Harmon’s Histories: Bicycle from Missoula to Hamilton? You should’ve tried it 120 years ago

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.

Bicycling is a big deal in Missoula.

The city boasts, “With over 22 miles of off-street trails and 40 miles of on-street bike lanes, Missoula is a great place to ride … (and) the League of American Bicyclists has designated the city a Gold level Bicycle Friendly Community.”

There are certainly outspoken fiscal detractors, but with the addition of the Reserve Street overpass and completion of the Bitterroot Trail, one can now bike all the way from Missoula to Hamilton in style.

It wasn’t nearly that easy during Missoula’s first bicycle boom, back in the 1890s. Not only were there no bike trails back then, there were few roads!

What follows is an eye-opening account of an attempted Missoula-to-Hamilton bike ride over 120 years ago.

Here it is, verbatim, from the Anaconda Standard newspaper, published June 25, 1895:

Missoula, June 24th – One of the most eventful pilgrimages ever taken from Missoula by Missoula people was the bicycle tour taken yesterday by Messrs. Chaney, Taylor, Griffin, Howard and Hathaway.

The party left here early in the morning and from the time they rolled over the bridge until 10 last night, when they straggled back into town, two of them in a buggy, the trip was one continued round of accidents, mishaps and casualties.

If the party had started out to see how much trouble it could have, it would have been impossible to have scared up anymore, unless the day could have been lengthened several hours.

When Canby Morrison this morning cleaned out the buggy in which he brought in two disabled bicycles and their dilapidated riders he found a notebook in which one of the riders had kept a log of the trip.

This he gave to a (Anaconda) Standard reporter this morning and it is reproduced here, to show how much grief can be crowded into one day.

It is not known which of the wheelmen wrote the record, but it is none the less interesting for being anonymous:

Sunday, June 23rd, 4 a.m. – Just got up. All on hand but Chaney. He did not go to bed ‘till two and doesn’t want to get up. Weather clear and fine.

4:30 – Chaney up. Breakfast cooking. Have overhauled the wheels and everything is ready for the trip to Hamilton.

5:00 – Breakfast eaten. We are off in a bunch. Chaney, Griffin, Taylor and Howard all in good form.

5:03 – Crossed the bridge all right. All felt so fine that we speeded up crossing the flat. Went too fast for the start. At the Congregational Church Cheney fell all over himself, dented his machine and bruised his knee.

5:05 – Fresh start made. Chaney rather groggy. Using language not be coming to a gentleman, especially on Sunday morning. Howard had a narrow escape from a header.

5:30 – Crossed the Bitterroot railroad. Chaney feeling better. Wheels all running well except Chaney’s, whose machine was wrenched in his fall at the church. Had no business to pass a church on Sunday morning, anyway.

6:05 – Crossed the Buckhouse Bridge. Road very dusty. Good breeze to keep us cool. Took a drink. Not much good. Too heating.

6:50 – Over the Lou Lou grade. Pretty stiff pedaling. Griffin’s wheel acting badly. Slips a cog once in awhile.

7:25 – Had a good run across the Lou Lou Flat. Road still dusty. Took another drink. Miles are getting pretty low. Man that paced them must have had long legs.

7:55 – Passed Carlton. Bitter Rooters don’t know what to make of us. People climb on fences to see us go by. Not much dust here. Griffin’s wheel suffering from lost motion.

8:20 – Best run we had from Carlton toward Florence. Griffin’s wheel has all gone to pieces. Pedal loose. Stopped for repairs. Took a drink.

8:30 – Tom Hathaway overtook us while Griffin’s wheel was being repaired. He is having a good trip. Says he’ll go with us to set the pace. We are off again.

9:55 – Roads rough. This Sunday wheeling isn’t what it is recommended to be. Taylor and Howard running easily. Decided to take no more drinks. Whiskey is to heating. Had to walk about two miles.

