More than a century ago, in 1897, U.S. Army soldiers road bicycles 1,900 miles, from Fort Missoula, Montana to St. Louis.
The 20 soldiers who made the trip were part of the 25th Infantry, a racially-segregated group known as Buffalo Soldiers. The term refers to black soldiers who served west of the Mississippi River in regiments initially formed in 1866, after the end of the Civil War.
“It was a very exciting event,” Angela da Silva, a historian and adjunct professor at Lindenwood University, told St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh.
“In 1897 it was the story of the summer. Their journey was followed in every newspaper across the country. They went through five states and there was a newspaper man embedded with them.”
Essentially, the soldiers were testing the use of bicycles in the military, a practice more common in geographically smaller countries such as France and Germany.
“We were so spread out and so big a country, the United States government held off and finally they thought maybe we should look at this,” da Silva said.
Although the journey was a success, the soldiers faced harsh conditions over the five states they traveled. In June, a freak snowstorm in the Rockies dumped 11 inches of snow on the riders. An ice storm further hampered progress as soldiers’ hands froze to handlebars and ice stuck to chains.
On the polar opposite of freezing conditions, the soldiers encountered sweltering, 110-degree heat in Nebraska.
Although the trip was deemed a success, the start of the Spanish-American War that began one year after the trip, among other factors, put the brakes on the U.S. Army’s further development of the bicycle as a military vehicle.
History in Action
The history of the soldiers’ 1,900-mile bicycle journey will be celebrated at an event called “Buffalo Soldiers and Bicycles” on June 10 at the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing, along the riverfront bike trail in north St. Louis between Grand and Prairie avenues. The event was rescheduled from May 6, due to flooding.
“As part of the day’s events, we are always dramatizing some aspect of black history,” said da Silva, who also is the organizer of the annual Mary Meachum Celebration.
“The play opens with [the Buffalo Soldiers] preparing to come here and it closes with them being actually here,” said da Silva about the forthcoming reenactment and celebration.
Listen to the conversation to hear more about the Buffalo Soldiers and Mary Meachum, a free woman of color who assisted slaves as they attempted to reach freedom in Illinois by crossing the Mississippi River.
What: 15th Annual Mary Meachum Celebration "Buffalo Soldiers and Bicycles”
When: 12:00 - 5:00 p.m., Saturday, June 10
Where: Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.