Tuesday, July 20, 1999

Tuesday, July 13, 1999

The Great Bicycle Race

July 13, 1999 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved. 

A bicycle race from Mesa to Goldfield over desert trails would be quite a challenge for any man or woman, even on a modern, state-of-the-art bicycle. But, prior to the turn of the century, such a race would have been even more challenging. The primitive velocipedes (bicycles) of the period were a challenge just to ride.

Several years ago I discovered an interesting story about a “great bicycle race” from Mesa to Goldfield, Arizona Territory, in 1894. The race occurred sometime before the widespread acceptance of the internal combustion engine when bicycles were the fastest mode of transportation.

Goldfield was a thriving gold mining and milling town between 1893-1897, located some twenty-three miles east of Mesa. The town had a restaurant, school, church, mercantile store, drugstore, livery stable, hotel, post office, a stage line and three hundred residents. The Mammoth and Bulldog mines were producing a tremendous amount of gold and employed most of the male population of the area.

The Kimball, Riley and Company Stage Line kept Goldfield in touch with the outside world by carrying mail and passengers. The twenty-three mile trip between Mesa and Goldfield by horse-drawn carriage required four hours and thirty minutes over a road that was nothing more than two ruts across a somewhat endless desert stretching toward the Superstition Mountains to the east.

While the horse still reigned supreme as the premier source of power when it came to distant travel, the velocipede had become an accepted means of transportation around American cities by the early 1890s.

A group of local wheelmen, the term sometimes applied to bicycle riders of the period, suggested a race from Mesa to Goldfield. A cross-country race on bicycles over desert terrain was unheard of at the time. The use of a velocipede was hazardous under the best of conditions for those who dared to straddle these human-propelled two-wheeled contraptions.

History is filled with stories of adventurers and those seeking a challenge, and the residents of Goldfield and Mesa were no exception. There were two young men, one in Goldfield and one in Mesa, who wanted to meet the challenge of racing bicycles across the Arizona desert in 1894. A young Mesa attorney, William Van Horn, and his friend James Salter decided to organize the “great bicycle race” from Mesa to Goldfield.

There were two established record times for the twenty-three mile trip between Mesa and Goldfield. First, there was the stage line record of three hours and twenty minutes. Then there was also the emergency ride “record” made by a miner who rode from Goldfield to Mesa in two hours and ten minutes.

Van Horn and Salter had found a challenge for their primitive bicycles. They decided on a race against time. Van Horn was convinced the velocipede would soon replace the horse as the roads were improved. He wanted to demonstrate to the public that a bicycle could outperform a horse over long distances.

The date for the “great bicycle race” was set for April 14, 1894. The finish line would be at the Mammoth Saloon in Goldfield. The bets were down, and the race began at 7:00 a.m. at the Mesa starting line. Van Horn completed the journey at 9:06 a.m., breaking the record of the miner’s emergency ride by four minutes. Both Van Horn and Salter fell into cactus, mesquite and a variety of other thorn-bearing plants before they finally arrived in Goldfield, but Van Horn had broken the land speed record for the Salt River Valley in 1894.

The race is now history. And, while Van Horn and Salter believed the bicycle would revolutionize transportation, ironically, Henry Ford changed our way of transportation forever by mass-producing the “Tin Lizzy” fifteen years after the race. Neither Van Horn nor Salter was aware of the impact the internal combustion engine would soon play in Arizona transportation.

There is an interesting footnote to this story. William Van Horn and James Salter answered a challenge more than a century ago here on the Arizona desert with a bicycle race. Seventy-five years later, on July 20, 1969, the world gathered before their television sets to watch the first men land on the moon. What would this world be like today if not for those adventurers and dreamers who dared to challenge the impossible?

Tuesday, July 6, 1999

The Log Trough Canyon Bear

July 6, 1999 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

High in the eastern portion of the Superstition Wilderness there is a place called Reavis Valley. One of the tributaries of Reavis Creek is Log Trough Canyon. The timber in the bottom of this canyon is so dense that, in some places, it is difficult to ride a horse between the trees. For years I have been told there were wolves, lions, bears and wild cattle in this country. I have seen my share of mule deer, whitetails, coyotes and other animals, but never a bear or a wolf. So, I was somewhat convinced there [were] no bears or wolves in this country.

One summer I spent about a month at the Reavis Ranch. During that time, I rode out of the ranch in just about every direction looking at everything I could find. I found several archaeological sites, unusual plants and even towering cliffs. South of the ranch I found large dense stands of Ponderosa pine. It was in this area that I located Log Trough Canyon one day and decided to explore it.

Getting into Log Trough Canyon from Reavis Creek is no easy task. As I threaded my horses through the dense timber I finally broke into a clearing and found something that looked like a trail. Once Duke, my dog, found the trail, we were on our way to an adventure I will never forget.

Some of the Ponderosa pines in that canyon were at least two feet thick and some were easily four feet in diameter. There was an area where large pines had been blown down making it almost impossible to get through. You could also see where heavy snowfall had broken young saplings. The furthest thing from my mind as I rode up this canyon was any immediate danger. Ahead of me lay a small valley flat that was somewhat cleared of dense undergrowth, and Ponderosa pines towered around the area. I reined Crow in and decided to step down for a few minutes.

As I prepared to get back on Crow, I could tell he was all of a sudden very jumpy and nervous. And Duke wasn’t barking… just whining. Somewhere in the brush ahead of me I heard the noise of small limbs cracking and breaking. The first thing that came to mind was a deer. Soon I realized the animal, or whatever it was, did not seem to be fleeing. As I strained to get a good look of what was up ahead, I heard a roar behind me.

Crow took a jump straight up, and turned in the air. I grabbed the saddle horn and hung on for dear life. Hanging on to the saddle horn with my feet still on the ground, Crow spun to face a black bear sow. She was mad and on the prod. I couldn’t figure out what had infuriated her. Duke took after her like a real hero, distracting her momentarily. She snarled at him and took a swing with her paw and Duke was making an exit in another direction.

I was certain the bear was going to attack. Somebody had told me years ago don’t try to climb a tree with a black bear on your trail because they can climb a tree faster than you can run. The bear was rapidly closing the distance between us.

I let go of Crow and grabbed the first limb I could reach and started climbing, knowing I was making a mistake. Once I was in the tree the sow bear ignored me and headed back to the brush where the original racket came from. As I looked over the brush I saw the problem. She had two young cubs, and had charged us to protect her babies. As she wandered off in another direction I slowly climbed down out of the tree with my adrenaline flowing high. I found Crow and [led] him back down [the] canyon a short distance and remounted. I found Duke down the canyon another hundred yards. He wanted no part of an angry sow bear with two cubs.

Yes, there are occasional bears in the Superstition Wilderness south of the Reavis Ranch, and I can bear witness to this.

Now that the incident is over I can look back and say Duke was brave in the beginning and it certainly gave me enough time to let go of Crow and climb a tree. As I rode back down Log Trough Canyon toward the Reavis Creek and the Reavis Ranch I thought of the story [of] when Elisha Reavis, the Hermit of Superstition Mountain, who ran into a bear with cubs and decided to not shoot her because the cubs needed their mother. Reavis lived in this valley from 1874-1896. He was one of the finest rifle shots in the territory in those days. It was another one of those wonderful life adventures.

Yes indeed, “Yesterday’s bravado is tomorrow’s memories.”