A Wheelman’s Passing: The Saga of Frank G. Lenz

Story by David V. Herlihy
Photos Courtesy of David Herlihy

Sandpoint, Idaho. September 14, 1892. It was a scene that would become standard fare in Westerns produced a half-century later: a dusty stranger rides into a small town at dusk, descends from his mount, and saunters into the main hotel, while the murmuring locals crane their necks for a view of his face.

Only this surprise visitor had no horse. Instead, he rode a heavily laden Victor “safety” bicycle. “His arrival excited quite a little curiosity,” affirmed the local newspaper, “as a bicycle is not seen here every day. And when it became known that he had come from New York in three months on his machine, and that he was on his way around the world, he attracted as much attention as a circus.”

The cyclist, Frank G. Lenz of Pittsburgh, was unfazed by all the attention. He was well accustomed to fanfare wherever he stopped for the night. He simply freshened up and went about his business. Continued the newspaper report: “He changed his apparel and appeared very neatly dressed. He strolled around the streets asking numerous questions about the place. He sent the magazine he represents a fifteen-page letter.”

For the twenty-five-year-old accountant of German-American stock, this was truly a dream job. While still a teenager, he had taken up cycling, purchasing the standard bicycle of the day, the so-called Ordinary, with a gigantic front wheel nearly five feet in diameter and a tiny trailer. He promptly joined the Allegheny Cyclers, the largest of the three local clubs with about thirty members. All male, of course, for the high-wheeler was a dangerous machine prone to catapulting its captain over the handlebars (the dreaded “header,” in wheelmen’s parlance).

The novice soon found himself spending nearly every spare hour atop his wheel, plunging into nature’s lush sanctuary. Sometimes he did not return until nightfall, guided by a faint gas-lit lamp suspended from his front hub. He was eager to escape a dreary day job and an unhappy home, comprised of a dear but doting mother and a loathsome, alcoholic stepfather. In his first two seasons, Lenz covered over four thousand miles—more than any other cyclist residing in hilly western Pennsylvania.

Lenz initially tried his legs at racing—nearly winning a 100-mile road race from Erie to Buffalo in a torrential downpour. After discovering photography, however, his interests shifted to bicycle touring, even if that meant strapping a case containing a 12-pound wooden camera on his back. He idolized Thomas Stevens, an English-American journalist who, in 1887, completed a three-year, 13,500-mile global circuit on a high-wheeler similar to his own. Lenz aspired to make his own world tour someday, once he found a sponsor.

Together with his bosom buddy, Charles Petticord, Lenz made several long-distance warm-up tours during his summer vacations. In August 1890, the pair rode to St. Louis along the National Pike, which was really nothing more than a miserable dirt path. A year later, they rode most of the way from Pittsburgh to New Orleans, covering more than one thousand miles in less than a month.

Shortly after he returned home, Lenz got the break he had long awaited. James Worman, the editor of Outing, was prepared to back the cyclist’s world-tour scheme, provided he switch to the newfangled upstart bicycle with chain and sprocket. Worman knew well that the diminutive mount, which was rapidly supplanting the high-wheeler, was far more appealing to the American public, including women.

Lenz agreed to Worman’s terms, and he promptly mapped out an itinerary calculated to surpass that of Stevens in both distance and daring: he would cover 20,000 miles overland in two years, crossing three continents from east to west: North America, Asia, and Europe. Like Stevens, he would face daunting physical challenges and hostile peoples who had never even seen a Westerner, let alone their strange “flying machines.”

The aspiring “globe girdler” visited the Victor factory in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, to have a sturdy 57-pound bicycle built to his specifications. It included two different-sized sprockets on the rear hub. By stopping and flipping his rear wheel, Lenz would have his choice of gears, including a low one for hill climbing. In a bold move, he chose pneumatic tires, a promising but largely untested novelty.

After four months on the road, Lenz had no regrets. Both his health and his equipment were holding up admirably. True, he had had a few brushes with passing trains while riding the rails, and he had nearly drowned while foolishly trying to swim across a raging river. He had faced scorching heat while crossing the Great Plains and a snowstorm in Yellowstone Park. Yet while methodically covering about fifty miles a day, he had fallen ill only once, after imbibing impure water. He had suffered only a handful of flats, which he easily repaired. He had taken dozens of snapshots, invariably including himself and his wheel, thanks to various ingenious methods he himself had devised. He was pleased with his progress and he relished his new role as a champion of cycling.

Eager to reach the coast before the onset of the rainy season, Lenz did not linger in Sandpoint. The next morning, he strolled out of his hotel clutching his loaded wheel. Sure enough, a large crowd awaited him, watching in silent awe as the world tourist briskly made his way across a long trestle, until he vanished altogether from sight.

Lenz had quite enjoyed his first thirty-five mile stretch in Idaho, highlighted by his brush with the sixty-mile long Pend Oreille lake. “Imagine a broad winding valley,” he would tell his readers, “filled to the road-level with sparkling water and guarded on every side by steep forested mountains.” After Sandpoint, however, the going quickly got tougher.

Riding along the railroad ties and heading southwest to Rathdrum, he found himself in a beautiful but dangerous pine forest. He knew he was not alone. “Deer had crossed my path,” he reported, “but vanished with remarkable rapidity at sight of me. Sometimes I saw the large footprints of bears, but I was not particularly anxious to follow them up.” Lenz took care not to get “caught out at night,” lest he experience “unsought interviews with wild animals.” Compounding his worries, “forest fires were raging, and I had trouble with fallen timbers. Often my pedals would strike a stump, and I would go one way and my machine the other.”
But shortly after passing the state line, he regained civilization. In Spokane he found a bustling city of thirty-thousand, nestled in “one of the most beautiful valleys in the West.” It even boasted a vigorous club of wheelmen, who eagerly befriended him. Marveled Lenz: “Ten years ago there were but few houses here, but the fine farming country and the gold and silver finds in the Coeur d’Alene Mountains built up a city with unparalleled rapidity.” Now it was “an Eastern city in every way, transplanted to the West,” with Spokane Falls furnishing “abundant power for the water-works, electric-light plants and electric street-railway.”

