George B. Thayer - 1886   

George B. Thayer - 1886

By Charles Meinert
Web Site Bicycle History Consultant
Click On Photos To Enlarge

Mr. Thayer was the consummate bicycle tourist who made a circuitous seven-month pleasure trip of 11,000 miles across the United States and back by wheel, ship, and train. He was not averse to taking freight or passenger trains when tired of riding or afflicted by ailments such as boils. In his book Pedal and Path Across the Continent (p. 79) he tells us, "After six hundred miles through the states of Illinois and Iowa, over the prairies, both level and rolling, I am frank to acknowledge that the prospect of five hundred miles more of the same kind of scenery did not make me over enthusiastic to travel it on my wheel. The object of the trip was not to make or break records, and thus far, whenever I have found it desirable to take a train, I have done so." His short stature that restricted him to riding a small wheel bicycle proved an advantage on the train for he could comfortably nap on the seats. He provides a description of life on the train. "The newsboys on the trains out here are newsmen, full grown men. The one on the train worked steadily all the afternoon with his papers, books, oranges, bananas, etc., and finally when every one was tired of the very sight of him he brought in a basket of toys and sitting down on the arms of the seats, amused the children in the car with snakes and jumping jacks for half an hour or more. Great liberty is allowed passengers traveling such long distances and little boys play leap-frog and perform all sorts of gymnastic exercises in the aisle." (Hartford Evening Post, June 15, 1886)

In Karl Kron's book (xcviii) we are told that Thayer was born of May 13, 1853 in Vernon, Connecticut and that he was engaged in the grocery business until the end of 1885. His love affair with the bicycle began in the early 1870s when he rode boneshakers. He graduated to high wheelers and was quite proficient since he rode 2,500 miles in 1885 with only a few falls.

He began his pleasure trip, at age 33, from Vernon on April 10, 1886 riding a 46" nickel plated Columbia Expert that he became quite fond of by the time he reached California. "And it would be almost ungrateful to the machine now not to say a word in its favor, for I have a feeling of affection towards this particular Expert that is akin to that felt by an equestrian for a strong, able horse that has carried him safely over so much country." (Hartford Evening Post, August 13, 1886)

His Columbia was equipped with a Larkin cyclometer and he wore a corduroy suit with a leather seat. Unlike most riders who carried a satchel attached to the handlebars, Thayer wore a knapsack that weighed about 15 pounds and included some spare parts. His only complaint about this arrangement was the fact that when he took a header the knapsack struck the back of his head.

His ride began by crossing Connecticut to reach the lower Hudson Valley and then north to Albany. He followed the route used by Stevens and Spier to Cleveland and then he went south to Columbus, Ohio and took the National Pike toward Chicago. He crossed Iowa and Nebraska and went a bit south into Colorado before heading for Salt Lake City and then reaching San Francisco by train. There was a great deal of sightseeing en route. He visited Hudson River attractions, was shown Niagara Falls by members of the Buffalo Bicycle Club (they had also hosted Stevens), and viewed President Garfield's (assassinated July 2, 1881) home near Cleveland. Several days were spent in Chicago to visit the stockyards, the parks, and other attractions. He also paid attention to state capitol building along his route, went to the top of Pike's Peak, and saw Lake Tahoe. There were also stops to see relatives or friends. He saw a brother in Grinnell, Iowa, accidentally met Frank Van Meerbeke in Green River, Wyoming Territory, and stayed with Connecticut friends in San Francisco.

When he arrived in San Francisco about July 29, 1886 he was able to fulfill one of his goals as reported in the Hartford Evening Post of August 13, 1886. "The prime motive of the journey was to see the Yosemite and carry that bottle of liquid to California. The cork was not even drawn during the entire journey, and yet that liquid had a wonderful power in keeping my spirits up. Last fall while riding along the rocky shores of Nahant, I filled a small bottle with water from the Atlantic Ocean. To-day I emptied part of that water into the Pacific ocean near the Cliff house and now I have a bottle filled with water taken from the Atlantic and from the Pacific oceans and in the bottom of the bottle are some pebbles and sand, the former from the Atlantic, the latter from the Pacific."

After visiting the sights in California, Thayer traveled by ship to Portland, Oregon. His return to the East began from that point and he went through Idaho, Salt Lake, Denver, and St. Louis to Kentucky, West Virginia and Maryland by bike and train. More stops and sightseeing were done in route. One of the most colorful events was the St. Louis parade in which he participated as an aide to the grand marshall on the cold frosty evening of October 1, 1886. "I rode to the natatorium about dark where the wheelmen had already begun to congregate and it was interesting to witness the transformations in their appearance. One after another came hurriedly in, wearing his ordinary clothes, and disappeared in the numerous dressing rooms in the building. Very soon out would come an immense green frog nearly six feet high, waling on his hind legs, then came a gorilla soon after a great white rooster came strutting about. Then appeared the devil in red tight closely following him was 'Cupid' in white tights with nothing to keep him warm but a pair of tiny wings and an eyeglass. Cupid is better known to Hartford wheelmen as George W. Baker, who made the wonderful ride from St. Louis to Boston last year in nineteen and one-half days.The machines were variously and tastefully trimmed with different colored paper and hung with Chinese lanterns. One machine, or rather three bicycles fastened together and supporting a sort of canopy was festooned with nearly a hundred lanterns." (Hartford Evening Post, October 13, 1886)

Thayer arrived back in Connecticut in November, having covered 4236 miles by bicycle and 7000 miles by train. He was employed by the Hartford Evening Post and his weekly articles about the trip that had been published by the paper were incorporated into the book, Pedal and Path Across the Continent that was published in 1887. He and two companions made a 2,600-mile bicycle tour of Great Britain, France, Germany, and Switzerland during the fall of 1888 and the spring of 1889. The Bicycling World correspondent commented (May 18, 1888), "We wish we could join that party. Mr. Thayer is just the sort of a man we should like to tour with." About a decade later Pvt. Thayer served in Company K of the Connecticut Volunteer Infantry during the Spanish-American war. Mr. Thayer died in 1928.

Photo:  George B. Thayer in Etching Based on Photo Taken in Rockville, Ct.  Source:  Frontispiece from book, Pedal and Path.


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