Editor's note: This is the third story in a continuing series marking the bicentennial of the invention of the bicycle.
A gentleman by the name of Francis P. Murphy was 44 in 1896. He owned a liquor store in Minneapolis at 925 Cedar Av. on the West Bank, an address that is now a vacant lot. More to the point, Murphy during that summer 121 years ago owned a bicycle — a steel, 22-pound, single-speed Barnes White Flyer. He also had a dream: Ride his Flyer 1,500 miles from Minneapolis to the metropolis of New York, at a pace of about 100 miles a day.
Audacious? According to the Federal Highway Administration’s official history of the nation’s roadways, pre-1900 “was the dark ages of the rural road … with insignificant exception these roads were unimproved, at best only ditched and graded.” He would essentially be bushwhacking to the East Coast, by bike.
Murphy told the Minneapolis Times in 1896 that he planned to follow rail routes, beginning with “the Iowa & Minnesota division of the Milwaukee Road to Dubuque,” then cobble together a route eastward from there. For some reason — the highlands of Pennsylvania, perhaps, or rail maps for the day — he planned to ride from Minneapolis to New York via Buffalo, which today would be 200 miles out of his way.
Murphy traveled light, planning “not carry a pound of baggage.” His meals, he said, “will be obtained at hotels or farmers’ houses along the route.” His training — 40 miles a day in two previous months — had “made him wiry and strong without a pound of superfluous flesh,” according to the Times.
At 6 a.m. Monday, Aug. 17, 1896, dressed in a sweater and corduroy cycling trousers, his wary family looking on (see photo), Murphy boarded his dodgy bicycle for his improbable expedition. “Considerable money was wagered on the result in Minneapolis and other places,” reported the papers, without saying what way the money was going.
Details of the following days remain sketchy, except for the result: On the evening of Sept. 1, 1896, 15 days after setting off on Cedar Avenue, Murphy pedaled up to the New York Clipper Building in lower Manhattan. His enormous feat: 1,560 miles of frantic riding on primitive roads, averaging the more than 100 miles each day, as he hoped.
One of his adventure’s most vivid accounts appeared in the newspaper in Elmira, N.Y. — Murphy’s hometown, and his rest stop on the way back to Minneapolis. He told the Star-Gazette that the roads in Illinois were so pathetic he had to carry his bike 8 miles into Chicago; he suffered no mechanical breakdowns, but had two flat tires; he had someone true-up his front wheel in Syracuse; his last two days of riding covered 146 and 140 miles, respectively; and he lost 13 pounds.
Murphy returned to Minneapolis that fall and operated his store until Prohibition, when he and his wife, Margaret, moved to Los Angeles. His scattered descendants — including 33-year-old Krista Murphy of Denver, who grew up near St. Cloud as the great-great granddaughter of Murphy’s second son Emmit, and supplied some of the documentation for this report — say Francis P. Murphy died in 1936 in California at age 84. His obituary in the Los Angeles Times did not mention his cycling exploits.
But Murphy might have moved on from cycling. The Star-Gazette asked him about his ride from Minneapolis to New York, writing, “He relates that it was a very hard journey and that he would not repeat it for $1,000.”
Tony Brown is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.