“Time was when Will Sachtleben was a popular hero in Alton, known to everyone. His fame was nationwide, and wider still, because of his daring deeds.”
– Editor Paul Cousley, writing in the Alton Evening Telegraph, Oct. 29, 1952
Seldom do I come across a book that appeals to me on multiple plains of interest: cycling, travel, adventure, history, mystery — and my hometown in Illinois.
Such is a forthcoming book by David V. Herlihy called The Lost Cyclist: The Epic Tale of an American Adventurer and His Mysterious Disappearance, due out on June 18 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (336 pages, $26).
It’s a gripping yarn set in the golden age of cycling — the 1890s, before the bicycle was displaced by the automobile in the first decade of the 20th century.
It tells the story of Frank Lenz of Pittsburgh, who went missing on a round-the-world trek by bicycle, and William Sachtleben, a veteran globe-girdling cyclist who was dispatched to find him.
Of particular interest to me is that Sachtleben was from Alton, Ill., my native town, and of the same German stock as my forebearers.
I was already familiar with the story of Lenz, who was the subject of a nice piece by Geof Koss in the January 2009 edition of Adventure Cyclist magazine, “The Last Ride of Frank Lenz.”
It was from that story that I learned that Sachtleben was from Alton. He was born in the Mississippi River town, just upstream from St. Louis, on March 29, 1866, of German parentage. Alton and St. Louis at the time had large communities of German immigrants.
It was through exchanges of e-mails with David, about Alton people and places, that I learned that Sachtleben had graduated from Alton High School, the cross-town rival of my alma mater, Marquette High School.
I also learned that the house where Sachtleben lived still exists at the corner of Seventh and Langdon streets. That’s only a few blocks from St. Mary’s Catholic Church, which was called “the German church” when my paternal grandparents were married there in 1907.
After reading Koss’s piece in Adventure Cyclist in January, I did a bit of my own research and found that Sachtleben was well enough known in the 1890s to merit a lengthy story in The New York Times on March 1, 1895, the eve of his departure on the quest to find Lenz.
These trips by bicycle in the 1890s, it seems, drew the same sort of media attention as flights by pioneer aviators a generation later.
“Sachtleben will cover himself with glory should he succeed in his search for Lenz,” the Times story said. “All wish him good luck in his undertaking.”
Rather than disclose whether Sachtleben succeeded, I’ll leave it to David to unravel the mystery of Lenz’s disappearance, which he does admirably through diaries, letters, newspaper clippings and witness testimony. It’s an intriguing tale of mind-boggling adventure in a bygone era by men now largely forgotten in their hometowns.
As one who bicycled across the United States last fall, hauling all my gear, I have some inkling of what inspired these travelers in the infancy of long-distance bicycle touring. But bicycle tourists of today, especially in North America and Europe, seldom face the sort of challenges that these intrepid adventurers had to deal with at the end of the 19th century: primitive roads, trackless deserts, bandits, hostile and xenophobic locals, and mountain passes and roaring rivers that required the portage of bicycles and gear.
David weaves together two separate journeys — that of Lenz, who set out from Pittsburgh in the spring of 1892 to cycle around the world east to west and disappeared in eastern Turkey in May 1894, and another trek by Sachtleben and college classmate Thomas Allen, who were already on the road, traveling west to east, when Lenz began his solo trip.
After it became apparent that Lenz had dropped off the map somewhere in Turkey, during the turbulent dying days of the Ottoman Empire, public pressure built for The Outing Magazine of New York, the sponsor of Lenz’s trip, to mount an expedition to find him. Sachtleben, newly returned from his own round-the-world journey, was picked for the job.
Not only is the hunt for “The Lost Cyclist” a wonderful tale in the vein of Henry Morton Stanley‘s search for Dr. David Livingstone in the heart of Africa in 1871, it’s also a fascinating treatise on the rapid development of bicycle technolgy in the 1890s.
The “safety bicycle” — with two wheels of roughly equal size — was displacing the “high wheeler,” or “penny farthing,” which had a huge front wheel and a small rear wheel. Also, cyclists were experimenting with, at first, hard rubber tires that replaced wooden wheels and then with “pneumatic” tires, the inflatable sort that we know today.
Who better to tell this part of the story than Herlihy. His 2004 book Bicycle, a history of the “mechanical horse,” has become a classic among bike aficianados.
But one doesn’t have to be a cyclist — or from Alton, Ill. — to enjoy The Lost Cyclist. It would be of interest to anyone with a love of history, travel and adventure.
And it’s a riveting whodunit, to boot!
(For another review of The Lost Cyclist, see the Web site Bicycle Fixation.)