A look back at a woman’s solo ride from Chicago to SF amid the bicycle craze of the 1890s.
When Margaret Valentine LeLong decided in 1897 to ride a bicycle, alone, from Chicago to her home in San Francisco, everyone around her implored her to reconsider. No woman had ever dared try such a thing. Dangers abounded: wildlife, marauders, injuries, dehydration. Bikes at the time were clunky one-speed bone-breakers. And the roads often were full of mud, rocks, potholes, and planks.
There were no bike lanes. There were no sag wagons. There were no fast-food joints or convenience stores. There were no motel chains. And there were no cell phones.
So the odds were heavily stacked that year against Ms. Margaret Valentine LeLong.
. . .
Bicycles had been available in this country since about 1877, when they were first imported from England. Called “Ordinary” bikes, they sported the huge front wheel and tiny rear wheel seen in Victorian-era drawings. They were slow and difficult to ride, and both easy and painful to fall from. For all that, the cost was almost prohibitive, except for the wealthy; priced at $100, a bike would set a rider back about $2,600 in today’s dollars.
But then came the “Safety” bike at the end of the 1880s, and it was chock-full of innovations. The wheels were now the same size. A drive chain, a front fork, and a leather saddle became standard. Tires were pneumatic: rather than being constructed of solid rubber, they contained pressurized air, which made for a smoother (although still far from luxurious) ride. Best of all, the price “plunged” to $60—still outrageous but at least more affordable.
Because of these changes, the number of bicyclists in the US grew from 150,000 to 4 million between 1890 and 1896. Biking became a fervent American passion. It enabled people to get away from their reliance on horses and offered an escape from increasing urbanization while providing exercise and a good dose of sunlight. And for women in particular, the bicycle was a literal vehicle for achieving freedom and independence.
In San Francisco (where, frankly, “a good dose of sunlight” was rarely applicable), horse-drawn streetcars called “horsecars” had been the primary means of transportation through the 1880s. But during the bicycle mania of the 1890s, allegedly 65,000 cyclists (half the city’s population!) filled the streets—dodging streetcars, carriages, riders on horseback, and pedestrians. Scores of bike shops opened in Golden Gate Park, which also became the favored meeting place for the cycling clubs that sprang up during the decade.
The park had not always been available to cyclists; in fact, it was originally off-limits until the San Francisco Bicycle Club lobbied strongly for the commissioners to allow bikes at least limited access. Officials decided to permit members to enter the park on Stanyan Street, stay on South Drive (now MLK Drive), and ride as far west as Strawberry Hill (at Stow Lake)—but only between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Continued efforts by the clubs finally won them access to the entire length of the park in the early 1890s. But not everyone was happy about it. The “Chat About the Cycle” column in the San Francisco Call, dated April 25, 1892, warned cyclists to “familiarize themselves with the rules regarding the use of roads in the park on Saturdays and Sundays. Sergeant Thompson of the park police is always courteous to inexperienced wheelmen who go astray, but the same cannot be said of all of his subordinates.”
The bike clubs’ efforts marked the early stages of the populist Good Roads Movement, which covered all forms of transportation and pushed for better streets and more bicycle-friendly laws. The largest demonstration in San Francisco history, in fact, came on July 25, 1896, when thousands of cyclists and up to 100,000 spectators jammed Market Street for a two-mile-long “parade” in support of road improvements. Paved asphalt was not yet the norm, and the city’s muddy, rutted, and cratered streets—crosscut with tracks and cable car slots—were often hopelessly unsuitable for bikes. Indeed, someone with a flair for poetry once called them:
The parade ended in a near riot, but “good road” resolutions were approved as a result. Cyclists wanted unused track to be removed and cable car slots to be lowered in height. They also asked for more pavement on Market Street and the installation of electric lights to help illuminate their way to Golden Gate Park, where many of them rode at night.
“We want the north side to be waked up. We South of Market folks are lively enough, but you people over the line are deader than Pharaoh!” scoffed one cyclist.
. . .
Although most of the cycling clubs were for men only, a group of women decided to start the Falcon Bicycle Club (FBC) in 1895. Their clubhouse—an old horsecar from the North Beach and Mission line—stood on the dunes of Carville on the western edge of the city, near what is now 47th and Lincoln. (Carville was a community of abandoned railcars—especially fancied by bohemians—that became dwelling places and clubhouses when the transit companies discarded them in the late 1800s.) The members put in a three-stove kitchen and built a twenty-eight-person table that could be pulled down from the ceiling. They often held dinner parties for local notables, newspapermen, socialites, and free spirits. Among the satirical descriptions the club sent to the local press was this one from August of 1896:
“A most delightful banquet was given last Saturday evening by the FBC. . . . The following was the very unique menu:
Soups – Whalebone, Lampwick, Corncob and Lozenges.
Fish – Carp, Octopus, Catfish and Cartridges.
