One Hundred Years Ago

August 2017

Old Paint’s New Rival

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.