Over a century ago, a major rail strike in Chicago cut train activity—including mail service—from Illinois straight to the Pacific coast. In order to maintain California's consistent postal deliveries, a group of bicyclists teamed up to complete a 210-mile relay from the state's central valley up to San Francisco—on fixies, over unpaved dirt roads. This month marks the 120th anniversary of the route.
This post originally appeared on the Mission Bicycle Company blog, and has been reprinted with permission.
1894 found the United States in a deep depression. Unemployment was rampant, businesses were collapsing, and crop value was dissolving back into earth.
Wage cuts at the Pullman railcar plant in Chicago, Illinois ignited the infamous Pullman Strike. Two-hundred-fifty-thousand American Railway Union members in 27 states, led by Eugene V. Debs, clashed with President Grover Cleveland and the U.S. Army. Rail service was crippled from Detroit to California. The Diablo Range foothills, west of California's central valley, cut the San Francisco Bay Area off from physical correspondence. No trains, no mail, no communication.
That was until, on July 1, 1894, Arthur C. Banta went grocery shopping.
On July 7th, the San Francisco Examiner wrote:
"An enterprising citizen of Fresno [A.C. Banta] has organized a bicycle mail relay from that city to San Francisco to carry letters only. The route taken is west to Gilroy, then north through San Jose to this city."
On the suggestion of his grocer, Banta saw an opportunity to connect California's central valley with the San Francisco Bay Area. Totaling 210 miles, divided into eight relays, and occupying 18 hours the route offered to carry a letter via bicycle from one end to the other for $0.25. While that was ten times the price of standard mail, isolation and desperation closed the price gap. There was simply no alternative, and "the only delay was an occasional punctured tire."
Banta's original flyer (left) advertising the service. It's possible the strikethrough came from the pen of Fresno's Postmaster.
Banta was looking to make a buck, and he was a bike man by trade. He owned Victor Cyclery in Fresno where he sold bicycles made by the Overman Wheel Company of San Francisco. Thus, the mail route went from one bike shop to the other.
Banta posted the job and quickly hired 13 cyclists for the route, 8 primary riders and 5 substitutes. Just in case.
The messengers began in Fresno, rode northwest stopping several times along the way to deliver or capture new mail, and on into San Francisco. B.J. Treat owned the first 20 mile leg out of Fresno. W.B. Atwater was charged with summiting Pacheco Pass, a climb of over 1,300 feet, and so had the shortest leg at 15 miles. The trip was completed by C.S. Shaffer who rode 30 miles from Menlo Park into SF, picked up return mail and rode immediately back to Menlo Park for 60 miles round trip. He was regarded as a "particularly good rider."
"Except for the relay into and out of San Francisco each rider was to remain at the northern end of his route until receiving mail for the southward run. A rider having an accident or delay was instructed to continue, on foot if necessary. The awaiting rider, after a reasonable delay, was to ride out to meet him."
First deposited to each bike shop, the mail would be finally delivered to the local U.S. Postmaster who would complete home delivery. This system skirted just around the law, which allowed only the U.S. Government to carry or charge for mail delivery. Thus, the Bicycle Messenger Route was simply a courier service from Fresno to SF.
The route rolled 210 miles. Not one mile of it was in a bike lane or over a sharrow. In fact, very little of it was on pavement at all. In 1894 roadways between cities were rough and rutted carriage roads. Even in major cities like SF, many interior streets were still dirt. The eight riders collectively climbed nearly 2,600 feet of elevation with letters and packages in tow.
The riders ascended that elevation and covered the 210 mile distance all on single speed bikes, most likely fixed gear. Single speeds with coaster brakes were available but it seems historically unlikely that's what was used. Multi-gear bikes were still experimental at this point and decades away from proliferation.
Victor bicycles model Flyer, 1893
Like all mail routes, this one also required a stamp. Banta commissioned Mr. Eugene Donze, who created the design and engraved the image on a copper plate that was mounted on a block of boxwood. The stamps themselves were printed, by hand and one at a time, by the rider B.J. Treat who would also cover the first 20 miles out of Fresno. The first run produced 816 stamps, each one meticulously aligned, stamped, and cut by hand into sheets of six.
That whole process, from commission to delivery of over 800 stamps, was somehow achieved in about a day. Almost as quickly, a local Fresno stamp collector noticed an egregious typo.
San Francisco was misspelled San "Fransisco". An inexplicable mistake.
The die was "corrected" by simply smashing the erroneous S into what is supposed to be a C. A second pressing of around a 1,000 stamps was made from the revision and the crude fix is immediately obvious. It's worth noting here that several more pressings were made, while only 380 letters were ever sent across the route. It seems Banta's ambition was much greater than the demand.
However, as early as August of that same year, the stamps were of interest and value to collectors. A New York Daily Tribune article notes that used $0.25 stamps were commanding $1, while stamped envelopes ranged from $5-$10. This at a time when the average worker only made a few dollars a week. Today excellent examples can fetch a few thousand dollars.
When the route was abandoned, and the prospect of courier revenue with it, Donze cooked up a scheme to inflate the value of the remaining stamps. He made a counterfeit die, which he then defaced and released, to fool collectors into believing no new stamps could be printed. His racket was quickly discovered and the original die was defaced to prevent future pressings.
Fraudulent "proof" the stamp die had been destroyed
The Last Run
In July 1894, two months after the Pullman Strike began, President Cleveland secured a federal court injunction against the American Railway Union to stop interfering with mail trains. He punctuated the injunction with the U.S. Army. Clashes ensued that were violent but brief. The strike collapsed, the trains started running, and with them mail returned to the rails and San Francisco.
Banta wrote in his journal: "John Enos left Fresno Monday, July 16th, 2:30pm with a pack of mail intending to run clear through to San Francisco with the same… Enos arrived in San Francisco Wednesday noon, making the distance in less than two days. There being no mail there for return and the regular railroad service having been resumed without further prospects of molestation, the route was finally abandoned."
The mail by messenger service came to an end almost as quickly as it began.
Remembering the Past
We've resurrected Donze's original design and are proud to offer it as an embroidered patch. We've retained the misspelling of "San Fransisco." For authenticity, of course.
The top and bottom points read A.R.U. (American Railway Union) Strike. The left and right points show the cost, 25 cents. Just inside that is the year, 1894. The oval shows a messenger riding through the sagebrush common in California with the foothills that separate the central valley from the coast looming in the background.