History Blazer, December 1996
It had to be one of the greatest rivalries of all time in Utah—the intense competition between Ogden and Salt Lake City during the early years of statehood. The national “Examiner-Journal Yellow Fellow Relay Race” of 1896 showed just how lively the rivalry could become. Promoters for the Hearst newspapers thought a transcontinental bicycle relay race from San Francisco to New York would capitalize on the bicycle craze and bring recognition to the newspapers as bikers carried a news item across the nation much like the riders of Pony Express days. Little did they dream of serious shenanigans as Ogden and Salt Lake City tried to outwit each other. The route of the race fanned the flames of intercity rivalry into a blaze with the sparks really flying. And the highjinks of spirited young men on wheels briefly put Utah in the national spotlight.
The comic drama began in the summer of 1896 when William D. (“Big Bill”) Rishel, renowned bicycle enthusiast and racer, was chosen by Hearst to manage the western segment of the relay. Rishel, a Salt Lake resident, wanted to promote his community. Huge crowds and important officials would all be involved if the route passed through Utah’s capital but Ogden wanted the limelight too. Rishel’s major task was to find the shortest, fastest route through Nevada, Utah, and into Wyoming. Passing through both cities would slow the race down, something Rishel wanted to avoid. After thorough scouting, he chose a route that would take the cyclists east across the Salt Lake Desert and around the southern end of the Great Salt Lake, missing Ogden entirely.
Outrage filled the sports pages of the Ogden Standard as bicyclists and fans in Ogden protested. The shortest, swiftest way was obviously along the transcontinental railroad tracks around the north end of the lake, through Ogden, up Weber Canyon, and out of Utah via Echo Canyon. If one city had to be by-passed, Ogdenites felt it should be Salt Lake City. Rishel ignored the protests and continued plans for the Salt Lake City route. He lined up dignitaries to greet the cyclists during a change of riders and sign the certificate. It would be a grand event in Utah’s capital city.
But nature was bound to have its say in this race and rivalry as well. As the riders and packet were speeding across Nevada rain hit the Salt Desert, turning the mud flats into an impassable mire. Taking bicycles across the ancient lake bed in good weather was risky at best, as Rishel had discovered earlier. Rain made the route impossible. At the last minute Rishel was forced into changing the plan. Riders, spectators, and cities were informed by telegraph that the race would take the northern route around the Great Salt Lake after all. The cyclists would pass through Ogden, continue down to Salt Lake City, and then head east. Ogden wheelmen were enlisted to perform the leg around the lake and through Ogden.
Now the fun began as the rivalry and the determination of the Ogden Wheelmen reached gigantic proportions. Before the route change, Ogden cyclists had been prepared to steal the packet and proceed with their own race on the northern route. They lay in wait at Terrace to pull off a hijacking. Now they suspected that Salt Lake riders would try to pull a fast one. Fearing that the Salt Lake boys would be waiting near Lucin or Terrace to prevent the packet from reaching the now sanctioned Ogden, Sam Herrick was waiting, six-shooter at his waist, to make sure the cycles and packet remained on the Ogden course. Indeed, the Salt Lakers did have a plan to keep the packet out of the hands of the Ogdenites by faking a broken bike, detouring around Terrace, and meeting the scheduled riders in Promontory who would ensure that the packet went via Salt Lake City. But one Salt Lake cyclist decided to play by the rules and follow Rishel’s revised plan. Despite this rider’s sense of fair play, the packet and rider were delayed on the segment east of the Nevada border with an actual bike breakdown. Assuming the delay was caused by an abduction, Sam Herrick went looking for a nonexistent packet-napper. Rumors flew. As it turned out, a courier did come through Terrace, though a bit late. There was no violence, and the new riders sped eastward. The properly scheduled rider received the packet in Kelton, and the relay continued toward Ogden per Rishel’s recent orders. The Ogden riders were supposed to carry the packet to mid-Ogden where other riders would take it to Salt Lake City and the Capitol where the governor and a crowd had expectantly gathered. But rivalry would overpower good sportsmanship.
As Rishel—who had ridden parts of the relay himself and then sped ahead by train—waited anxiously in Ogden for the cyclists and packet to appear, Ogden wheelmen had indeed hijacked the packet and chosen their own route toward Echo Canyon. On August 29, Rishel impatiently scanned the road at the corner of Washington and Thirteenth Street, searching the horizon in vain for the expected rider. The transfer was hours overdue. The crowd, too, wondered what had happened. Only a few prankish Ogden wheelmen and boosters knew that the Ogden boys were victorious in scooping Salt Lake. Rishel telegraphed along the route without gaining any information as to the courier’s whereabouts. At last the truth became known when the manager at the telegraph office, under duress, gave Rishel the facts. Eleven miles north of Ogden a courier had carried his bike and the packet over the foot of the mountain, then sped up Ogden Canyon to Huntsville and over the mountains to Echo Canyon. It was a cunning plan. The deception had its costs, though—the people of Ogden were deprived of seeing the relay pass through their town. One Ogden booster tied a piece of black crepe to the handle-bars of Rishel’s bicycle as a token of triumph. Fortunately, Rishel took it in stride, masked his frustration, caught a train to Echo and met the packet there. The courier at that post sped the packet toward Wyoming.
The San Francisco Examiner chronicled the theft by “Ogden’s Merry Bandits” as a “bold coup” over the “Capitol of Zion” and the Ogden Standard, Salt Lake Tribune, and Deseret News enjoyed a heyday of banter over the event. The nation had a good laugh at Utah’s expense. The race was a success: San Francisco to New York in 13 days and 29 minutes. The most eventful day occurred in Utah when Ogden defeated Salt Lake City in the battle of the wheels.
Sources: Virginia Rishel, Wheels to Adventure: Bill Rishel’s Western Route (Salt Lake City, 1983); H. K. Chambers, “Tale of Two Cities in a Bicycle War,” Literary Digest, January 27, 1934, and “Utah Governor Flouted by Runaway Bikers,” Literary Digest, March 24, 1934; Ogden Standard, August 18, September 1, 1896; Deseret News, August 29, September 2, 1896; Robert A. Smith, A Social History of the Bicycle (New York: American Heritage, 1972).