The Billings Outpost

Soldiers cross ponderous Rockies – by bicycle

By SCOTT PRINZING - For The Outpost

Like author Kay Moore, I first learned of the Black Bicycle Corps when a documentary of its mission was on PBS. I recorded it on my VCR, but never got around to watching it.

As I am lax about writing what is actually on each VHS tape, it is probably in a pile of other intriguing programs I’ve yet to see.

So I was pleased to learn of “The Great Bicycle Experiment: The Army’s Historic Black Bicycle Corps, 1896-97,” by Mountain Press Publishing. It is short (just 86 pages) and is filled with historic photographs on almost every page.

Written for a juvenile audience, it is a quick but fascinating read. Thoroughly researched by Ms. Moore, it has a complete index, bibliography and information of further avenues of research for young readers.

While I was aware of this unique venture by African Americans in the post-Civil War era, I was unaware of its importance to Montana history.

For those who are unfamiliar with the story, a certain Lt. James Moss, second lieutenant at Fort Missoula in Montana, had a revolutionary idea in 1896. He was convinced that bicycles, relatively new on the scene, could be employed by the U.S. Army in place of horses for certain operations.

Horses are self-powered as well as powerful, so why bikes? Bicycles did not need to eat, drink or sleep; they would not die (although they could break); they would never disobey; and they were nearly noiseless (compared to the shoed hooves of cavalry horses). Lt. Moss was determined to test this idea and prove the worth of the bicycle in Army campaigns.

The all-black 25th Infantry was a regiment stationed at Fort Missoula at the time. Lt. Moss chose an elite group from its ranks to form the Bicycle Corps and attempt a historic 2,000-mile journey from Missoula to St. Louis.

Ms. Moore chronicles this seemingly insurmountable (to the modern reader) journey, highlighting both the challenges and the triumphs of these remarkable soldiers as they pedaled, pushed - and at times carried - their bikes across the mountains and plains and into the history books.

Not to be stuck in the distant past, the last of the 10 chapters addresses the legacy of the Bicycle Corps, following the 25th Infantry after the experiment ended, visiting historical monuments, and discussing a modern day 2,000-mile reenactment of sorts (the cyclists had to worry more about traffic than the dangers of the Wild West).

“The Great Bicycle Experiment” is both a valuable historical resource and an entertaining adventure story for readers young and old. It is a highly recommended book for both the classroom and the home (or for the homeschooled family), as it packs a lot of incredible information into a tight package.

Priced at $12, it can be purchased online or in stores.

 

Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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