Astride lofty wheels (VIII): Time to talk about Tom

The boneshaker of 1866. (Photo: Wiki Commons)

















Get your spokes aligned by reading part I, part II, part III, part IV, part V,  part VI, and part VII of Lacar Musgrove’s series “Astride Lofty Wheels.” 

Tom was the son of a prominent judge, one whom, when he died a few years into the next decade, was said to never have missed a day in court in fifty years. He had a “commanding presence” and was “remarkably active for his age.”[80] Tom seems to have taken much of his character from his father. Standing at five feet ten and weighing one hundred forty pounds, the lanky twenty-three-year-old was bursting with energy and charisma. Having been cycling that country for three years, he was an expert.

In May of 1884, after riding for a year, he entered his first race, the Georgia state championship, and won handily. Since then, he’d won every race he entered. When Bicycle South started publishing profiles of southern riders, they chose Tom to write about first, calling him “a tireless and enthusiastic rider.” Expostulating on his hospitality and popularity, they claimed that everyone who’d ever met him considered him a valued friend.[81]

The first day with Tom along brought more sand and more difficult walking, but having such an affable companion along cheered the boys from New Orleans anyway, and they were happy to make forty-five miles.[82]

The last day’s stretch stretch to Columbus brought a significant rally. Tom, knowing every inch of those roads by heart, led the party, speeding along with ease, making quick work of the sand hills. Hill remarked, though, that he was not one to “scorch,” a slang term for racing or trying to outride other cyclists. Rather, he led the tourists at “just the proper pace,” and that day they made their record distance so far, chalking up sixty miles.

In Columbus they would stay the night at Tom’s home. He gave his guests a chance to wash up and take a brief rest before insisting on a bicycle tour of the town and its suburbs. “We got back to town after dark,” wrote Hill, “having ridden about 20 miles ‘just for fun’ and to give Tom enough, as if that were possible.”[83] Tom ran a telegraph exchange office from his home, and at 2:30 the next morning the telegraph wires “commenced to whiz,” which turned out to be a “put on” by Tom, his way of getting the boys up and on their way early.[84]

At 4 o’clock in the morning, with the sun not yet up, Tom and his guests were on the road again on what would be one of the best days of the whole trip, and certainly the best so far. First, they reached the town of Hamilton, “not a dry town,” where they enjoyed a fortifying and festive lunch of ginger cake and strong beer. Next would be a little nineteenth-century mountain biking, as they set out to “ ‘do’ Pine Mountain,” the highest hills in Georgia. The roads proved great riding, and when they reached the top they paused for a few moments to take in “a fine view of the road for miles, as it twists and turns about the hills . . ..”[85] The cyclists then cruised back down again through the scenic slopes, with plenty of opportunity to throw their knees over the handle bars and “let her go,” as the phrase went.

They took a long rest at a place called White Sulphur Springs, which had become a health resort destination with a spa hotel. There they made themselves at home on the pastoral grounds, lounging around with their wealthy cohorts and sampling the four mineral-rich springs. Hill doesn’t mention as much in his account, but the sulfur water from those springs was not only thought to be healthful but was believed by some to have magical healing properties. In fact, during the Civil War, injured soldiers were taken there to recover.[86] Whatever they thought about the legends, the three travelers from New Orleans “indulged in great quantities” of the water before continuing on their way.[87]

Arriving that evening in the town of Greenville, Georgia, they found themselves greeted by a large and enthusiastic crowd. There they regaled onlookers with a riding exposition, “Ingram doing a stand over the handle bars and a mount from a reclining position that captured the town.” They were then serenaded by a big brass band, an event they regretted being a bit too sleepy to be enthusiastic about.[88]

With the roads finally cooperating, the next day the little touring group was able to ride a full seventy-two miles to Atlanta. After four days, here was the end of Tom’s escort, much to the regret of Captain Hill, who wrote of him in superlative terms: “A kinder, more considerate gentleman and enthusiastic wheelman never lived.”[89]

When Tom left he seemed to take with him not only his inspiring personality but his good luck. As it turned out, the sulfur water they drank back in White Sulphur Springs might not have proven so healing for Charlie. He became alarmingly ill that night. “We thought he’d throw up the sponge (He did everything else.)”[90] To give Charlie a chance to recover they rested half a day then took a train twenty miles to make up lost time, then cycled another thirty-three to Gainesville, getting drenched again by a violent thunderstorm.

