To The Golden Gate 12
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To The Golden Gate 12
George Nellis' 1887 Wheel Across The Continent
Sacramento, California to Benicia, California. 69 miles, 10 1/2 hours
To our mingled disgust and astonishment, there
were no wagon roads leading west out of the city, excepting by way of
Lathrop, 40 miles around. The direct wagon road passed thro' the "Twelve
Swamps" and was consequently under water for a mile or more. At last we
determined to take the track, at the risk of being run down in the middle of
a mile trestle. Three times we narrowly escaped being overtaken by trains on
the trestle, in which case a jump to the ground 12 or 15 feet below would
have been necessary, at the risk of breaking our neck, or 'cycle, or both.
Then five miles of good running to Davisville [Davis]. On to Dixon and took
dinner with a farmer, three miles out of town, at 12. Eight miles more into
Elmira and two hours and a half were consumed going to Suisun. Three hours
more in making Benicia, so it was 7 p.m. when we pulled up at the latter
place, tired, hungry, dusty and bedraggled generally. Here we were greeted
with the astonishing intelligence that a tremendous fire had visited Colfax
the night before and burned to the ground two large hotels and half the
town, including the hostelry where we were stopping Sunday night. The guests
in the hotels had to flee in their nightclothes, and lost everything.
Benicia, California to San Francisco, California. 38 miles, 5 hours
Benicia is located on the bay, so we chartered a row boat Wednesday
morning to take us across – our cycle and I – and landed at Port Costa at 6
o'clock. Away we go, up hill and down to San Pablo, on good roads, 18 miles
in two hours, our Expert seemingly possessed with as much enthusiasm as we,
in the desire to capture the end of the journey. Wheeling along the coast,
we reached West Berkeley and entered Oakland, reaching the pier at 10:15,
with a cyclometer register of 3,369 miles! Taking the boat, we were soon
sailing over, and landed in 'Frisco in thirty minutes. As proudly as our
dilapidated, unshod, unshorn, unshaven, dejected, disjointed appearance
would admit we marched up Market Street to the "Baldwin," and were soon
surrounded by a host of welcoming Bay city wheelmen. We lost no time in
dispatching a telegram announcing our arrival. Reader you may imagine with
what proud satisfaction we penned those few momentous words. Our task was
done. Thank God! But our cup of happiness, already full to the brim received
an added nectar, when five hours later the following dispatch was handed us
by the cable service. "To G. W. Nellis, Champion Long Distance Wheelman: All
Herkimer sends heartfelt congratulations. 'Herkimer against the world.' THE
BOYS (His friends C. P. Avery, W. I. Taber, and S. S. Patrick).
But ere I relinquish the pen, already grown blunt and 'tired' from its two months' weary jaunt, I would say a few words regarding this so-called 'great west.' First, many, very many, of you back their in New York have an incorrect opinion of this vast expanse of territory known as the western El Dorado. In my letter to you, I have studiously endeavored to give you a true, unvarnished, ungilded, matter of fact picture of the country as I saw it, and as it naturally is, and so you will find it. Those of you who imagine this country is more uncivilized than your New England states, are again doomed to disappointment. Let no one come out here stocked with an arsenal of defensive weapons. There is nothing here to harm you, lest it be the utter desolation found on the plains, and that is too big a game for your eastern magazine guns. Let no one come out here with the expectation of plucking gold nuggets from bushes and scooping up diamonds from eave troughs, for you will do neither. Your nuggets will turn to sand, and sagebrush, and your diamonds will vanish into thin air. This country is distinctly similar to your own, in that wealth is here in plenty, but you must get it by hard labor. The mechanic, the day laborer, the farmer, is better off in York State than he is out here. The only difference is in the matter of capital. A good, sprightly business man with sufficient capital, and ability to apply his knowledge to the everyday chances of life, will succeed here faster than in the east, because there are more opportunities. The west has been meta- morphosed by speculative land agents, and beguiled by "town lot" artists till it is a living panorama of glamour and gold to the uninitiated settler. But listen not to the importunities of railroad magnates or land speculators. The very ground they promise is to yield you a handsome return for your toil and privations and hardship, is as barren as the desert of Sahara. The soil is so sterile it wont support a sagebrush, and even if that hardy plant manages to take root in the parched up sand, a heavy gust of wind will tear it asunder and waft it away to be withered and shriveled by the alkaline breezes. Young man, unless you have a fixed idea, a sure prospect of business in view, never desert your home in the east for a shining El Dorado beyond the Mississippi, existing solely in your mind's eye, for certain, you will be doomed to disappointment. There is much more which only an eyewitness can learn and trusting that some day you may all have an opportunity to see for yourselves the vast difference from the west in reality and the west as it is pictured and prophesied, we will lay the pencil aside. (End of the Trip Narrative)
With a mixture of courage and resolution that his contemporaries called
"pluck," Nellis had arrived at the Pacific, on August 3, 1887, somewhat the
worse for wear. The seat of his pants had been patched, his coat was torn,
his helmet showed signs of numerous headers, and he had lost 23 of his
original 150 pounds. The San Francisco Bulletin of August 4, 1887, described
him as a newspaper correspondent and amateur bicyclist, "a short, compactly
built, ruddy-faced young man, wearing a weather-stained bicycle suit and
much sun-burned as to face and hands."
