Dani's Niche

Family history. A novel idea.

Bicycling adventurers in the 1800s

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variety of cyclesRolling hills with challenging climbs, wildflowers, and moderate climate draw bicyclists from near and far to California’s beautiful Central Coast. Major events include The Great Western Bike Rally, the Central Coast Double Century and Eroica California as well as charity rides and the Tour of California which pass through from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

My husband and I are no strangers to the sport. As I write he is climbing the hills not far from our front door. He rides to work and participates in century and double century events. For years I joined him on weekends and for century rides along the coast and alongside landscapes carpeted with wildflowers. We’ve bike camped and participated in week long supported riding in Idaho and Montana.

I was surprised to learn that cycling has been a popular sport in our area since the late 1800s when bicycles were a fairly new mode of transportation. Several times in 1897 and 1898 a young man named Fred Smith rode his bike from Palo Alto to his home in Paso Robles, about 200 miles, in one day. This is a challenge for anyone, even today with our lightweight bikes with 25 speeds, pneumatic tires on paved roads, as opposed to one speed on solid rubber tires over rough dirt roads.

On November 6, 1897, Eddie Kragness, who was riding a bicycle for the Olympic Club of San Francisco, covered the distance between San Francisco and Los Angeles in a little over two days. Fred Smith joined him at Chualar and rode as guide as far as Paso Robles. They rode the railroad ties for several miles because they found that it was easier than riding on the sandy road. At the lunch stop in King City they ordered one dozen soft boiled eggs for their meal. Fred’s brother, Paul, joined them in Paso after dark and they rode together as far as San Luis Obispo. Kragness finished the ride the next day. His record was not broken until sixty years later with the aid of paved roads and improved gearing.Paul Smith on bike with Clark S. Smith

Fred’s brother, Clark, who owned a bike and gun store in town, took four days to ride his 51-inch big wheel from Oakland to Paso Robles. Not the most comfortable mount for such a long journey. Clark’s most memorable competition took place on the 4th of July 1895 when he raced through town against strong competition, having trained by going without ice cream and pedaling to his dad’s ranch each day. The young man took a late lead to win the three mile race and claim the six-dollar prize.

Leave it to the young men to prove their strength by pedaling up hills, endurance by distance riding and speed by racing. For that, times have not changed, but we notice there are many more gray-haired riders enjoying the sport nowadays. Here’s to the health and happiness of all who enjoy pedaling in our great outdoors.

The top photo shows the B.H. Franklin store in Cambria, California, first used as their high school in 1890. Note the various types of bikes and riders. Bicycling was not only a practical means of getting from place to place before automobiles but soon became a popular sport. 
 
Paul Smith is shown on bike with his brother Clark S. Smith

Photos courtesy of Gary Smith

7 thoughts on “Bicycling adventurers in the 1800s

  1. I know it’s been a bit since you originally posted this story but I wanted to thank you for the details you provided. Fred, Clark and Paul are my great uncles. I wasn’t aware that Fred had ridden between Palo Alto and Paso Robles in one day. My information was that Fred moved to Palo Alto in 1898 (this from his niece, one of Clark’s daughters). Once there he set up a cyclery shop on Stanford campus catering to students’ bicycle needs. By 1903, he moved his cyclery shop to the main street in Palo Alto and called it Smith’s. Brother Clark also had a cycelry (and eventually sporting goods) store in Paso Robles which he also called Smith’s, and they did much trading over the years.

    I have a copy of the original June 22, 1898 newspaper article telling how “Eddie Kragness, the crack road rider of the Olympic Wheelmen” started out in SF headed to So. Calif. “He will ride unpaced over the San Juan Mountains and down to Gonzalez, where J. C. Smith of Paso Robles will be in waiting to take him along to the latter place [not sure who J. C. is, or what “latter place” is]. After supper there he will continue onto San Luis Obispo paced by another member of the Smith Family. [I always speculated this was Fred, but you have now confirmed this.] When he starts out again the next morning, Harry Corbaley of San Luis Obispo will do the pacing as far as Santa Maria.” Harry Corbaley is my great grandfather, who married Fred, Clark and Paul’s younger sister Lillie. I can see why they became such good friends.

    I was an avid rider in my day, and now my son carries on the tradition. When he was 17, after graduating from HS, he rode solo from Seattle, WA to LA (where we were living at the time). He took a leisurely route and arrived much thinner two mos after starting his trip.

    I would love any other stories you might have about the Smith’s (or Harry Corbaley) Harry opened a competing cycle shop in Palo Alto up the street from Fred’s around 1904.

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    • Sorry for the delay in replying. I just saw your comment. Wow! Nice to hear from a Smith relative. My grandparents and CS and Olive Smith were good friends. Gary Smith (sorry to hear of his passing) donated some write-ups, photos, etc to the Paso Robles Historical Society where I volunteered as archives manager until we moved out-of-state last year. The PRAHS would love to receive any materials you might wish to donate. There’s a family file (where i found the info for my blog) and one for the cycle shop as well. Also, the museum has a whole section that it set up like the inside of the Smith Sporting Goods store. You can contact the historical society (housed in the old Carnegie Library) via Nancy or Jan at (805) 238-4996 on Tuesdays or email them at pasohistory1@sbcglobal.net. I’ll pass along your note. Thanks for your note and encouragement.

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      • Thanks so much for your responding! It’s nice to meet a friend of the Smith’s of Paso Robles. I’m guessing Gary was a son of Clark’s. I haven’t stayed in touch with the PR side of the family. I have an album full of pictures from family gatherings at the Smith farm early in the last century. Unfortunately, I don’t recognize many of the faces. It would be nice to talk with someone who could actually point them out. I will definitely contact PRAHS to find how I can get access to the Smith family files, and see if I have anything they might be interested in anything I have. Most of my research is about the Palo Alto Smith siblings though, Bertha, Fred and Lillie (and a bit about Paul who went to Stanford before returning to PR).

        Fred was quite a colorful fellow! His cycle shop on Stanford campus allowed him to develop friendships with many distinguished Stanford personalities (including Herbert Hoover and Ray Lyman Wilbur ). A group of them formed a hunting and fishing club which Fred was president of for many years. I mention it in the bio I wrote for him in his online Memorial. Here is the link in case you are interested:

        https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/199490455

        There are links to memorials for all the Smith siblings and their families, as well as their parents and grandparents.

        I appreciate your response and the archive work you’ve done, so valuable!

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      • I’ve alerted Nancy at PRAHS that you might be contacting her.

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  2. I enjoyed Bicycling Adventures. It amazed me to think of how difficult yet fulfilling itmust have been to cover such miles, hills, rocks (and flat tires) in the 1800s!Without a gel seat cover!Sad that nowadays our kids are picked up and driven instead of given a bicycle to ride.Certainly, Chris and I fall prey to fear with letting our little ones ride bikes on the streets.I had such fun riding my bike all over Huntington Beach, while growing up. Thank you for sharing! Keep writing!Corrine

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  3. Fascinating!

    Liked by 1 person

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