As they made for the Blue Ridge Mountains in the morning they went back to riding along the railroad tracks. The roads of red Georgia clay, made soft by rains, clung to their wheels “like so much putty” and “wound in and about the hills in a very aggravating fashion.”[91] The railroad provided a more direct path through the hills through a series of “cuts” and “fills.” Many of the “fills,” stretches where dips in the undulating topography had been filled in to create a level bed for the tracks, were fifty to seventy-five feet high. They feared the strong winds blowing through the mountains passes would blow them over the edge. Just such a thing happened to Harry, sending him and his wheel tumbling all the way down. He managed to walk away from the scare with just a few scratches and rattled nerves. When they reached Mount Airey, high in the mountains, they were treated to the peculiar architecture of a Swiss settlement and subjected to a cold rain that chilled them to the bone.[92]

Despite their troubles, the travelers were getting a thrill out of their mountain tour, seeing the country from the special vantage point afforded them by their novel transportation. “The scenery here is grand,” wrote Hill, “wild and picturesque, and with the dark gray clouds hanging over the mountains formed an impressive picture.”[93]

They were halfway to Boston now, far beyond thoughts of turning back for home. After two weeks on the road the travelers had toughened up, in more ways than one. They’d gotten used to the frequent rain, and they’d become better riders, more skilled and also more gutsy, speeding recklessly on rough roads and coasting with abandon, knees draped over handle bars, letting her go and whizzing down hills that were “positively dangerous.” Their adventure had relieved them not only of physical timidity but also a good deal of bourgeois vanity. The formerly well-groomed gentlemen were, as Hill put it, “the toughest-looking trio that could be selected from the grand army of tramps.”[94] Alternating assaults by rain and sun had faded their shirts to a marble of colors, their pants were made of holes and dirt, their hats were beaten all out of shape, and their shoes were bursting apart. The sun had baked their faces and necks brown, and their fists, as they gripped the handle bars of their machines, were not only sunburned but as bruised and gnarled as those of any longshoreman on the Mississippi.

Their equipment, too, was taking a beating. By the time they made it out of the mountains and into Charlotte, Harry had broken his back wheel fork. Captain Hill had caught the seat of his pants on his saddle while dismounting, ripping his pants and taking a nasty header onto the railroad track that left the backbone of his bicycle badly damaged. And whatever had disagreed with Charlie back in Atlanta wasn’t done with him, as he found himself “doubled over with cramps.” In Charlotte, Harry got his bicycle fixed and the other two went shopping, picking up a new pair of pants for Captain Hill and new shoes for Charlie. Hill’s new pants would soon have a nice big hole in the knee though. Peddling along merry and worry-free over well-ballasted crossties, he caught a spike in his little back wheel, sending him flying over the handle bars to bash his knee on another spike, leaving him with a nasty wound. It was his first injury on the whole trip.[95]



[81] Bicycle South. Qtd. in Columbus Daily Enquirer. September 22, 1886. “Prominent Southern Cyclists. A Brief Biographical Sketch of a Young Columbus Wheelman.”

[82] Daily Picayune. “Bicycle to Boston.” July 23, 1886.

[83] L.A.W. Bulletin. Vol 3. November 5, 1886. 470-471.

[84] Daily Picayune. “Bicycle to Boston.” July 23, 1886.

[85] Ibid.

[86] “The Springs,”

[87] Ibid.; L.A.W. Bulletin. Vol. 3. November 12, 1886. 490.

[88] L.A.W. Bulletin. Vol. 3. November 12, 1886. 490.

[89] L.A.W. Bulletin. Vol. 3. November 12, 1886. 490.

[90] Daily Picayune. “By Bicycle to Boston.” July 23, 1886.

[91] Ibid.

[92] Ibid.

[93] Ibid.

[94] Ibid.

[95] Ibid.


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