First Bicycle Over the Summit and Across the Country

| Courtesy Truckee-Donner Summit Historical and Railroad Societies

Bicyclists have found the Donner Summit-Truckee area. Any good day will find people bicycling from Truckee to Tahoe City, going out to circumnavigate Lake Tahoe, ride around Donner Lake or travel over the summit to Cisco and back. Today’s bicyclists follow in the tracks of early bicyclists, the most amazing of whom was Thomas Stevens. 

On June 1, Bill Oudegeest of Donner Summit Historical Society will give a historical talk on “Firsts over Donner Summit,” which includes a discussion of Thomas Stevens. The talk will be at 7 p.m. at Truckee Tahoe Airport Conference Room. | truckeehistory.org 

Stevens had never ridden a bicycle when he decided in 1884 it would be a good idea to ride across the Sierra, across the continent and then around the world. The bicycle was a 48pound Columbia Ordinary, high wheeler or penny farthing; one of those bicycles with the large front wheel and small back wheel. It cost $110, had wooden wheels and solid rubber tires. Some people called these bicycles bone crushers. There were no gears; the bicycles were direct drive. Stevens only carried extra socks, a shirt, bedroll, pistol and a gossamer rubber coat he could use as a tent. 

Dozens of special events are planned as part of the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad; details in the Event Calendar 

Stevens solved his lack of experience with a short lesson in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. He started off on his trip in April, not realizing there would still be snow on Donner Summit. By the time he reached Rocklin people were asking how he would deal with it.  

Stevens thought and replied, “The long snow sheds of the Central Pacific Railway make it possible for one to cross over, no matter how deep the snow.  

On the way up to Donner Summit Stevens stuck mostly to the path that paralleled the railroad track. Stevens didn’t have a train schedule, so he had to make do when a train passed. Once he was crossing a trestle when a train approached and had to get out on a rail and hang his bicycle over the precipice as the train passed. 

The path was occasionally rideable, whereas the roads were not. A railroad employee tried to dissuade Stevens; the streets in Dutch Flat were streams with water pouring in torrents, but Stevens kept on. 

The next day Stevens began to travel through the snowsheds, which were built at great expense to protect the track from the snow. According to Stevens, “The section-houses, the water tanks, stations, and everything along here are all under the gloomy but friendly shelter of the great protecting sheds.” 

Riding through the snowsheds was not an option. He had to trudge along. Occasionally there were short breaks in the sheds and then he could trace the structure of the sheds as they wound their way around the rugged mountains sides and through the pine forest, all but buried under the snow. He imagined the snowsheds were a wonderful relic of a past civilization: “When a venturesome race of men dared to invade these vast wintry solitudes and burrow their way through the deep snow, like moles burrowing through the loose earth.”  

There were no living things around. He heard only the occasional roar of a distant snow slide and the sighing of the breeze through the branches.  

Traveling through the snowsheds was anything but pleasant going, as he traveled the interior that was dark and smoky. When he heard a train, he’d try to occupy as small an amount of space as possible against the side and wait for the train to pass. According to Stevens, the engines “fill every nook and corner of the tunnel with dense smoke, which creates a darkness by the side of which the natural darkness of the tunnel is daylight in comparison. Here is a darkness that can be felt; I have to grope my way forward, inch by inch; afraid to set my foot down until I have felt the place, for fear of blundering into a culvert. I pause every few steps to listen.”  

When he emerged from the sheds, he climbed a pine tree to get a view of Donner Lake, called the Gem of the Sierras. Then it was down the Truckee River along which were dams and mill sites without limit. There was little rideable road down to Truckee, but Stevens eventually found a good road at Verdi. 

After the Sierra, it was on to the 40Mile Desert in Nevada. In Reno, he found that “the characteristic whiskey-straight hospitality of the Far West at once asserts itself.He stopped for a few days to paint Reno red. 

On Aug. 4, 1884, Stevens completed his cross-country jaunt. He had gone 3,700 miles in 103 days. Then it was off to conquer the world. He sailed into San Francisco in January 1887, completing 13,500 miles of bicycling and walking he walked about a third of the journey. On the way he’d had to confront a mountain lion, deserts, lack of roads, 130degree heat, an inability to communicate in foreign lands, loneliness and almost being stoned to death. He had to dissuade highwaymen and he had to cross Afghanistan, where he was arrested as a spy and ended up having to take a steamer to India. He lost 25 pounds from his 5’5” frame on the journey. 

After his ride around the world, Stevens did more traveling even going to look for Henry Stanley of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” fame but that’s a different story. 

By Bill Oudegeest 

 Bill Oudegeest has had a house on Donner Summit for more than 40 years. He is a retired public school teacher and administrator and one of the founders of the Donner Summit Historical Society. He writes and edits The Donner Summit Heirloom, has published two books on local history, written a variety of pamphlets and exhibits, leads hikes and more.