George Wyman - First Continental Crossing
George Adams Wyman (July 3, 1877 – November 15, 1959) was the first person to make a transcontinental crossing of the United States by motor vehicle. In 1903, Wyman rode his 1902 California Motorcycle Company motor bicycle from San Francisco to New York City in 50 days, finishing 20 days before Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson, the first person to cross the continent by automobile.
Take a look at the motorcycle shown here. Could you imagine setting off on a cross-continent ride aboard such a machine? More to the point, could you imagine setting off on a cross-continent ride aboard such a machine before paved highways?
That’s exactly what George Wyman did in 1903. Riding a motorcycle belt drive, wooden wheeled machine a bit more primitive than the 1905 California shown above, he successfully crossed the North American continent. And in the process, he rode right into history.
Wyman was born on July 3, 1877, in Oakland, California. As a teen, he became interested in bicycle racing, which reached its zenith during the 1890s. He became a leading bicycle racer and, at the turn of the century, moved to Australia to pursue his racing career. Following Australians Arthur Richardson, Alex White, and Donald Mackay, Wyman became the first American to circumnavigate the continent of Australia on a bicycle. In 1902, he returned to California as a top-ranked cyclist, and raced for various Bay Area bicycling clubs. It was during this time that he also began to ride motorized bicycles. Wyman was a bicycle and motorcycle enthusiast living in San Francisco, which happened to be the home of the California Motor Company, makers of an early motor bicycle featuring a powerplant designed by Roy Marks.
In the summer of 1902, perhaps inspired by the epic 1884 bicycle expedition of Thomas Stevens, Wyman became the first person to cross the Sierra Nevada aboard a motor vehicle, riding his 1.5-hp California motorbike from San Francisco to Reno, Nevada, to compete in a club bicycle race at the Reno Fairgrounds. During the trip, Wyman conceived the idea of riding a motorbike across the United States. “It was that tour,” Wyman later wrote, “that fired in me the desire to attempt this longer journey—to become the first motorcyclist to ride from ocean to ocean.”
To say that was an ambitious goal is an understatement, since the only motorized way across the country at the time was by train. No one had successfully traversed the country even in an automobile, much less on a spindly, underpowered motorcycle
The California had a 200 cc (12 cu in), 1.5 hp (1.1 kW) four-stroke engine attached to an ordinary diamond-frame bicycle. Wyman's machine was equipped with 28 x 1.5 in. tires, wooden rims, a leading-link front suspension fork, a Garford spring saddle, a Duck Brake Company front roller brake, and a 1902-patent Atherton rear coaster brake. A leather belt-drive with a spring-loaded idler pulley directly connected the engine output shaft to the rear wheel. Using a standard steel bicycle frame, the California weighed approximately 70–80 pounds (32–36 kg) without rider, and was capable of approximately 25 mph (40 km/h) using the 30-octane gasoline of the day, with a range of 75 to 100 miles (121 to 161 km). Throttle control was not yet perfected, and engine revolutions were mainly controlled by means of a spark timing mechanism. The wick-type carburetor was crude, consisting of a metal box with internal baffles stuffed with cotton batting. With no float chamber, the rider had to open the gasoline tap periodically to admit fuel into the carburetor.
For such a long trip, Wyman carried a remarkably small amount of gear. A set of warm clothing, money, water bottle, cans for spare oil and gasoline, a Kodak Vest Pocket camera, a cyclometer, various bicycle tools and spare parts, and a long-barreled .38 Smith & Wesson revolver constituted his total luggage.
Wyman departed from Lotta's Fountain at the corner of Market and Kearny streets in San Francisco at 2:30 P.M on May 16, 1903. He had previously agreed to keep a diary of his journey for later publication in The Motorcycle magazine, a periodical of the time. The first part of his trip took him across the Sierra Nevada, through the Nevada desert into Wyoming, then on through Nebraska to Illinois.
As the dirt trails and wagon tracks of the day were often impassable, Wyman rode the railroad tracks for over half of his journey. During the first part of his trip, he frequently slept in railroad company housing or at rooming houses located in division settlements (small municipalities founded by the railroad). His motorbike suffered several breakdowns along the way, requiring him to make improvised repairs until he could get to a larger town to obtain new parts. As he neared Aurora, Illinois, his engine's crankshaft snapped, and after pedaling his way to Chicago, Wyman was forced to wait there five days for a new crank to arrive by railway express.
After leaving Illinois, Wyman traversed the states of Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania before entering New York state. Outside of Albany his engine lost all power, and he was required to pedal his heavy motorbike the remaining 150 miles (240 km) to New York City using a cycle path reserved for licensed cyclists.
On July 6, 1903, Wyman arrived in New York City, completing his transcontinental crossing and becoming the first person to cross the North American continent aboard a motor vehicle. His journey took a total of 50 days to cover some 3,800 miles (6,100 km). Afterwards, Wyman's motorbike was placed on display at the New York Motorcycle Club while Wyman recovered from his grueling journey. While in New York, Wyman was present for the inauguration of the very first nationwide motorcycle organization, the Federation of American Motorcyclists (FAM) at the Kings County Wheelmens' Club in Brooklyn; it was reported at the time that his hands were still in bandages from the trip. Wyman later returned to San Francisco by train. His California motorbike was put on display in San Francisco at Golden Gate Park for a special exhibition commemorating the trip.
