The Wheel -
Photographer unknown. University of Montana, Mansfield Library
June 14, 1897 Lt. James Moss led his bicycle corps of the U.S. Army's 25th Infantry from Fort Missoula, Montana 1,900 miles up wagon trails and Indian paths, across alkalai deserts and down railroad grades to St. Louis, Missouri, arriving July 16, 1897.
Even in the frontier of Missoula, bikes were all the rage. An April 1894 issue of the Daily Missoulian noted that, ". . . half of the people at the fort are on bicycles and a person without a wheel is out of the times as it were."
"Each rider carried a 10-pound blanket roll that included a shelter tent and poles, a set of underwear, two pairs of socks, a handkerchief, and toothbrush and powder. Properly packed, the roll fitted into a luggage carrier in front of the bicycle's handlebars. Each man also carried rations of bacon, bread, canned beef, baked beans, coffee, and sugar in hard leather cases attached to the bicycle frame. Every other man carried a towel and a bar of soap, and each squad chief carried a comb and brush and a box of matches. Fully loaded, the soldiers' bicycles weighed about 59 pounds each. Every man also carried a 10-pound Krag-Jorgensen rifle and a 50-round cartridge belt."The Spalding Bicycle Company in Chicopee Falls, Mass., at the forefront of cycle design of the day, donated 22 of their top-of-the-line two-wheelers for the test, equipped with steel rims instead of wooden ones, gear cases to protect chains, and hard leather frame cases for rations, spare parts and tools.
When the men mounted the two-wheelers, they mounted the 70-plus pounds of loaded bike, cranking east toward St. Louis. Standard military rations filled their bags: flour, baking powder, dry beans, baked beans, coffee, sugar, bacon, canned beef, salt, and pepper. Each man carried two-days worth of food. Supplies awaited them along the route. However, the planned 50 miles per day in challenging terrain and weather left the men shy of their destinations on several occasions -- and hungry.
The 25th Infantry arrived at Fort Missoula in May 1888. The regiment was one of four created after the Civil War that were made up of black soldiers with white officers. In 1896, Lieutenant James Moss organized the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps to test the military potential of bicycles.
The corps undertook several short journeys -- up the Bitterroot Valley by bicycle to deliver dispatches, north to the St. Ignatius area, and through Yellowstone National Park -- before making a 1,900 mile trip from Fort Missoula to St. Louis in 1897. On June 25th they made camp at the Little Big Horn where 21 years earlier George Custer and the 7th Cavalry had ridden into history. Following their return to Montana -- by train -- the Army considered plans to send the bicycle corps overland to San Francisco, a trip that likely would have taken them through the Willamette Valley, but the unit was sent to Cuba instead.
by George Niels Sorenson
This is the lively story of the only bicycle corps the U.S. Army ever authorized. Using buffalo soldiers, this 1890s African-American unit conducted drills and exercises on wheels. They rode into Northern Montana on muddy trails and toured Yellowstone on their 100-pound iron bicycles. As proof of their capabilities, these Iron Riders pedaled 1,900 miles from Ft. Missoula, across the snow-dusted Rocky Mountains and steamy Great Plains, to St. Louis. As they approached the city over 1,000 civilian bicyclists rode out to escort them into town in a great parade. Learn more about the adventures of this little known buffalo soldier unit and fascinating details about this era in America. Well researched and a good read. Full of rare pictures and drawings.
Pictorial Histories Publishing Company
Missoula, Mont. - 2001
and gaze at us in astonishment."
Lt. James Moss in his journal
For more, visit the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula, read Army historian Frank Schubert's account of the Buffalo Soldiers at San Juan Hill, check PBS for re-runs of The Bicycle Corps: America's Black Army on Wheels, or read about Walk-A-Heaps: Black Infantrymen in the West.
See 19th Century Bicycle News for a selected bibliography and historical resources online, or use the links to find other sites of interest.
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