In 1903, George Wyman became the first motorcyclist to make a transcontinental trip across America. In fact, he was the first ever to make the trip by means of a motorized vehicle. Wyman’s trip was made on a 1.25-horsepower, 90cc California motorcycle designed by Roy Marks. Wyman’s arduous journey, which started in San Francisco on May 16, took 50 days and ended in New York City on July 6.
Wyman’s 3,800-mile journey was sponsored by and covered in a series of first-person accounts titled “Across America on a Motor Bicycle” by the short-lived Motorcycle Magazine, the first magazine in the country devoted solely to motorcycling. Inexplicably, the historic ride did not receive the kind of newspaper coverage it warranted along the route and was largely forgotten for decades until it was "rediscovered" by a dedicated group of writers and researchers for Road Rider Magazine in the late 1970s.
George Adams Wyman was born on July 3, 1877 in Oakland, California. As a teen, Wyman was caught up in the bicycling craze of the 1880s and ‘90s. He became a leading bicycle racer and, at the turn of the century, moved to Australia to race. He was one of the first to ride a bicycle around the perimeter of Australia.
He returned to America in 1902 as a top-seeded rider for Bay Area bicycling clubs. It was during this time that he began riding motorized bikes. In the summer of 1902, Wyman took on the formidable Sierra Nevada Mountains and rode a motorbike to Reno, Nevada. During the trip, Wyman dreamed up the idea of riding a motorcycle cross country.
Wyman launched his transcontinental trek at Lotta’s Fountain at the hub of Third, Market and Kearny streets, known then as Newspaper Square. The start of the trip got little coverage in San Francisco newspapers, perhaps due to the domination of the news about President Theodore Roosevelt’s visit to the city. A photo of Wyman at the start showed him wearing a three-piece wool suit with a tie and cap.
Wyman chronicled and photographed the journey for Motorcycle magazine and vividly described the countryside, towns and people he encountered along his journey. Passable roads were nearly nonexistent during this era and Wyman often found railroad ties the easiest on most reliable path for much of his journey. In the Sierra, he encountered deep snow and was forced to take to the dark and damp wooden snow train tunnels that cling precariously on the side of step mountainsides. Once, Wyman came upon a large herd of sheep, which scattered at the foreign sound of his noisy motorbike, causing the shepherd to offer some choice words to the rider.
Wyman often had to assist the feeble 90-pound motorbike by peddling up steep grades, sometimes having to get off and push the bike through miles of deep sand or mud. Not only did he have to be supremely fit to tackle the country’s crossing, he also had to be an excellent mechanic, and often used whatever material he could find roadside to make improvised repairs. Finding gas and oil along the route also proved to be a major challenge, in spite of the fact that his little California got 120 miles per gallon.
Just before reaching Chicago in mid-June, his motorcycle’s engine broke a crank. Wyman waited in the Windy City for five days waiting for replacement parts to arrive. He unflatteringly told of Chicago’s insect-infested hotels, drunken citizens and shady merchants and said how happy he was to leave the city once he made repairs on his bike.
He also gave accounts of acts of kindness of people along his long journey. In Wyoming, a rancher hitched up a team of horses to pull his motorcycle out of a gumbo mire of mud. In Buffalo, New York, an automobile manufacturer owner put his mechanics to work on Wyman’s bike and gave him a car to tour the city.
As Wyman’s epic trip wound down, his California motorbike began to break down more and more often. At one point, he described how he had to stop five times in one mile to make repairs. He became so frustrated that he said he felt like shooting his mount full of holes and abandoning it. In Albany, the worn-out motor finally was beyond repair, and Wyman was forced to pedal the final 150 miles to New York City.
In New York, he was greeted by members of the New York Motor Cycle Club. The California was put on display at the club grounds while Wyman recovered from his grueling journey at the Herald Square Hotel. Wyman was present in the first meeting in New York City that formed the Federation of American Motorcyclists (F.A.M.) and it was reported his hands were still in bandages from the trip. He then took a short vacation in the Catskills courtesy of the Motorcycle magazine.
Wyman and his bike returned to San Francisco by train in August and the bike was put on display in Golden Gate Park, in a special exhibition commemorating the trip.
Two years after the trip, Wyman married Nellie Lovern, raised a family and worked in various jobs, primarily in auto-related industries. In May of 1958, an elderly Wyman was interviewed about his historic cross-country adventure for a feature in the Oakland Tribune newspaper.
Wyman died on November 16, 1959 in Stockton, California, at the age of 82. He was survived by three sons.
Shortly after Wyman’s transcontinental trip California Motor Bicycle was consolidated and eventually bought by the Yale Motorcycle Company. Yale advertised Wyman’s accomplishments as being done on a Yale, even though the companies had not yet merged at the time of Wyman’s ride. In the late 1970s, a Marks motorcycle was found in an old barn north of San Francisco. The bike proved to be almost an exact duplicate of the California ridden by Wyman. The Marks was in fact a prototype for the California and was the only known surviving motorbike so closely related to Wyman’s California.
Thanks in large part to Roger Hull and Road Rider magazine, Wyman’s story was revived in the 1970s. His outstanding accomplishment of being the first to cross America on a motorcycle was finally recognized for the major milestone it represented.