Of course, there was a downside to all that prosperity. “As is customary in all far Western towns,” Lenz observed, “the saloon and gambling dive can be found without the assistance of a detective. And while I neither drink nor play, I saw some folks who evidently do plenty of both.”

Lenz’s respite from the great outdoors did not last long, however. Leaving Spokane with several wheelmen at his side, he pushed on to eerie Hangman’s Creek, so named because “in the early days, some Indians were hanged here for making murderous raids on the settlers.” The rolling valley roads that followed were fairly easy going, but the dust was about “two to six inches deep, no rain having fallen for about two months.”

In Colfax, Lenz was again greeted by fellow wheelmen. But as he headed for Snake River, he found no towns at all. Lamented the tourist: “I stopped at a ranch and slept in an open hayloft in the barn with the farm-hands. My rural companions tried to convince me that sleeping in houses was the cause of all the sickness in large cities; that to keep healthy, one must sleep outdoors.”

As Lenz approached the Columbia River Gorge dividing Washington and Oregon, he would face “the hardest part of the journey.” Elaborated Lenz: “The desert between Walla Walla and the Dalles—that was tough. I was enveloped in a sand storm and had to walk 100 miles in five days. I had a canteen of coffee and some hardtack, but they were gone long before I could find a settler to stock up from.”

As consolation, Lenz enjoyed a steady stream of spectacular scenery that seemed to change “at every bend in the river.” He later gushed to a reporter: “What a grand gorge that Columbia is! What a magnificent river! It is worth coming clear across the continent to see it. In all my journey, I have seen nothing to compare with it.”
At the close of September, Lenz reached Portland, population 80,000, lying on the banks of the Willamette River. After registering at the Hotel Portland, Lenz promptly headed to the toilet room to wash up. There, a janitor spotted the filthy intruder and ordered him off the premises. Lenz calmly carried on with his chore. “Be gone or I’ll throw you out!” bellowed the furious employee. “We don’t allow tramps around here!” Lenz at last turned to his antagonist and stated matter-of-factly, “Well, my friend, I am a guest here.” Gloated Lenz: “I never saw an Irishman so astonished in all my life. He had to go upstairs and satisfy himself from the clerks.”

The next day, Lenz explained the finer points of his wheel and camera to a rapt audience of some 150 wheelmen. The day after that, he rested at his hotel and caught up with correspondence. On his third day in Portland he joined some 65 cyclists for a Sunday excursion to Vancouver, Washington, site of the famous fort. He tarried one more day, so reluctant was he to leave his adoring friends. At last, on the morning of October 3, he prepared to resume his ride. But before leaving the hotel, he dashed off a letter to his step-uncle, Fred Lenz, back in Pittsburgh, in which he recapped “…I am well pleased with my trip, every foot I am making on this wheel, 4,028 [miles] so far. From here I go to San Francisco, then sail for Asia. I may return maybe fifteen months again….”

A few days later, heading due south and paralleling the coast, Lenz reached Grants Pass, on the Rogue River. An enterprising local journalist decided to ride alongside Lenz as far as Gold Hill. “We made the eighteen miles in 2:30,” he proudly informed his readers the next day. However, the workout had destroyed his romantic illusions about long distance cycling. “It seems very easy to ride a bicycle,” he opined. “But it gets very monotonous and tiresome after a few thousand miles.”

At Ashland, Lenz prepared to cross the rugged Siskiyou Mountains, into California. The local wheelmen warned him that the five-mile road to the first summit was a sheer “terror.” Undeterred, Lenz began his ascent on foot, pushing along his wheel and gasping for air. He soon heard a faint rumbling behind him. Turning around, he spotted an oncoming wagon. The driver, a farmer, was furiously whipping his horses, in an apparent effort to catch up to the stranger.

Lenz quickened his pace, for he was anxious to save his breath and avoid a round of inane questioning. But the determined driver leapt from his vehicle and managed to catch up to the cyclist on foot. “He sheepishly asked me, by way of starting a conversation, if I was really going to the top of the mountain,” Lenz recalled. “I gruffly answered in the affirmative and spoke no further. He wisely troubled me no more.”

As Lenz soldiered on, a light rain began to fall. It had turned into freezing sleet by the time he reached the snowy summit. Still, he concluded that the climb “was not as bad as I had been led to believe.” He paused to take in the spectacular view from 4,300 feet above sea level. To the south, he could see the stage road winding its way over “ridge after ridge of mountains.” He climbed on his bicycle to make the descent. His rear wheel skipped over the wet pebbles, and his bicycle reached breakneck speed. He applied his brake spoon, but soon desisted when he realized that its leather casing had worn off. Miraculously, he managed to reach the California border in one piece.

All told, Lenz spent almost a month in the Pacific Northwest. It was undoubtedly the highlight of his transcontinental ride, in terms of both natural scenery and hospitality. Sadly, he would never return to the region. Fifteen months later—when he expected to be back home in Pittsburgh—he disappeared in Eastern Turkey. Lenz’s stunned family and friends—along with the entire American public, by then in the throes of the great bicycle boom—would mourn the loss of this brave and cheerful young man, who had risked so much to educate the world about the joys and benefits of cycling.

David Herlihy’s article is an original work based on his book, The Lost Cyclist: The Epic Tale of an  American Adventurer and His Mysterious Disappearance, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. and available mid-June 2010.

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