A hometown hero, long forgotten


Little did I know, until I made the acquaintance of author David Herlihy, that one of the pioneers of long-distance bicycling was from my hometown, Alton, Ill.

David Herlihy

Although I fancy myself a history buff, I had never heard of William Sachtleben as I was growing up in Alton, on the Mississippi River just upstream from St. Louis.
Herlihy wrote about Sachtleben in his 2010 book, The Lost Cyclist, which takes its name from the mysterious case of Frank Lenz. Lenz, of Pittsburgh, was bicycling around the world east to west when he went missing in 1894 in a lawless area of eastern Turkey.
Sachtleben, who had just completed a round-the-world cycling trip in the opposite direction with Thomas Allen Jr., was dispatched on an unsuccessful mission to find Lenz by Outing magazine, which had been publishing reports from Lenz on his journey.
Now, Herlihy has written a magazine piece bout the globe-girdling trip of Sachtleben and Allen, fellow graduates of Washington University in St. Louis who became national heroes just as the “golden age” of cycling in America was about to begin.
“The day after graduation, in June 1890, the men boarded a train to New York City, and thence a steamer to Liverpool, England, where they promptly purchased a pair of Singer safeties, with hard tires,” Herlihy writes in the August issue of Washington, the magazine of Washington University.
“They intended merely to spend the summer tooling around the British Isles. But they enjoyed that experience so much that they resolved to continue pedaling eastward, taking ships only when necessary, until they had completed a global circuit.”
The most arduous leg of that trip was the passage across Siberia and northern China, including a trek through the Gobi Desert. The journey was chronicled in their book Across Asia on a Bicycle: The journey of two American students from Constantinople to Peking.
The pair had with them a newly introduced Kodak film camera, with which they chronicled their travels photographically. David said in a message exchange today that UCLA is scanning some 400 nitrate negatives shot by Sachtleben and Allen and hopes to have the results in about a month. I’ll certainly post some of the best.
Sachtleben and Allen, unfortunately, are little remembered today in their hometowns.
Allen, who lived in the St. Louis suburbs of Ferguson and Kirkwood, became an engineer. Sachtleben eventually settled in Houston, where he was the longtime manager of the Majestic Theater.
The house of Sachtleben’s youth still stands in Alton, on the corner of Seventh and Langdon Streets in an old neighborhood dotted with beautifully restored Victorian homes that the town is noted for.
Born in Alton on March 29, 1866, of German parentage, Sachtleben graduated from Alton High School, the cross-town rival of my alma mater, Marquette High School. His house, which I photographed on a recent visit, was 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.
Both Alton and St. Louis had thriving communities of German immigrants at the time.
Shortly before his death in 1953, Sachtleben paid a visit to his old hometown and stopped in at the Alton Evening Telegraph on Oct. 28, 1952, for a chat with editor Paul Cousley, whose family still owned the newspaper when I worked there part-time as a college student in the 1960s.

The Sachtleben house, Alton, Ill.

“‘I have often thought of Alton,’ the eighty-six-year-old confided to Cousley, Herlihy wrote in the prologue to The Lost Cyclist. ‘Of my loving mother, also born here, who left us children so early in life, and of my self-sacrificing father, who said to me as we walked down the hill to the Chicago & Alton railroad station the day after my graduation from Washington College: “Well, son, stay away until you get your fill.” Added the aged adventurer with a sly smile: ‘I reckon I did just that.’”
In Sachtleben’s youth, the exploits of globe-trotting bicyclists were much like those of pioneer aviators in later generations. They were national figures on a par with a Charles Lindbergh or Amelia Earhart.
But when the aging Sachtleben dropped in to visit Cousley in 1952, he was largely forgotten, even in the town where he was born and raised.
“Time was when Will Sachtleben was a popular hero in Alton, known to everyone,” the editor wrote in his newspaper with a tinge of nostalgia the day after his meeting with Sachtleben. “His fame was nationwide, and wider still, because of his daring deeds.”

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5 Comments

Filed under Americana, History, Journeys, Literary musings, Travels

5 responses to “A hometown hero, long forgotten

  1. Mary Ellen Klinke

    Thank you for that wonderful story. I admit I have never heard if either one of them. Tomorrow or Thursday, before heading home I am going to that location. Looked at a house very close to there, when we bought our first home

  2. Mark

    Do you know where the magazine piece will be published; and if it will include additional details about Sachtleben and Allen that are not in the book?

  3. Jim

    It’s such a shame that their names and deeds have been mostly forgotten. Thank you so much for the article.

  4. Brigid

    Do you know his father’s name? My grandmother’s maiden name was Sachtleben and she grew up in Hackensack, NJ. Her family came over in the late 1800’s, from Germany of course.

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