1897 One Hundred Years Ago

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On July 24 the 25th U.S. Infantry Bicycle Corps, escorted by a group of Missouri wheelmen, rolled into St. Louis to an enthusiastic reception from the populace. The soldiers had spent the last six weeks riding fifteen hundred miles from Missoula, Montana, to test the feasibility of using bicycles instead of horses for military maneuvers. Such a trip would be impressive even today; a century ago, with virtually no paved roads, it was miraculous.

The corps was commanded by Lt. James A. Moss, an avid wheelman who thought bicycles had many advantages over horses. They were cheaper, required no fodder or grooming, made less noise, raised little dust, and did not require someone to hold their reins when riders dismounted. And unlike hoofprints, a bicycle track would not betray its direction. In July 1896 Moss got permission to organize a corps of bicycle infantry at Fort Missoula, and after training missions in nearby mountains and Yellowstone Park, he got the go-ahead for the St. Louis trip.

When the corps set out on June 14, an accompanying reporter described their sharp outfits and gleaming white backpacks. They didn’t stay that way for long. The first day out a thunderstorm turned the roads to mud, and the men had to alternately ride and carry their bikes, scraping off muck all the while. Later they would endure snow, hail, mosquitoes, steep uphill climbs under a baking sun, contaminated water, and ankle-deep sand. Even bumpy railroad ties were preferable to the sand, so the wheelmen rode on the Union Pacific tracks for 170 miles. A further obstacle was hostility from local residents, probably because all the corpsmen were black except for Moss and a surgeon. When the corps made its triumphal entry into St. Louis, a local paper predicted that the demonstration would lead to “permanent establishment of bicycle corps at every post in the country.” The Army was less sanguine. The 25th U.S. Infantry Bicycle Corps returned to Montana by railroad, and in April 1898 it was disbanded. The journey had shown that military bicycling was feasible, but without good weather and smooth roads—a rare combination in the West—it could not compete with the trusty horse. The traditional cavalry was safe, at least until the advent of a much more formidable rival—the automobile.