by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The “bicycle missionary” Charles Fuller Gates has been featured on this blog twice before: once highlighting a 1907 issue of his magazine, Pacific Motoring, and the other celebrating the donation of a scrapbook made by Gates, thanks to the gift of Kenny Gates (no known relation.) This post marks a trifecta, as we take a look at an article, “Cycling in Southern California,” written by Gates and published in the June 1896 issue of The Land of Sunshine, the Los Angeles-based literary magazine edited by Charles Fletcher Lummis, one of the more notable characters in the Angel City in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
As noted in the December 2021 post, Gates was born in 1866 in Gerry, New York, but tuberculosis, as was so often the case, led him to come to sunny Southern California to deal with his health issue. Another way to combat the disease was his consuming passion for bicycling and, by spring 1895, he was writing articles about the subject in the Los Angeles Times. The scrapbook happens to contain a page of the very article that we are focusing on in this post.
In the beginning of his essay, Gates noted,
There is a place in this big world where it is always afternoon to the lover of the cycle; where the riding season lasts all the year; where sea, mountain, valley, wood, river and cañon combine in picturesque allurement.
He went to observe that “nature’s lover finds the bicycle his best friend in this land of sun-going-down” because the vehicle was common and convenient and he added that “to him [and her] who finds most delight in speed, the Southwest also becomes a Mecca.” There were, he noted, plenty of race tracks for bicycles “in a climate that makes record breaking and the fastest speed possible.” Indeed, he asserted, the cycling world was understanding that, as with the fastest racehorses and athletes, California was becoming renowned for its champion bicyclists.
Sounding much as Lummis and other boosters did in that era, Gates exclaimed that “nowhere are sunshine, flowers, atmosphere and civilized comforts so nicely combined with scenery that excited and yet rests, that delights, that inspires all; and, over all, the bluest of serene skies.” Amid the revelry, the author observed that “the bicycle is everywhere” and was supplanting the time-old horse as “that strange bird-like creation of rubber, wood, steel and leather” was more commonly found in cities than Equus caballus.
Meanwhile, in the country “among the orange groves” and other largely agricultural tracts and in the nature haunts of the foothills of the mountains and along the ocean, “the steed of silence is ever present.” When it came to the Missions, denoted “those grand old piles” and “our world-famous, historic ruins,” these were made more accessible via the bike so that a rider could, after seeing the Plaza Church in the Angel City, be “soon whirling along the romantic Mission Road, part of the Camino Real, to San Gabriel’s pilastered walls and ancient chime of bells.”
Then, as if via “the magic carpet of the Arabian Nights, the rider might, via his “air-shod steed” be taken in a blink of an eye to a hotel for breakfast. If one could manage to extricate from the wonders of the San Gabriel Valley, it was possible that “your wheel sweeps you along the foothills of the Sierra Madre [the San Gabriels as they were more commonly known], where the wide green valley of San Fernando unfolds to you with its border of a hundred mountain peaks surrounding this Eden.”
By Noon, he averred, you could be “inspecting the walls, colonnades, and arches” at the ruins of the Mission San Fernando, which Gates wrote was “a temple, like Solomon’s, made by thousands of hands; with timber hewn in the hills full twenty miles away and brought oft-times on the shoulders of the toilers”—though he didn’t mention who these laborers were; that is, the indigenous people forced to work for the missions. Further indulging in the romance that permeated the period, especially for the newcomers and tourists, he added that these institutions featured “stone and metal from foreign lands” as well as “gold from the mountains and the fruit of the land enriched,” though the former was not discovered until after the missions were secularized by the Mexican government in the mid-1830s.
After taking snapshots with a camera (personal cameras were only several years old at this point) and enjoying lunch at the town of San Fernando, it was, Gates asserted, “off to the next Mission in far-away San Buenaventura with a mere “skimming along the mountain sides and over the broad, fruitful valleys, with their thousands of sheep, cattle and horses.” Never mind that the journey from San Fernando to Ventura is 60 miles! Gates then noted that, after “you sink to dreamless rest,” it was time for an early rise the following morning “for another exhilarating ride to the quaint old Mission at far-famed Santa Barbara” with the ocean on one side and “new sights and wonders” on the other. Presumably, the return trip was by train?
In any case, Gates went to suggest that:
To the user of the cycle (and who does not ride should at once learn) Southern California offers greater charms than any spot else in America. On every hand historic landmarks and ruins are found. The freedom from rain takes away worry. And exercise puts the rider in good humor with himself and the rest of the world.
