1892: The Launch of a Bicycle Relay Race Between Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh

September 2, 1892

A bicycle relay race between Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh began in the former of those two cities. This major event was organized and sponsored by the Pittsburgh Leader newspaper. The stated purpose of the race was to have dozens of bicyclists take turns carrying a message from U.S. Army Brigadier General Albert Ordway in Washington, D.C., to the Pittsburgh Leader’s office in the Steel City in 24 hours or less. “Wheeling Against Time,” was the headline featured by the Washington-based Evening Star to describe the race.

As commander of the National Guard of the District of Columbia (NGDC), Ordway was a strong supporter of bicycles and their potential uses. The ambitious race between Washington and Pittsburgh, however, was about more than just his own interest in bicycles or any need for him to have a message hand-delivered to a faraway newspaper. The race was also seen as a reflection of the ever-growing nationwide enthusiasm for bicycles and an opportunity to showcase the potential challenges experienced by those using this means of transportation.

The Washington Post reported, “The race is looked upon in wheeling circles as a greater event than the late relay race between Chicago and New York, for though the distance – 300 miles [482.8 kilometers] – is shorter, the country to be traversed is much worse, including nine ranges of mountains, several of which will have to be crossed at night.”

While originally set to take place in July 1892, the Washington-Pittsburgh bicycle relay race had to be postponed for several weeks due to widespread labor unrest in western Pennsylvania. The starting day for the big event finally occurred on September 2. The race began promptly at two o’clock that Friday afternoon at the east front of the U.S. Capitol. With Ordway and approximately 100 other people in attendance, the first group of bicyclists in the race began pedaling away for the first relay station on the long-distance route.

The person in this initial segment of the race who was actually carrying Ordway’s message was Lieutenant Frank P. Libbey of the NGDC Washington Military Cycle Company. He was accompanied by Private R.D. Howell, who had to be ready to retrieve Ordway’s message and finish this stage of the race on his own if Libbey could not go any further.

Libbey and Howell both managed to complete this stretch of 11.5 miles (18.5 kilometers) between the Capitol and the community of Mitchell’s Crossroads (now part of the community of Wheaton) in Montgomery County, Maryland, but the bicyclists who started out riding with them dropped out en route due to the hot weather. Libbey and Howell took 59 minutes to cover this stage of the race, even though their target time for completion was only 45 minutes.

Libbey passed on the message from Ordway to the group of bicyclists waiting for him at Mitchell’s Crossroads. The message was subsequently carried northward via bicycles to relay stations at such places as the Maryland cities of Frederick and Hagerstown, with the route continuing further into western Maryland and then through the Pennsylvania countryside.

During the race, a number of the bicyclists encountered crowds eagerly rooting for them. “When Cumberland, Md., was reached Miss Mamie Speer took the message from the relay and carried it through the town to the next station,” reported the Washington Post. “The lady was loudly cheered.”

Notwithstanding this kind of moral support, the route between Washington and Pittsburgh was mostly anything but easy for the bicyclists. The Wheel and Cycling Trade Review recounted, “The roads were unusually poor and rough, and many riders met with accidents.”

The high-risk, not to mention time-consuming, consequences for those pedaling on these roads were made clear during the race’s final stage, when C.H. Petticord and R.P. Bache assumed custody of the message on the 17-mile (27.4-kilometer) stretch between the Pennsylvania borough of Finleyville and the finish line in Pittsburgh. “Just after starting, a spoke in Petticord’s wheel sprung, throwing him in front of his companion, who also took a ‘header,’” reported the Washington Post. “Later Petticord took sick and was compelled to stop a few minutes.”

The race finally came to an end on the evening of September 3, when Petticord and Bache made their way to the Pittsburgh Leader office at 19 minutes and 36 seconds past seven o’clock to give the message from Ordway to the newspaper’s business manager. The Washington-Pittsburgh bicycle relay race took more than five hours longer than planned to complete, but it was still widely regarded as an event worth highlighting.

The Pittsburgh Press noted on the day after the race ended, “Cyclists all over the county watched with great interest the time made between the different relay stations, and general interest was aroused, as this was the longest and perhaps the hardest race ever ridden in this part of the country.”

Photo Credit: Public Domain

For the more information on the September 1892 bicycle relay between Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh, please check out https://yesteryearsnews.wordpress.com/2010/09/28/one-two-three-go/

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