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Published: Sunday, 6/15/2003

Cross-country jaunt a century ago was an achievement

We love dreamers. And doers. People who think out of the box, and then leap into action. Maybe to go live in another country, and write about it. Sail the seven seas like a Francis Chichester or a Thor Heyerdahl. Or trek around the world for three years like Ripley, Ohio's Steve Newman, who then dropped by our house for tea.

Serious dreaming ... and box jumping ... came up again a couple of weeks ago with the dramatic tale of how Horatio Nelson Jackson, along with mechanic Sewall Crocker and their adopted bulldog, Bud, crossed the U.S. from San Francisco to New York in 1903, driving a 20-horsepower Cleveland-built Winton automobile.

This epic journey, which began on May 23 and lasted 63 days, is apparently to be the subject of an upcoming book by Dayton Duncan and a Ken Burns PBS documentary later this year.

But while digging a little deeper into this particular story, we came upon a travel feat that equals, if not surpasses, Jackson's incredible drive. But for the moment, at least, it seems unlikely to garner the same kind of national publicity. Too bad.

On May 16, a full week before Horatio's heralded departure, a young 26-year-old set out from San Francisco's Market Street riding a tiny 1 1/4-hp motor bicycle in his own attempt to cross the country.

The man's name was George A. Wyman. And the machine, a California Motor Bicycle.

The story of this run, which was serialized in diary form in 1903 issues of The Motorcycle Magazine, has everything that travel buffs could possibly hope for. Adventure. Drama. Danger. Courage. Dreaming. Incredible hardship. And a happy ending. Wyman completed his journey in 50 days, thus becoming the first person ever to make a transcontinental crossing on a motorized vehicle.

There are also, incidentally, some serious Toledo connections.

Wyman writes about the historic ride in an understated, punctuated, almost laconic way. And much is left to the readers' imagination - and knowledge of frontier history - as he alternately rides, pedals, pushes, and pulls his 90-lb. machine across 3,800 miles of mostly untamed America. Over deserts, mountains, and plains. Along endless railroad tracks and drovers' trails. Through rivers and ravines. And over abominable tracks of mud, sand, and snow. (In 1903, there were fewer than 150 miles of paved roads in the entire country.)

Along the way Wyman encounters every conceivable impediment - natural, physical, human, mechanical, and mental. From unhappy farmers whose herds of sheep and cattle were spooked by the alien sound of an engine, to threatening pioneers “whose fingers are heavy and guns have hair triggers.” From pushy railroad officials who frequently chased him off their tracks, to gaping groups of city slickers who couldn't believe that anyone would possibly conceive of, let alone attempt, such a trip.

He also encounters his fair share of threatening wildlife. Vultures, lizards, and coyotes. Those he shoots, either with a .38 revolver or with the “little Kodak” camera he also carried. (We'd love to see some of those pictures!)

The litany of repairs that Wyman has to make along the route is as endless as it is exhausting. And he's forever mending or replacing broken drive belts (sometimes five times a day), soldering forks and handlebars, and tightening the spokes on his wood-rimmed wheels, usually loosened or broken by riding over railroad ties. Tires, too, seem in a permanent state of puncture, especially in the desert, where he runs over so many beer bottles thrown from passing trains “that they would make a good-sized bottling plant.”

His minuscule motor holds up heroically as far as the New York state line before burnt piston rings force him to pedal the final 150 miles to the finish at the rooms of the New York City Motor Cycle Club and a well-earned rest at the Herald Street Hotel.

To commemorate the centenary of this historic ride and to give Wyman some much-overdue publicity, a small band of antique motor cycle enthusiasts are re-creating the run using the original itinerary - and a motor cycle as close as possible to the original California motor bike.

Rif Addams, an antique bike buff, is making the trip along with his father, who is driving the combination chase vehicle and “hotel.”

We managed to contact Rif in Kearney, Neb., and he reported that he's making good time despite carburetor problems, a broken drive belt, and cracked frame. He plans to be riding through Ohio between June 25 and 28 passing Swanton, Perrysburg, and Fremont on his way to New York and a July 6 finish.

Oh yes. The Toledo connection.

A few months after Wyman's ride, The California Motorbicycle Company of San Francisco was sold lock, stock, and workers to the Consolidated Manufacturing Company - of Toledo - which built Yale-California and Yale motorcycles at its Old West End factory until 1914.

And Wyman's little 1 1/4-horsepower engine that could ... and almost did? Well, it was developed and patented by one R.C. (Roy) Marks of Toledo!



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