Even before the Wright Brothers took to the skies, or a man named Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson became the first to drive a car across the U.S. — a little known Oakland mechanic took machines to a new frontier by driving across the country — on a rickety motorcycle.
Ever heard of him? Probably not.
“George A. Wyman is America’s forgotten trailblazer,” said Tim Masterson, who runs the George A. Wyman Memorial Project. “He was the first person to ride a motorized vehicle across the United States.”
Masterson and Wyman’s great-granddaughter, Marti Wyman Schein are trying to raise Wyman’s status in history by posting waypoint signs along his cross-country route. They also hope to install bronze plaques at significant points like Lotta’s Fountain in San Francisco where Wyman launched his trek on May 16th 1903 — arriving in New York City fifty days later.
“We’re trying to basically get this story out to people because it’s been lost in history,” Schein said.
Wyman was an Oakland native who worked as a mechanic in San Francisco. He developed an early love for two wheels, becoming a champion bicycle racer and even achieving the status of first American to circumnavigate Australia on a bicycle.
It was during a ride up the challenging Donner Pass that Wyman hatched a plan to ride a motorized version of his bike across the country.
He was 26 years old when he set out from Lotta’s Fountain at two-thirty in the afternoon, riding a San Francisco-made California brand motorbike. He caught a ferry to Vallejo where he stayed on a friend’s boat before setting off on his journey, following the path of the transcontinental railroad.
His motorcycle boasted a 200cc engine, wooden wheels and a small gas tank which he’d fill up at pharmacies — which were distributors of fuel. He wore a suit - but also carried overalls, a Colt pistol and some water.
“He ended up walking a lot of the way,” Schein said. “He got stuck in mud, he got thrown off his bike — like all the time.”
At one point when Wyman’s handlebars broke he replaced them with a tree branch. He logged his journey in a series of five articles he wrote for the budding Motorcycle Magazine which also featured photos Wyman took with his Kodak pocket camera. The articles were only recently discovered in the archives of the Yale library, adding detail to what was had been a murky story.
“When you’re reading it,” Schein said, “you just can’t believe that this person did this.”
Wyman landed in New York on July 6th to some fanfare, but afterward quietly returned to his job as an auto-mechanic. Twenty days later Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson usurped much of Wyman’s thunder when he completed the same trip in a car.
“It was the automobile that captured the imagination of the American public,” said Masterson, who has completed Wyman’s cross-country ride numerous times on a modern motorcycle. “At the time a motorcycle was just a novelty that young men would use to ride around town.”
Shortly after Wyman’s ride, his original motorcycle was stolen from Golden Gate Park where it was on display. Collector David Scoffone said what’s believed to be the original bike turned up in a San Francisco garage in the 1970s. He purchased the restored bike several years ago and keeps it in his South Bay home where it greets visitors near his front door.
“It’s basically a motorcycle with a very small engine on it,” Scoffone said, marveling at the journey Wyman made on the simple contraption. “I just think his free spirit just said ‘I’m going to go do this’ and he achieved it.”
Masterson hopes to place bronze plaques not only at Lotta’s Fountain, but in New York City and in Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery where Wyman is buried. He hopes one day Wyman’s feat will be regarded in the same breath as Lindberg’s flights or even Sir Francis Drake’s expeditions.
Before recently mounting his burly GPS-guided motorcycle in San Francisco and setting off across the country, the Texas-based Masterson paused to ponder his forbearer who made the same journey on a much more humble vehicle.
“This guy did it on a motorcycle and it’s a testament to his determination and his guts and his courage,” Masterson said. “We want America to know who George A. Wyman is.”