With the advantage of youth and several days of ample good food and less stressful activity he soon looked quite fit in his new plaid bicycle suit. In a letter to the Wheel he reported, "Many pleasant hours have been socially spent in the luxurious rooms of the San Francisco Bicycle Club and the Bay City Wheelmen, and the Pacific Coast has every reason to be proud of these two model organizations." He also provided cycle trade information. "Among the cycling fraternity, I found a live and wide awake class of representatives, chief among whom are Messrs. Osborn & Alexander, No. 628 Market Street. Their large and commodious ware rooms are filled with an enormous stock of fine bicycles and tricycles of all grades and makes, which, with a thorough repair shop and competent riding instructors, complete one of the best equipped and largest wheel establishments on the Pacific Coast."
Nellis also saw some of the natural wonders of the Golden State. He marveled at the gigantic trees near Mariposa. "To ride directly thro' the trunk of one of these forest giants only increases our admiration, and a walk around puts on the finishing touches of a pure intoxication." Yosemite enraptured him. "Truly said, there is an ethereal beauty about this far-famed fall which at once transports the tourist into an ecstasy of mingled delight, admiration and enchantment." He also visited Santa Cruz, "a delightful little place tho' too far south for actual comfort during the heated season." San Francisco received mixed reviews. "It is decidedly too foggy. There are days when the very air is moist with vapor, and a walk out with out an overcoat surcharges one with all the essentials of a shower bath." California impressed Nellis with its beauty and grandeur, its excellent climate, its matchless fruit industries and its vast farming pursuits but he could not bring himself to concede that that it excelled his beloved Empire State. This same ambivalence could be seen in his comparison of the East and West. "The prospects for all classes of artisans in the great fields of labor in the world are as good in the East as in the West. True merit is recognized everywhere, tho' more so in this section as proficient labor is scarce. Capital, of course, meets with better results here than east, when applied with energy and ability, owing to a larger scope and greater resources. Young professional men who are not afraid of work, hard labor at all hours and under all circumstances will surely succeed here faster than in the east, tho' for that matter success with them is only a matter of time in any location. At all events, the country is worth seeing, and to those inclined we would say, "Come West."
Nellis' plans for his return trip to the East had fluctuated considerably. In Cheyenne he had told a reporter that he was considering riding to Los Angles and following a Southern route home. At another point it was suggested that he would return by train and initial reports of a ship passage suggested the destination would be Boston. Perhaps departure dates for passenger ships influenced him, for he booked passage on the steamer San Blas, which left San Francisco on August 15 for Panama, where he would board a ship that would take him to New York City.
The voyage agreed with him and he enjoyed the cool delicious air and fine sailing, although there was a dearth of "waltzative females." When the ship stopped at Mazatlan on the Mexican coast Nellis went ashore to observe conditions and report his findings to readers back home. His general assessment of the town and its inhabitants was not very favorable. Many people and buildings were of the poorer class and prices of goods were high. He did have positive comments about the spacious central park, a very good dinner, and ladies of the upper class with "flowery muslins, jaunty hats, and high-heeled boots, with their saucy, sparkling eyes, rosy cheeks, and prepossessing figures."
When the ship reached Panama City, travelers boarded a train that carried them across the Isthmus (the Panama Canal opened in 1914) in four hours for $25. At Aspinwall on the Atlantic Ocean, Nellis boarded the Pacific Mail Steamship Company's Newport. The 2,735 ton ship, 326 by 38 feet, had been built in 1880 and her single screw could obtain a speed of 12 knots. He arrived in New York on September 7, 1887 and explored the City for a few days, possibly visiting the office of the Wheel and Recreation. On September 12 he began his ride home on his faithful Columbia Expert. He traveled north along the east bank of the Hudson River to Albany. With a final run of almost 70 miles through the Mohawk Valley, he arrived in Herkimer on September 14, 1887.
The County Fair had opened the previous day with Governor Hill addressing a crowd of several thousand. The Herkimer Democrat gave a description of the welcome accorded Nellis. "At about 5 P.M. George W. Nellis, Jr., Herkimer's champion long distance bicycler, arrived in town from his trip across the continent. He was met [east of the city] by the Herkimer Bicycle Club and escorted by the Herkimer band, rode to the fair ground, and past the grandstand. He was heartily cheered, and after alighting from his wheel received quite an ovation. At an interval during the (horse) races George W. Nellis, Jr., was called before the grandstand and presented with a medal, the gift of the officers of The Agriculture Association, by E. A. Brown, in a neat speech, referring to the remarkable record made by Nellis in his recent bicycling trip across the continent. Mr. Nellis responded briefly, thanking the officers of the society for the compliment. The medal is a handsome gold ornament, having on the obverse side the inscription "G. W. Nellis, champion long distance bicycle rider, 1887."
A few days later he was the guest of honor at a banquet held by the Kappa Gamma Chi Society at the Waverly House. "There a beautiful spread, served in elegant style by Landlord Fox, was given ample justice. Toasts, speeches, songs, etc. were next in order, and it was past twelve when the gay assemblage adjourned to the hal. The society hall, in the Munson block, is handsomely decorated with flags, and bunting in honor of the champion bicyclist, and his lengthy trip is the principal topic of conversation on all sides." (The Society had been formed in 1880 by young men of the village as an improvement association and it had grown into an important social organization that sponsored athletic events, pre-nuptial dinners, and dances. The group went out of existence in l9l7 when a fire destroyed their quarters. Nellis wrote a history of the Society in 1938.)