Fortunately for all of us, Wyman had been contracted to write about his journey for The Motorcycle, an early publication devoted to this new form of transportation. So now, more than a century later, we can get a sense of what he faced over the next 50 days as he crossed the Sierra mountains of California; the desert of Nevada and Utah; the Rockies of Wyoming; the plains of Nebraska and Iowa; the prairies of Illinois, Indiana and Ohio; and the Eastern mountains of Pennsylvania and New York.
It’s an amazing account, in which spring flooding and the lack of developed roads forced Wyman to follow the course of the famed transcontinental railroad for what he estimated was about half of the 3,800 miles of his journey. Sometimes, he was able to ride alongside the tracks, but often, he was forced to bump along over the ties between the rails. And if that sounds like it would be a bone-jarring ordeal on a modern bike, listen to the way Wyman described it back then: “The crossties of the roadbed proper are not laid with punctilious exactitude,” he noted, “nor are the intervaling spaces leveled or smoothed. They make uncomfortable and wearying walking; they make bicycle riding of any sort dangerous when it is not absolutely impossible.”
Following the railroad grade meant that Wyman avoided the steepest uphills and downhills in the mountains. But as he headed toward the 7,000-foot summit of Donner Pass near the eastern edge of California, he encountered snow that forced him into the endless wooden “snow sheds” built over the tracks to keep them clear in the winter.
“To ride a motor bicycle through the sheds is impossible,” he wrote. “I walked, of course, dragging my machine over the ties for 18 miles by cyclometer measurement. I was 7 hours in the sheds. It was 15 feet under the snow. That night I slept at Summit, 7,015 feet above the sea, having ridden—or walked—54 miles during the day.”
Wyman described fixing flat tires, replacing belts and other maintenance as he made his way across Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and Nebraska, where he found a place to stop and make more comprehensive repairs.
“Although it was evening when I reached Omaha, Nebraska, on June 11,” he wrote, “I at once hunted up the largest bicycle store and repair shop I could find in the city—that of Louis Flescher, 1622 Capitol Avenue—and began putting my machine in trim for the last 1,600 miles of my trip.”
Unfortunately, crossing the flatlands of the country’s middle, which should have been the easiest part of the journey, was made considerably more difficult by heavy rain in the Missouri valley. Wyman noted many places where the mud of the roads was so thick that it held his motorcycle up while he stepped away to take a photo.
He was forced into a lengthy layover in Chicago when the bike’s crankshaft failed and he had to have a new part shipped from San Francisco. Then his front fork snapped, and E.R. Thomas, the founder of a rival motorcycle company of the era, ordered workers at his Buffalo, New York, plant to make up a new set so Wyman could continue.
Finally, the little motor gave out near Albany, New York. So Wyman did what was necessary to complete his journey, pedaling the machine the final 150 miles to New York City. He ended the cross-country trip at the headquarters of the New York Motorcycle Club, arriving on July 6, 50 days after his departure from San Francisco.
Wyman’s journey marked the first successful coast-to-coast trip by a personal motor vehicle, but others were hot on his heels. Just a week after he left San Francisco, Dr. H.N. Jackson also started a cross-country trip in a 20-horsepower car, and that summer, two others undertook the journey in cars. All of them were able to complete the trip, but none could match Wyman’s 50-day time.
That led A. Nicholas Jervis, writing in the November 1903 issue of The Motorcycle, to note: “Wyman’s ride and the record he made is one that seems to demonstrate the superiority of the motor bicycle over any other style of vehicle for courier service.”
Indeed, it was in that area where the motorcycle won early acceptance as a vital part of the American transportation system.
It seems nearly impossible that a one man on a spindly machine could have conquered the North American continent. And although it was well-publicized at the time, Wyman’s accomplishment somehow disappeared from motorcycling history for decades until it was revived by publisher Roger Hull in the pages of Road Rider magazine, and by AMCA member Herb Glass, who assembled all the pieces so the entire account could be printed in the magazine in several parts during the late ’90s.
Wyman’s account of the trip noted his maintenance stop at a bicycle shop owned by “Louis Flescher,” in Omaha, Nebraska. The man Wyman met was apparently so inspired by the cross-country traveler’s visit that he set about building a series of prototype motorcycles of his own.
Louis Flescher eventually built four or five different, highly innovative machines, and the last of those—the Flescher Flyer can be seen at the Wheels of Time Museum in Maggie Valley, North Carolina.
You can read George’s account of his ride at:
Following his successful crossing of the United States, Wyman settled in San Francisco. He endorsed the Duck Roller Brake in promotional advertisements and worked as a chauffeur before becoming an automobile mechanic. He eventually married and had two sons. Wyman later moved to Eureka, California, continuing to work as an auto mechanic. He died November 15, 1959, at age 82 in San Joaquin County, California. He was cremated and his remains rest with that of his wife Nellie G. Wyman in Mountain View Cemetery, in Oakland, CA.
Adapted from Bill Wood’s account located at: theantiquemotorcycle.org
Information also adapted from Wikipedia