by Les Woodland

Never get into an argument about the best rider in history. Charlie Murphy did that and he ended up riding behind a train at 60mph.

On June 30, 1899, Charlie persuaded a railway company to board in two miles of track and run a train so he could sit in its smoke and smut and ride a mile in a minute. It took him 57.8 seconds.

All cyclists have opinions. Murphy was just another kid in Brooklyn, New York, with a lot of talent -- enough to become a track pro and world-record holder -- and even more mouth. 'I was asked to give an opinion of the quality and relative speed of various prominent riders of the time,' Murphy recalled. 'My answer was that there is no limit to the speed of a bicycle rider, that speed depended largely upon the bicycle, gears, tracks and pacemaker. I declared there was not a locomotive built which could get away from me.' Not surprisingly declarations like this made him a laughingstock.

'The more people laughed, the more determined I became to accomplish the feat. I figured that the fast-moving locomotive would expel the air to such an extent that I could follow in the vacuum behind.' Now, a little physics here. A vacuum is not suction, Murphy insisted. A vacuum is the absence of air and therefore of resistance. Murphy had ridden a mile in 37 seconds on a home-trainer, so with a big enough shield, he said, he could go as fast as he liked.

In 1899 nothing was faster than a train. Speed records were all but unknown. For one thing only a train was fast enough to provide pacing. In 1995 Fred Rompelberg rode 166mph behind a car, but in the 1890s cars and motorbikes trundled at the speed of a horse. The magic speed was a mile in a minute -- and you couldn't even depend on trains doing it, as Murphy found out.

'By chance', he said, 'I met Hal Fullerton, special agent of the Long Island Railroad at Howes Roundhouse. I pointed out that an exhibition of that kind would prove to the world that the Long Island Railroad had just as good rolling stock, roadbeds and employees as any other road in the world.' The contract was signed within 48 hours. Journalists came from all over the country. James E. Sullivan, of the American athletics union, was referee and there were five timekeepers. The party arrived in Babylon, New Jersey, at 5pm on June 21, 1899 and mounted the train.

Murphy told Sam Booth, driver of locomotive 39, to go as fast as he could and hold it, then put on what he called his 'racing togs' before climbing on to his 104-inch gear Tribune.

Fullerton had spread a two-mile carpet of boards between the rails from Babylon to Farmingdale and built 11-foot sidewings and a small roof to the platform on the last carriage.

The train moved away faster up the slight slope than Murphy expected but he stayed in the middle of the 10-inch planks and within two inches of the beam and crossbar that was his bumper on the platform of judges, toffs and timekeepers. He clocked 16.4 seconds for the first quarter-mile, 33.6 for the half, 49.2 for the three-quarters and the mile in 1:08. Murphy dropped back 200 feet into eddies that threw him about 'as if I were a piece of paper.' Fullerton was embarrassed to find his locomotive wasn't up to the job. Six times it failed to get up to 60mph. He called for his heaviest and fastest but its weight made the wooden track sink and rise as it passed over the joints of the rails. Murphy was forced to ride a wave.

Murphy held the pacing compartment until he'd got his gear rolling. Fullerton asked if he was all right and told Booth to open the regulator. The mile-a-minute ride into history had started.

'With eyes glued upon the vertical strip of white on the back of the car I experienced an entirely different feeling compared with my previous ride,' Murphy said. 'The officials knew that there was something wrong, that I was labouring under great difficulties. I could not understand the violent vibration in the track, as though I was riding over an undulation instead of level track; feeling hot missiles striking my face and body. I learned afterwards it was burning rubber from under the car. Within five seconds the rate of speed was terrific; I was riding in a maelstrom of swirling dust, hot cinders, paper and other particles of matter. The whipsaw feeling through a veritable storm of fire became harder every second.' Then he started losing ground. An official called Fred Burns shouted through a megaphone to ask what was wrong. Murphy looked up to answer and immediately fell back 50 feet. Now he was fighting to stay in touch.

'I could feel myself getting weaker every second I saw ridicule, contempt, disgrace and a lifetime dream gone up in smoke. I saw the agonised faces, yelling, holding outstretched hands as if they would like to get hold of or assist me somehow.' The half passed in 29.4 and the ride was rescued.

'Wobbling to and fro, but still gaining, the dust, the odour of burning rubber.... The car was crowded with men who had been used to seeing any and all things that were dangerous, but the howling and screaming of sturdy officials and newspaper men from all over the United States that stood on the platform put all on edge. Suddenly, three-quarters was passed in 43 4/5 seconds.' Murphy was still 15 feet back. 'I expected to go off the track, travelling faster than the train, with the terrible storm of dust, pebbles, hot rubber and cinders. I looked up blankly. It was getting to a point where I could expect anything.'

And then, from the edge of his eye, a waving Stars and Stripes. The finish. But Murphy was riding faster than the train, still catching it. Up in the cab, Booth had also seen the flag and he shut off steam. Murphy crashed into the train. The bike tipped up and officials grabbed in desperation. Murphy let go of the bars and held an upright. Fullerton caught one arm and a man called Joseph H. Cummin the other and they pulled both bike and rider to the platform.

'I lay motionless, face down, on the platform. I was all in. I was half-carried to a cot at the end of the car; the roar of the train was challenged by hysterical yells. Grown men hugged and kissed each-other. One man fainted and another went into hysterics, while I remained speechless on my back, ashen in colour and sore all over.' Officials pulled off Murphy's jersey for Dr McMunn Holly to examine him, not realising hot rubber and cinders had burnt through it and they were taking flesh with them.

But Booth, the driver, was worried. He'd seen Murphy drop back on the first ride and had looked for him to do the same on the second. Seconds after shutting off steam he had reached the end of the wooden track and feared Murphy had piled into unprotected sleepers between the rails and crashed. Seeing him on the cot, he thought he was dead.

Sullivan, the referee, said he would never again take part in an event of that kind, even if it made cycling famous for a century. Murphy, though, did carry on racing. He was among 600 touring professionals on the Grand Circuit in the mid-1890s, won the American tandem championship in 1891 and US titles from one to five miles, setting 17 national records. In 1895 he claimed seven world, 17 American and 29 state records.

He went on tour in the Keith Vaudeville Circuit, then joined the New York police. He was commended four times and cited five times. He boasted of being the first policeman in the world to fly an aeroplane, and the first in New York to ride a motorcycle in uniform. He died on February 17, 1950, aged 79. This summer [2000] Farmingdale held a Mile-a-Minute celebration. The Farmingdale Post described him as 'one of the men who added a bright spot of colour to Farmingdale history'.

© Les Woodland
Cycling Plus, January 2000

other stories by L Woodland