By BILL OUDEGEEST | Moonshine Ink
Thomas Stevens had never ridden a bicycle when in 1884 he decided it would be a good idea to ride one across the Sierra Nevada, to the other side of the continent, and keep pedaling around the world. His two-wheeled horse of choice was a 48-pound Columbia Ordinary, nicknamed the “high wheeler” or “penny farthing.” It was one of those bicycles with the large front wheel and small back wheel. At a cost of $110, the wheels were wooden and the tires made of solid rubber. There were no gears — such bicycles were “direct drive.” Some people called them “bone-crushers.”
Stevens carried extra socks, a shirt, a bedroll, a pistol, and a gossamer rubber coat that could double as a tent. He solved his lack of experience with a short riding lesson in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, and promptly began his trip in April. The possibility of there still being snow on Donner Summit had not occurred to him. By the time Stevens reached Rocklin, people were asking how he would deal with the wintry conditions, but he wasn’t worried. He figured the long snow-sheds of the Central Pacific Railway would make it possible to cross over, no matter how deep the snow.
On the way up to the summit, Stevens stuck mostly to a path that ran parallel to the railroad tracks. The path was “occasionally rideable,” according to Stevens’ 1887 book Around the World on a Bicycle, whereas the roads were not. Though a railroad employee tried to dissuade him, Stevens continued on and the next day began traveling through the protective snow sheds.
“The section-houses, the water tanks, stations, and everything along here are all under the gloomy but friendly shelter of the great protecting sheds,” wrote Stevens. Riding through the snow sheds was no longer an option. He had to “trudge merrily along ...” Occasionally there were short breaks in the sheds at which point he could trace the “sinuous structure” of the sheds as they wound their “tortuous way around the rugged mountains sides, and through the gloomy pine forest, all but buried under the snow,” he wrote. His book recounts the scene as “some wonderful relic of a past civilization, when a venturesome race of men thus dared to invade these vast wintry solitudes and burrow their way through the deep snow, like moles burrowing through the loose earth.”
There were no living things around. His retelling states that he heard only the “occasional roar of a distant snow-slide, and the mournful sighing of the breeze as it plays a weird, melancholy dirge through the gently swaying branches.”
And according to Stevens, traveling through the “gloomy interior” of the snow sheds was both “dark and smoky.” When he heard a train approaching, he would attempt to occupy as small an amount of space as possible against the shed wall and wait for what he called the “smoke-emitting monsters” to pass. Stevens reported that the engines “fill every nook and corner of the tunnel with dense smoke, which creates a darkness by the side of which the natural darkness of the tunnel is daylight in comparison. Here is a darkness that can be felt.” When he emerged from the sheds, he climbed a pine tree to “obtain a view of Donner Lake, called the ‘Gem of the Sierras.’”
Then it was down the Truckee, which he described as a “rapid, rollicking stream,” and along which were dams and mill sites without limit. There was little rideable road down to Truckee but Stevens eventually found good conditions at Verdi.
After crossing the Sierra Nevada, it was on to the 40-mile desert in Nevada. Of Reno, he wrote, “the characteristic whiskey-straight hospitality of the Far West at once asserts itself.” He stopped for a few days to “paint Reno red.” On Aug. 4, 1884, Stevens completed his cross-country jaunt, covering 3,700 miles in 103 days. He proceeded to take his journey to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, eventually sailing into San Francisco in January 1887 after completing 13,500 miles of bicycling and walking. (About a third of the journey was on foot.) Along the way, he’d had to confront a mountain lion, cross deserts, and deal with a lack of passable roads. He endured 130-degree Indian heat, an inability to communicate in foreign lands, loneliness, and almost being stoned to death. Stevens lost 25 pounds from his 5-foot-5 frame on the journey.
The modern Truckee/Donner Summit area is abuzz with bikes. On any given day, folks of all ages can be found bicycling from Truckee to Tahoe City, getting out on two wheels to circumnavigate Lake Tahoe, riding around Donner Lake, or traveling over Cisco Butte and back. It would be interesting to know if any of today’s avid cyclists would be able to complete Stevens’ long trek over Donner Pass and across the globe on the bone-crusher that predated them all.
~ Bill Oudegeest has had a house on Donner Summit for more than 40 years. He is a retired public school teacher and administrator, and one of the founders of the Donner Summit Historical Society. He writes and edits the Donner Summit Heirloom, has published two books on local history, has written a variety of pamphlets and exhibits, and leads hikes in the area.