensive body of material that he has gleaned from his studies.

My main source of information is a book by George Niels Sorensen entitled Iron Riders: Story of the 1890s Fort Missoula Buffalo Soldiers Bicycle Corps (Missoula: Pictorial Histories Publishing Co., 2000). I bought my copy at the Buffalo Soldiers Museum on my recent trip through Fort Huachuca during PAC Tour’s Desert Camp 2014. D’Ambrosio also draws upon this book for the latter part of his article in Adventure Cyclist. Several aspects of the story are especially interesting to me.

First, the zeal with which Lieutenant Moss and a few others in the military approached this matter of using bicycles for military purposes. Along with this attitude was their determination to replicate military discipline even though soldiers were on bicycles trying to ride in primitive conditions.

Second, the imaginative way that they carried their gear. As one who has always valued traveling with minimal gear and equipment, I am very much impressed by the compactness of these bicycle travelers. Much of the credit goes to Lieutenant Moss who was meticulous in his planning and disciplined in his command of the unit.

He explained to a reporter how they carried the food. “The bacon was cut into small chunks and wrapped in cloth. The coffee, sugar, and flour was carried in rubber cloth bags, about 18 inches by 5 inches. All the rations, together with the knife, fork, spoon, and tin plate were carried in the frame cases. The tin cup was fastened either under the seat of the saddle, or on top the blanket roll.”

Third, the seriousness of the soldiers’ engagement in this arduous, dangerous, previously untried mode of travel.

Fourth, the durability of their bicycles despite the loads they carried, the primitive condition of the roads and trails on which they traveled, and the early stages of development of their elegant machines. I am astounded by the fact that that tires, as primitive as they were at that time, were as serviceable as they were.

Virtual Ride # 1: One of my daydreams is to ride this route myself. Realism leads me to doubt that the occasion will arise, which means that I’m registering the Buffalo Soldiers Route in my book of Virtual Rides—bike rides I can do in my imagination even if I never get them done in real time.



2 Responses to Missoula to St. Louis in 1897

  1. jacbikes says:

    I remember that great article in Adventure Cycling. Fascinating story of creativity, commitment, & endurance! I saw a bicycle which was designed for use by soldier, though it never proved practical for combat purposes, when Rick & I toured the Pedalling History Museum in Buffalo, NY on our UGRR ride in 2009. I like your idea of a Virtual Ride list! Who knows, perhaps at least a portion of those rides might become real, too!

  2. klaus Schreiber says:

    it is impressive what more than 100 years ago people were able and willing to do on their cycles.
    While I would like to re-experience their feast an attempt at a virtual experience might be more realistic for me.

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