In 1899, as the world edged toward a new century promising many technical marvels and Henry Ford was tinkering in his backyard with a car that achieved 25 mph, the U.S. was caught up in a craze for speed. The ubiquitous bicycle was part of it. Millions of Americans rode cycles, and a brash 28-year-old racer from Brooklyn, Charles Minthorne Murphy, titillated the nation by claiming that no locomotive could outspeed him. On Friday afternoon, June 30, 1899, Murphy was given the opportunity to make good on his boast. More than 3,000 people gathered along 2? miles of Long Island Rail Road siding near what is now Farmingdale, N.Y. to watch this history-making confrontation between machine and man. Fast cyclists were plentiful, but Murphy had promised to do something no one had ever done: break the mile-a-minute barrier.
While talking to reporters 13 years before the trial took place, Murphy had made the preposterous claim that he could keep pace with a train. At a demonstration in Philadelphia, the 16-year-old upstart had pedaled a stationary training bike the equivalent of one mile in 79 seconds, using a 64-inch gear. The reporters were unimpressed. What worked indoors on a stage wouldn't outdoors with a normal bicycle, they concluded, and, besides, Murphy was still well off a mile-a-minute pace.
But even at his age Murphy realized that the reason he could pedal so fast was the absence of wind resistance. He knew from experience what engineers and theorists would learn later—that most of a racer's effort was spent in tearing a hole through the air. Goaded on by the reporters, he blurted out the boast he was to live with for over a decade: "If I can be protected from the wind, there's no limit to how fast I can ride. Why, I can keep up with the fastest train! There's not a locomotive built that can get away from me!"
As Murphy later ruefully recalled, "I immediately became the laughingstock of the world."
As a professional bike racer, Murphy set 29 New York state records, 17 U.S. records and seven world records. He was nearing the end of his career when he met the remarkable Harold B. Fullerton.
Fullerton, a former machinery salesman, merchant seaman, civil engineer and soldier of fortune, was a special agent for the Long Island Rail Road when William H. Baldwin Jr., the president of the railroad, assigned him to do publicity. One of Fullerton's ideas was to equip a baggage car to handle bicycles, and he set about luring city riders onto the island for a weekend of cycling on its quiet rural roads. To meet bikers, he joined the Kings County Wheelmen, a Brooklyn bike club, and in April 1899, at their awards banquet, he met Murphy.
Murphy wasn't yet 29 and Fullerton was 41. The brash athlete and the sophisticated publicist immediately hit it off. Moreover, Fullerton saw in Murphy the chance to promote an especially appealing publicity stunt—a race between a frail bicycle and rider and a massive, thundering locomotive. He told Murphy to get ready, then set about the difficult task of convincing Baldwin and his board of directors that the publicity the stunt would generate would be worth the money for expenses—$12,000. Board members raised reasonable objections: Suppose Murphy, now old for a racer, proved incapable of keeping up with the train? Suppose he was injured or killed in the effort? And even if he was successful, how would that attract business to Long Island? But Fullerton's enthusiasm for the project was so contagious that Baldwin brushed aside all the board's objections.
While Murphy trained at home, Fullerton found a siding suitable for the test and had a crew lay pine planking between the rails. Sam Booth, the engineer who had run Theodore Roosevelt's train when he was campaigning for governor of New York, was chosen to drive the engine that would pace Murphy.
By the third week of June, everything was ready. Without notifying the press, Fullerton took Murphy out to Farmingdale for a trial run. A few reporters found out about it and were on hand, but there was no crowd. Fullerton wanted to erase all doubts about the outcome before he staged the big show.
The train consisted of a locomotive, a coal tender and a coach with a rear observation platform. Extending from the back of the platform was a wooden hood inside of which Murphy was supposed to ride, protected from the wind.