Game – Pedro, Old Maid, Smut and Cribbage.
Entrees – Brown Beans, Baked Beans, Barnacles, Spidertoes, Froglegs and Frangipanni.
Vegetables – Bunions, Soft Corns and Halpruner.
Relishes and Booze – Mother-in-Law Fried, Roasted, and Deviled; Ice Cream, Doorjamb and Vaseline; Sponge Pies and Leather Pies, with or without Buckles; Cream Coffee and Chocolate; Café au Lait and Rouge et Noir; Good-Night Kiss and Dream of Grandmother.”
. . .
It isn’t readily apparent why Ms. LeLong decided to ride her bicycle thousands of miles alone, and she likely would have been scornful of anyone who dared ask the question. San Franciscans in those days were an independent lot, she had been visiting friends in Chicago, and according to the Chicago Tribune, she did the ride “purely for enjoyment.” Otherwise, we know very little about her. None of the (very abbreviated) newspaper accounts noted her age, but the Tribune’s six-sentence mention of her feat did manage to describe her as a “slender little woman” who stood five feet two inches tall and weighed one hundred and fourteen pounds.
Ms. LeLong formulated her plans “[i]n spite of the opposition of every friend and relative who was on hand to register a protest (and those at a distance objected by mail),” she would later say. And although her loved ones’ opposition may have been related to the inherent dangers of her trip, universal resistance to the very notion of female bicyclists was quite strong in those days. In some states it was altogether illegal for women to ride. Cycling was considered to be so challenging for the female constitution that it could lead to insomnia, depression, and heart problems. It could cause “bicycle eye,” which occurred when a rider had to look forward too long while her neck was bent. Worst of all, it could bring ruin to “the feminine organs of matrimonial necessity.” The Woman’s Rescue League of Washington, D.C., apparently claimed that bicycling prevented women from having children. Another charge was that the “friction between a woman and her saddle caused illicit sexual arousal.”
Then there was the matter of attire. Women had been accustomed to wearing skirts while riding side-saddle on horses. But some female cyclists thought that long, flowing garments could get caught in bicycles’ moving parts, so they chose to wear bloomers instead of skirts. Bloomers were loose harem-style pants, some of which fastened—gasp!—under the knee. A huge backlash ensued. One mayor condemned the new pants for being a “menace to the peace and good morals of the male residents.”
Margaret rode a “drop-frame” safety bicycle with a low, curved cross-support because the standard crossbar used by men would get in the way of her skirt, which she curiously preferred over pants. She climbed onto her bike in Chicago on May 20, 1897, dressed in her skirt and her leather shoes—laced to the knee—that she had had modified with heavier soles. Bicycles were yet to come equipped with baskets, so she brought only some extra underwear, toiletries, a handkerchief, and a tool bag—all of which she somehow managed to strap onto the handlebars. In her tool bag was her final essential item: a pistol.
. . .
“And so one morning in May I started,” wrote Ms. LeLong in the journal Outing in 1898, “midst a chorus of prophecies of broken limbs, starvation, death from thirst, abduction by cowboys, and scalping by Indians.”
It was far from easy mechanically to ride a bicycle in those days. Balance was tricky. The coaster brake (engaged by backpedaling) was not invented until 1898, so Margaret’s bike likely was equipped with a heavy front “spoon brake” and nothing on the back wheel—always a recipe for taking a header over the handlebars.
Illinois at first proved to be rider-friendly, for it was generally smooth and level. But from the get-go the headwinds were a demonic challenge, and even Margaret’s attempts to get up before the chickens were fruitless. “Let none flatter themselves they can get up before an Illinois wind,” she noted wryly, “for it blows all day, and it blows all night, and it always blows straight in your face.” Then, as she headed west toward Iowa, the combination of wind, mud, hills, bogs, and swirling sand often convinced her to stop early in small towns, where she would “spend the rest of the day expressing [her] opinion about the League map of Iowa, which is a snare and a delusion.”
Nebraska came next and, for a cyclist, was preferable for riding. “Iowa is described in the guide-books as a ‘fine, rolling country,’” she wrote. “For the cycler this means that you roll your wheel up one side of a hill and down the other, with never a level spot between to rest the sole of your foot upon. . . . What a relief to a weary wheelman to cross the muddy Missouri and go skimming over the smooth gravel roads of Nebraska. In Iowa the road will go several miles out of its way to climb a hill; in Nebraska it makes some attempt to go around.”
Wyoming, of course, brought mountains, trees, and stone, and the landscape toughened. As a result, one nearly regrettable decision resulted in a rather painful battering for Ms. LeLong. She’d decided to take the “Happy Jack” road between Cheyenne and Laramie, but the road did not, for Margaret, prove altogether happy: “A two thousand foot rise in thirty miles, and a thousand foot drop in the other twenty-two miles is the record of the Happy Jack road. For twenty miles the road is good, and the grade gradual, then trouble begins. Up and down, in and out, over rocks and through sand runs the Happy Jack road, and at every mile your breath comes harder and your knees grow weaker. . . . Numerous dents, bruises, and abrasions on myself and wheel mark the moments when I became lost in admiration of the wild grandeur of the scene, and forgot that I was riding a bucking bronco of a bicycle.”