Another touted trip was what the intrepid and seemingly tireless 30-year old claimed was merely a one-day jaunt, this being from Los Angeles to Riverside, with a lunch break at Pomona or Ontario—why, this is but 55 miles, but wait, there’s more. Gates asserted that “a few minutes’ ride” from the citrus center would bring the rider to Redlands, though 15 miles on a bicycle was certainly far more than just a few minutes, while San Bernardino and Colton were nearby, so there would be another 13 miles. Who wouldn’t be able to easily taken in 83 miles of riding in a day on a late 19th century bike on the unpaved roads of the era?
More realistic was his statement that Pasadena, the purported “crown of San Gabriel Valley,” was an hour’s ride from downtown Los Angeles through several routes with “cañons, natural parks, vineyards, beautiful boulevards and scenery that cannot be exhausted in a summer” in close proximity. On the coast, there were, from north to south, Santa Monica, Redondo Beach, San Pedro and Long Beach and he added “half way between are old ranchos [La Brea?] with historic haciendas, and other queer sights well worth investigating.”
Then, there was what the “lover of long wheel tours” (as if rambles to Ventura and Riverside in one day didn’t fit that criteria) might truly enjoy, a three days’ ride from the Angel City through Whittier, Santa Ana, San Juan Capistrano, Oceanside to San Diego, with a return trip via Escondido, the Mission San Luis Rey and the Pala sub-mission, Temecula, Lake Elsinore, Perris, and the Temescal tin mines.
Gates then turned to the racing side of cycling as he stated that “Southern California leads the world in a third-of-a-mile tracks” adding that there were quarter-mile ones, as well. Among the locations for the former were Pasadena, Redlands, Riverside, San Bernardino, Santa Ana, Santa Monica and South Riverside (Corona, which should really have been West Riverside), while the latter included Duarte, Los Angles, Ontario, Pomona and Santa Barbara.
The writer continued that “these tracks offer exceptional advantages for training for future races, and many of them are used for record-breaking,” such as at Pasadena and Santa Ana, while adding that racers from a dozen states were at Coronado near San Diego and racking up impressive achievements along these lines.
Gates concluded by observing that:
The highways of the Southwest have not, as a whole, been improved, yet many of them have never needed to be worked by man. Nature, notably in Riverside County, has made excellent roads that need no care. But this is a big country, and as yet thinly settled, so there are thousands of miles of highway that is [sic] little used . . . Therefore it can be said that there are many perfect roads in the Southwest, and these roads are being constantly lengthened and added to, until not many years hence Southern California will have nothing to desire in roadways, whether for wagon or cycle.
Or, for the horseless carriage (a.k.a., the automobile) which was to soon supplant all other means of transportation. As for cycling, Gates established his magazine, Wheeling, in 1897 and it went through three other names, including Pacific Motoring until sold in 1913, while he also operated a motorcycling journal to boot and was automobile editor for the Los Angeles Express newspaper. A paid advocate for motorcycles and bicycles, including a 12,000-mile national tour to promote the latter, Gates wrote for the newly launched Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News in the mid-1920s before moving to San Diego County, where he did local reporting and died in 1930.
There is also a separate Cycling Department (perhaps edited by Gates, though there is no byline) and which noted that in the Southwest, riding was all year round; that there were more high quality tracks than elsewhere; that clubs and leagues were active; that a woman’s bicycle race in Los Angeles on 9 May “got the frost such affairs deserve” because “women’s place is not in bicycle races;” that the League of American Wheelmen (no women allowed) had “missionary meetings in the region; that a Santa Ana cycle club took the track and grounds of the defunct Orange County Wheelmen; that there was a short and easy ride from Los Angeles through East Lake [Lincoln] Park; that Pasadena and Riverside had excellent riding possibilities; and, finally, that “every new rider seems to rush off to Santa Monica, Sundays,” while other local and prettier routes were ignored.
As for the rest of this issue of The Land of Sunshine, it has interesting features on indigenous basket making in the Southwest, a New Mexican cave dwelling community, photos of restoration work at Mission San Juan Capistrano (Lummis was a major figure in these efforts), poems and stories, and a promotional piece about Ontario. The piece by Gates on regional bicycling, however, is perhaps the most notable and interesting, particularly for today’s enthusiasts.