William Rishel’s Desert Bike Ride

© 2009 Utah Humanities Council

The Story:

In 1896, to promote his growing chain of national newspapers, publisher William Randolph Hearst cooked up a wild plan to sponsor a transcontinental bicycle relay.  Knowing his scheme would require local people to scout the best route, he recruited bike enthusiast William Rishel to investigate the Nevada-to-Wyoming leg of the coast-to-coast course.   On his way from Salt Lake to California, Rishel swung north of the Great Salt Lake, but quickly concluded that the northern route was too long to work for the relay.  Scrapping that course, he instead decided to follow, at least roughly, the old Hastings Cutoff, a desert shortcut that many overland pioneers, including the Donner Party, had followed to the West Coast.  This trail would cut miles off the relay and hopefully speed the bicyclists on their way east from California.

Rishel arranged to have himself and his friend, Charlie Emise, dropped off at Terrace, a railroad town in central Box Elder County, and with a few sandwiches, a questionable map from an old prospector, and four canteens between them, the two men set out on a southwesterly course toward Grantsville.  At first, the going was easy over encrusted salt, but soon Rishel and Emise found themselves bogged down in the desert’s infamous mud flats.  Then their water ran out.  But by alternating between carrying and riding their bikes, the two men finally found the tiny spring in the Lakeside Mountains that had been marked on the prospector’s map.  Evening fell as they rested at the spring, encouraging them on to their destination with its cooler air.  Add to that a view of the lights of the old Saltair Pavilion.  At about midnight, aching and thirsty, Rishel and Emise finally pedaled their way down Grantsville’s Main Street.  A few weeks later, heavy rains forced a reluctant Rishel to scrap the course he had just crossed and reroute Hearst’s relay around the Great Salt Lake’s northern end.


See Charles Kelly, Salt Desert Trails (Salt Lake City: Western Epics, 1996), 157-160; Virginia Rishel, Wheels to Adventure: Bill Rishel’s Western Routes (Salt Lake City: Howe Brothers, 1983), 11-24.  Also see the April 1996 collection of the History Blazer, a joint project of the Utah State Historical Society and the Utah State Centennial Commission.  The History Blazer can be found on the Utah History Suite CD available from the Utah State Historical Society.


One response to “William Rishel’s Desert Bike Ride

  1. How ironic that they were hampered by both mud and eventually rain, after running out of drinking water!

    Fun story. Thanks.

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