. . .
It was while she was still in Wyoming that Ms. LeLong’s revolver came in handy. She’d just finished wading through a marsh when she noticed that a nearby herd of cattle was sizing her up. The prevailing wisdom for such a situation was, counterintuitively, to advance slowly toward the herd, shouting and waving one’s arms. “This sounds very simple sitting safely at home with your cattle before you in the form of roast beef,” she wrote. “It is a very different thing when facing a pawing, bellowing herd of cattle in the middle of a Wyoming cattle range, your knees knocking together, and your heart making quick trips from your head to your heels and back again; every nerve tingling with a wild desire to run and no place to run to. Not a tree, a bush, a rock, or even a telegraph-pole.”
So she drew her pistol and fired five shots in the air, “scattering handkerchief, curl-papers, and powder-box to the winds to get at the cartridges in the bottom of my chatelaine bag. I loaded as I ran.” Much to her relief, the noise prompted the cattle to first run in circles and then, thankfully, retreat.
. . .
Margaret’s journey across Nevada, through the Great American Desert, was anything but picturesque. But after the desert came the greatest payoff. “From Reno to San Francisco the roads are good, the scenery beautiful, and the water like wine after the alkali of the desert,” she wrote. “At every turn of the wheel I felt my spirits rise, and when I finally crossed the State line and stepped once more on California soil I wept a little weep for joy.
“You who have had only tantalizing glimpses through the cracks of the snow-sheds, know but little of the beauty of the scenery between Truckee and Blue Canyon. It amply repaid me for the many miles I had to walk and push my wheel up the long, steep hills. One day among the snow and rocks of the summit of the Sierras, the next spinning along through orchards of the Sacramento Valley where the trees were bending with their burden of fruit. Although the scenes around San Francisco Bay had been familiar to me for years, they seemed wonderfully new and beautiful to me. The Oakland Mole seemed the entrance to Paradise, and San Francisco, Paradise itself.”
. . .
Margaret Valentine LeLong crui-sed into San Francisco on July 8, fifty days after she left Chicago. She likely covered at least 2,500 miles, which means that she probably averaged about fifty miles a day. Her record was eighty-six miles in one day.
The major newspapers of the time covered the end of her trip and granted the story a couple of sentences. The Hayward Daily Review was the most long-winded:
“She was on the road . . . without a puncture. She made the journey not to save expenses, for it cost twice as much as by rail, but for the sake of the adventure and the experience. . . . She did her own washing, had the good sense not to try for the record, and rested when she was tired. . . . On the way she lost eight pounds, made a detour from Ogden to Salt Lake, rode the railroad track for numberless rough and bumpety miles, and walked an average ten miles a day. She is muscular as few women are, and is as brown as the proverbial berry, for she even tanned her hands through her thick chamois gloves. But she is not the least bit footsore or weary, and she would do it again.”
. . .
Not all that long afterward, in the early twentieth century, the automobile cemented itself into American social and business life. The use of bicycles for adult transportation dropped precipitously. But today bikes have made a comeback as an environmentally friendly, healthy, and just plain fun way to get around. San Francisco is now ranked among the best biking cities in the country. The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, established in 1971, advocates for an extensive, safe bicycle transportation network throughout the city and carries on the tradition of cyclists’ activism from the 1890s.
In many ways, the bicycle helped wheel in the Progressive era after the decades of late-nineteenth-century cultural conservatism that defined the Victorian era in America. It loosened many of the restrictions on personal freedom during the time, especially for women. The Victorian emphasis on keeping women engaged exclusively in domestic affairs within the home was upended by the notion of accessible two-wheeled personal transportation.
Margaret Valentine LeLong embodied the changing times. She was a boldly progressive San Franciscan and a fearless (if perhaps unwitting) pioneer, with strong legs, a quick wit, and unrelenting optimism.
“To men, the bicycle in the beginning was merely a new toy, another machine added to the long list of devices they knew in their work and play,” declared Munsey’s Magazine in 1896. “To women, it was a steed upon which they rode into a new world.” ♦
Paula Bocciardi is a freelance writer and the blogger behind Monday Morning Rail. A Bay Area native who went to college in San Francisco and never left, she’s also a drummer, die-hard Giants fan, and avid rail traveler. She lives in the Avenues with her wife and their dog, Buster Posey.
Colin Hunt is an artist, writer, and fabricator based out of Oakland. He is currently trying to pitch a TV show that combines his two great loves: NASA and swords. On weekends you can find him in San Francisco building sculptures for Burning Man at the Box Shop.