A little-known chapter in the annals of US. military history, dating back to the late 1800s, will make an appearance of sorts on the Route of the Hiawatha this June. 118 years ago, a group of 20 African American soldiers along with two white officers, a doctor, and newspaper reporter, set off on an epic 1,900 mile bicycle ride from Missoula to St. Louis.
In 1897 the Army was exploring different methods of moving troops in battle, something faster than marching and less expensive than horses. Enter the then latest technological wonder—bicycles. This is how men of the Army’s 25th Infantry Regiment found themselves called upon to test primitive bikes over some of the continent’s toughest terrain.
Nicknamed the Iron Riders for both the heavy one speed cycles they pedaled and their iron-hard constitutions, the intrepid group made the trip in six weeks, battling poor roads, every kind of weather condition, meager rations, and prejudice. But they received heroes welcomes and national acclaim when they arrived in St. Louis.
This June 7-8, a group of re-enactors will celebrate the anniversary of that triumph and the contributions of the Buffalo Soldiers in the area with a commemorative ride of the Route of the Hiawatha bike trail as well as special appearances in Wallace.
The Iron Rider re-enactors, themselves all Vietnam Vets, will cycle the Route of Hiawatha on replicas of 19th Century-era one speed bicycles and will appear in full period uniform discussing the Buffalo Soldiers’ missions in the area on Saturday June 8 from 2-5 p.m. at Wallace’s Northern Pacific Railway Depot Museum. “We are delighted to honor the heroism of the Iron Riders, the service of the African American Units, and that of all U.S. veterans,” says Buffalo Soldiers re-enactor spokesman Bobby McDonald. McDonald, a Vietnam Vet whose father and uncles served in segregated African American units with distinction in WWII, also says his group was very excited to come to Wallace and tour the Hiawatha.
“It looks like it’s a beautiful town, and the Hiawatha appears to be absolutely stunning,” he adds. McDonald is a long-time Iron Rider re-enactor, as well as the long-time president of the Orange County Black Chamber of Commerce.
Both the Hiawatha and the town of Wallace have strong connections to Buffalo Soldiers. Units from Ft. Missoula and later Ft. Wright in Spokane participated in restoring order during the 1890s mining wars, as well as helping to rescue Wallace townsfolk from the Great Fire of 1910. There are several historical markers about the Buffalo Soldiers contributions in fighting that fire along the Route of the Hiawatha; while in Wallace, the town’s Mining and Depot Museums have exhibits highlighting the Buffalo Soldiers’ service in the community.For more details on the commemorative ride and special appearances, contact the Historic Wallace Chamber of Commerce at 208.753.7151 or visit the Wallace Chamber Facebook page or website.