HISTORY: The first bicycle trip across the Sierra

Bill Oudegeest
Special to the Sierra Sun
Thomas Stevens’ bicycle was a 48 pound Columbia Ordinary, “high wheeler” or “penny farthing” — one of those bicycles with the large front wheel and a small back wheel. Some people called these bicycles “bone crushers.” There were no gears — the bicycles were “direct drive.”

Thomas Stevens had never been on a bicycle when, in 1884, he decided to ride across the Sierra, across the country, and around the world by bike.

No one had ever thought to do what he had planned.

The first order of business was learning how to ride a bike. A quick lesson in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park encouraged him to leave San Francisco in April for his grand adventure. He obviously did not realize that snow lasts a lot longer in the Sierra.

Stevens’ bicycle was a 48 pound Columbia Ordinary, “high wheeler” or “penny farthing” — one of those bicycles with the large front wheel and a small back wheel. It cost $110, had wooden wheels and solid rubber tires. Some people called these bicycles “bone crushers.” There were no gears — the bicycles were “direct drive.”

Stevens traveled light carrying only extra socks, a shirt, bedroll, pistol and a gossamer rubber coat he could use as a tent.

Bicycle riding in those days was harder than today. In many places it was more bike walking than bike riding. Stevens used the path that ran next to the railroad because it was “occasionally rideable.”

The roads were not.

As he approached the Sierra people began asking how he was going to get through the snow.

Snowsheds, he said.

The streets in Dutch Flat were a torrent and it was snowing on the Summit.

The snowsheds were the only way over the mountain and were “built at great expense to protect the track from the vast quantities of snow …”

Bike riding through the snowsheds was not an option and Stevens “trudged merrily along” pushing his enormous bike through the tunnels. Traveling through the snowsheds was anything but “pleasant going” as he traveled the “gloomy interior” that was both “dark and smoky.”

Stevens didn’t have a train schedule so he had to make do when a train passed. At one point he was crossing a trestle when a train approached. He had no other option but to get out on a rail, hang his bicycle over the precipice and hold on for dear life as the train passed.

In the sheds 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 Sierra sheds he climbed a pine tree to “obtain a view of Donner Lake, called the ‘Gem of the Sierras.’”

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

After the Sierra 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.”

Stevens finished his cross-country jaunt in August in New York. It had taken 103 days and covered 3,700 miles. Then he embarked on his round-the- world adventure. In 1887, he returned to San Francisco from the west having covered 13,500 miles. He’d walked about one-third of the journey and confronted a mountain lion, lack of roads, 130 degree Indian heat, inability to communicate in foreign lands, loneliness, almost being stoned to death, being arrested as a spy, and being waylaid by highwaymen.

He’d lost 25 pounds from his small 5-foot, 5-inch frame on the journey.

Bicycling continues to be a favored pastime with the Donner Summit-Truckee area offering a vast assortment of trails

Any good day will find people bicycling from Truckee to Tahoe City, going out to circumnavigate Lake Tahoe, ride around Donner Lake, or travel over the summit to Cisco and back.

Today’s bicyclists follow in the tracks of early bicyclists, the most amazing of whom was Thomas Stevens.

Bill Oudegeest has had a house on Donner Summit for more than 40 years. He is a retired public school teacher and administrator and one of the founders of the Donner Summit Historical Society. He writes and edits the Donner Summit Heirloom, has published two books on local history, written a variety of pamphlets and exhibits, leads hikes, and more.

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