10:15 – Wonder who is road supervisor here. He’s no good. Terrible roads and too many irrigating ditches. Stevensville in sight. Griffin’s wheel working like a barrel churn, steady by jerks. Wish we hadn’t thrown away that bottle.

10:30 – Crossed Stevensville bridge. Chaney’s knee is lame. Griffin’s wheel is lame, too. Weather getting pretty hot.

11:10 Stevensville looks mighty fine. Think we’ll stop here and make permanent repairs to Griffin’s wheel. Will take lunch here. Beer is a better drink for hot weather than whiskey.

12:20 – Lunch tasted good. Wheel repaired and now we’re off for Hamilton.

12:45 – The man who named this district Aetna was all right. It’s hotter than any well-regulated volcano ought to be. The dust is six inches deep. We can’t see each other, it’s so thick. Beer is unquestionably better than any other beverage.

1:15 – Walking. Dust too deep for riding. Tom Hathaway says that this is fun. Nobody else thinks so. Our faces are streaked with dust and perspiration. Missoula is a good place to spend Sunday.

1:25 – Still walking when we are not standing still. Fearful dust storm blowing. Wish we’d stayed at home.

2:30 – Have been able to ride some distance. Road still dusty. We can see Corvallis, but don’t think that we will get there. Not much fun pumping through this dust. God bless the man that discovered beer.

3:00 – Homeward bound. Hamilton is too far away. Unfortunately Missoula is still farther. Dust, dust, dust.

4:00 – Out of the dust belt once more. Eyes, ears, nose, mouth, all full of fine, gritty particles. Beer all gone.

4:35 – Stevensville in the sight again. More beer there. Irrigating ditches have played havoc with our wheels.

5:10 – Had rest at Stevensville. Have a package of egg sandwiches and five bottles of beer. Thirty miles to Missoula.

5:15 – Beginning to rain. This soil may be all right for agricultural purposes, but when it’s wet it isn’t good road material.

5:25 – Shower over. Dust flies up in chunks as our wheels go through it. These irrigating ditches are rough on wheels.

5:40 – Chaney’s rear tire is getting loose. He says he didn’t put shellac enough on it. Somebody ought to buy him a barrel of it.

5:55 – That tire is getting looser. It has worked the valve loose and we will have to go into dry dock to fix it.

6:15 – Have fixed the valve and had some beer. Chaney chewed some gum and stuck it around the leak. Then tore of strip of cloth from his clothing and bandaged it.

6:30 – Stopped for lunch. Feel better now. Been raining here and roads muddy. Off for home.

6:45 – Progressing slowly. Tom Hathaway fresh as a daisy. All the rest getting jaded except Howard. Wish we had a team.

7:30 – Tried to get George Dalglish to take us home, but he had no room in his rig.

7:45 – Cheney’s wheel is getting worse. Griffin’s is bad, too. All the rest are all right. It’s mighty hard pumping. Beer all gone.

8:10 – Overtook Dalglish again, but he had no room. Canby Morrison and Charlie Dorman in sight. They have only one horse, though.

8:30 – Cheney’s wheel has slumped. Griffin’s is not much better. Morrison has loaded the two wheels on behind and has taken the two wheelmen aboard.

8:45 – Hathaway, Taylor and Howard still pumping along. Mud deep and sticky. Wheels catch about 50 pounds of it on the tires. Chaney and Griffin keeping pretty quiet.

9:00 – Mud so deep that wheelmen have to walk. Canby’s horse giving out. Mighty hard sledding.

9:10 – Lyon and Williams passed us in a rig. Offered us friendly counsels and advice.

9:25 – Passed another man with busted wheel – Francis. Gave him Griffin’s, which was not so badly disabled as his. Took his wheel on the buggy.

9:30 – Missoula in site. Horse can’t hold his head up. Don’t know whether we’ll have to walk or not.

9:50 – The horse held out. Chaney and Griffin are home at the hotel.

10:05 – Taylor, Hathaway and Howard reached home. They rode all the way. We will not go next Sunday.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.