Twenty soldiers from the 25th Infantry Regiment rode from Fort Missoula, Montana, to St. Louis, Missouri, in 1897. It took them 41 days to make the 1,900-mile trek — and unlike the mounted soldiers who came before them, these men were in bike saddles.
The army was segregated at the turn of the century and the 25th was one of four African American regiments, known as “Buffalo Soldiers,” led by white officers. Lieutenant James A. Moss had run shorter experimental bike trips in a bid to persuade the Army to use bicycles for travel in mountainous territories instead of marching troops on foot or horseback. The men’s journey was the lengthiest of Moss’s practice runs. They averaged more than 6 miles per hour and 50 miles per day on their “safety bikes” — bikes with equal-sized wheels and a chain drive — which had only been around for a little more than a decade.
Moss led the way in pushing the U.S. Army to “modernize” by adopting bikes as transportation for troops, but he wasn’t alone in his infatuation with bicycles. Germany was field-testing its own bicycle corps as early as 1886. England and France had also begin using bikes in the military. Roads in the American West weren’t nearly as bike-friendly as European streets, so Moss had souped-up bikes with steel rims, puncture-proof tires, reinforced forks, and enclosed gear cases custom-made for the 25th Regiment’s journey.
On June 14, 1897, the soldiers departed from Fort Missoula. By noon, they were bogged down by heavy rain. They spent the following afternoon dragging their bikes on foot through soggy, bad roads. By day four, they were slogging through blinding snow. They carried their loaded bikes — which weighed 32 pounds even without their tents, blanket rolls, and knapsacks — through Montana’s Beaver Creek. Despite the miles that would sometimes lag between them on the open road as they navigated rocks and wagon wheel ruts, the regiment would regroup into military formation before entering each town. Wyoming brought a brief reprieve of good weather before the soldiers faced a new challenge: the sandhills of Nebraska and up to 110-degree temperatures. Moss wrote in his diary that the roads were often “a disgrace to civilization.”
When they finally rode into St. Louis on July 24 at 6:30 p.m., hundreds of local cyclists pedaled out to escort them into the city. They were celebrated by bicycle clubs during their week of rest there before boarding a train to return to Missoula. By all measures, the journey proved the worth of bicycle transportation in the military. Moss estimated the 25th Regiment traveled twice as fast as cavalry or infantry at a third of the cost and effort. But the timing wasn’t right. The impending Spanish-American War caused Moss’s superiors to lose all interest in the bicycle experiment, and the 25th Regiment was sent to Cuba — without their bikes. The regiment would serve in the Philippine-American War, World War I, and World War II before being inactivated in 1946, just a few years before President Harry Truman ended segregation of the military.
Buffalo Soldiers History Presentation in Wallace, Idaho, October 7
John P. Langellier, historian and author of recently published “Fighting for Uncle Sam: Buffalo Soldiers in the Frontier Army,” will show rare photos and speak about the African American soldiers known as “Buffalo Soldiers” at the Sixth Street Theater in Wallace, Idaho, at 7 p.m. October 7. Langellier has gathered more than 150 images and countless stories of the men, including those who journeyed across 1,900 of the American West by bicycle in 1897. //
Erika Prins Simonds writes our Everyday Cyclist column. She also wrote about getting cardio when the air quality is bad in our August issue. Find more of Erika’s writing at erikaprins.com.