BILLINGS — Have you ever wanted to go on an epic bike ride?
Well, how about trying an almost 2,000-mile journey from Missoula, Montana to St. Louis, Missouri on a one-speed bicycle in the middle of summer? That’s what the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps did almost 125 years ago.
In the 1800’s, African American soldiers were not uncommon in the US military. Segregated units began serving during the Civil War. It is not certain as to why these units and men became known as "Buffalo Soldiers."
Theories on the moniker abound. But what is certain is that the name stuck and by the end of the 19th century Buffalo Soldier units were populating forts throughout the West.
Such was the case of the 25th Infantry, who made their home for years at Fort Missoula here in Montana.
Matt Lautzenheiser, the Executive Director of the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula explains.
“So they were here for about a decade. Initially about four companies of the 25th infantry were stationed at Fort Missoula, and they arrived in 1888, and they were here through 1898. That's when the Spanish American War broke out in Cuba, and they were pulled out of Fort Missoula to be sent to Cuba to fight during that Spanish American War."
Before they would leave to fight in the war and help future President Teddy Roosevelt take San Juan Hill, the 25th was given the mission of testing bicycles for the army as a potential replacement for the cavalry.
“There was thought that bicycles would cost about a quarter to maintain as it would to maintain a horse," says Lautzenheiser. "So as early as, 1894 one of the generals, General Nelson Miles, had this idea of creating a bicycle core. Where our connection comes in, there was a Second Lieutenant named James Moss and Moss had developed this idea and he reached out to Miles and asked permission to form a bicycle core at Fort Missoula.”
Moss was given the go ahead to start working with bikes and after a successful 16-day and nearly 800-mile round trip to Yellowstone National Park in 1896, the Corps geared up for their real test. A one way, 1,900-mile bicycle ride from Missoula to St. Louis.
On June 14, 1897, Lieutenant Moss, 20 soldiers and a local newspaper reporter who would document the entire journey, set off on this epic mission. Fifty-pound, one speed bikes, each caring men and supplies, traveled roughly 50 miles a day through every kind of terrain imaginable.
“One of the reasons they chose St Louis is that it allowed them, from an experimental point of view, to travel through several different climates. And also, multiple types of soil. Like the sandy soils of Wyoming and the muddy, rockier terrain in Montana, and then kind of the mud, they dealt with once they got down in Nebraska and in Missouri."
This was not a nice bike ride through the country.
"The trip itself was kind of a nightmare. The guys dealt with a ton of rain and inclement weather and they referred to the mud as 'gumbo' because it kept sticking to the wheels, and of course, at the time, there were no good roads. “
A trip like this today would be daunting, but you could at least navigate on paved roads if you really wanted to. Back then they were lucky to find a flat clear trail.
"The roads were so bad at some points that they were actually forced to ride on the railroad tracks. And you can imagine how unpleasant and how jarring that would be to spend eight hours a day riding on railroad tracks.”
It was a tough, grueling, mussel aching mission. But the fortitude of the Corps was immeasurable and for 41 days that summer, they inspired a nation.
Americans across the country read of the journey in Newspaper's from coast to coast. When they reached St. Louis hundreds of cyclists rode out to meet them and escort them into town, where thousands were cheering. The St. Louis Star reported that the 25th Infantry’s journey was “the most marvelous cycling trip in the history of the wheel.”
Sadly, but maybe for the best, the bicycle never did take over for the horse. To many repairs were needed and the movement never seemed to gain enough traction before or after the Spanish American War. But the legacy of the 25th and their incredible ride lives on.
“You know that they broke barriers," says Lautzenheiser. "I mean, they changed many people's opinions of African Americans and, you know, their views of Buffalo Soldiers in general and African Americans in the military. It's an incredible legacy and I think it's something that the African American community can continue to take pride in with this service that they provided with these Buffalo Soldier units.”
For more information on the Bicycle Corps, visit https://fortmissoulamuseum.org/exhibit/25th-infantry-bicycle-corps/