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?