In His Own Words

Cannon Ball Baker

Photo: Don Emde Collection

Editor’s note: This is Erwin Baker’s personal account of his record-breaking transcontinental ride in 1914. It appeared in Motorcycle Illustrated, one of the leading motorcycle publications in the United States at the time.

By Erwin G. Baker

I was always inclined towards outdoor sports and athletics and had often trained for boxing and sparring, which brought me in contact with throwing the medicine ball, jumping rope and all the physical culture performances that go to train a man for endurance. I found when I purchased my first motorcycle that I had endurance and stamina that seemed to be far in advance of the ordinary motorcycle rider. I found it an easy matter to ride a great deal further and faster in a day without fatigue than the ordinary rider, which finally led me into road-racing and long-distance riding.

From time to time there had been men crossing the continent, driving automobiles or riding motorcycles, and I began to have a longing to accomplish such a feat; but before attempting such a thing I recognized that there was considerable training to be done on my part, not so much physically as in the handling of a motorcycle at terrific speed through sand and mud and over rough roads; in other words, to find the knack of doing this. I also realized that if I desired to make a mark in time that would be recognized by the entire world, that a trip of this kind was far distant from me at that time and I began to roam around the world on a motorcycle, always seeking highways and byways that were of the roughest and most difficult nature to master. So one day I made up my mind that I would go off on one good long “roll.” No one can deny but that it was sure some “roll.” However, “rolling” across the continent from the Pacific to the Atlantic on a motorcycle is not quite as simple a performance as rolling off the proverbial log.

Preparing for the ride

On January 7,1912, I groomed up my 1912 two-speed Indian and left Indianapolis and rode clear through to Miami, Fla., and from the Florida Keys I took passage on a streamer to Havana. I rode over the entire island of Cuba and from there I rode over the entire island of Jamaica. Then I took a steamer to Colon and crossed the Isthmus on my Indian, and then took a steamer up to San Diego, Cal. I spent three months riding through the tropics and over trails covered with vegetation, covering 14,000 miles on the Indian, and spending 20 days of the three months aboard steamships.

Close Figuring on the Weather

For the next three months during his spare time he made researches for ten years back, as to just how the weather stood during the various months, and he decided the month of May was the most favorable time for me to leave the Pacific Coast, and predicted that if I started at a certain time he could get me across the Mississippi Valley before a storm would overtake me. Boys, this kind of fortune-telling is hard to believe, but I felt that I had to believe somebody and I knew figures would not lie, so I decided to make the start on the day the weather clerk arranged for me.

Months of Detail Work

Then I went back and talked it over with my wife, as only she and myself and the weather clerk knew anything about my intentions. She finally became convinced that I had the nerve to do what I claimed I could do and what I started out to do, and she then helped me in the most loyal manner.

The first thing we did was to get a logbook from Westgard, the veteran pathfinder, showing the various trails across the continent, and which gave a brief description of conditions. We found in this logbook two routes, one of which had what we considered fairly good going, but the mileage was longer and I decided I was toughened up enough to take the shorter route with the hardest kind of going.

My wife then became enthusiastic, and we started to write letters to people along this route, inquiring about roads and bridges and where gasoline could be located. We consumed two months getting this data together. We found that from Rice on to Fort Apache it was impossible to get gasoline. These places were located from 40 to 120 miles from railroad stations, so we arranged for gasoline packed in on burros from the railroad station to various points on the desert and mountain roads, which cost me seventy-cents a gallon.

I then called on Mr. James Barker, a Government civil engineer, who is now employed by the Department of Irrigation, and asked him if he would in his spare time make me a drawing of my trail across the thirteen States I had decided to pass through, and he favored me by laying out this map and made me a number of blue prints of it.

When this was done I immediately got in touch with Chairman of the F.A.M. and told him of my plans. He was then the fourth one in my secret. Mr. Donovan, before making a reply to my request for a sanction, found it was necessary to get in touch with all of the directors of the F.A.M., as he did not desire to bring any legal obligations upon the organization by issuing such a sanction, and I in turn guaranteed to him that I would live up to all the speed laws passing through towns and villages in my trip, which I afterwards did most faithfully.

I was then granted the sanction and after receiving it I wrote to Mr. Weschler of the Hendee Manufacturing Company, of my intentions and he replied: “Go to it. We will welcome you in New York whether you break a record or not.”

The Weather Predictions Verified

My friend Brant (the weather clerk) decided that I should get to San Diego and be ready to start May 3, in between the storms. I then took an automobile stage and rode from Phoenix, Ariz., to San Diego, which consumed three days of my time. The day I left Phoenix my wife also left, for Indianapolis, and while waiting in San Diego for my machine I received a wire from my wife saying: “Don’t start, as it is impossible to get through.” This wire was due to the fact that while passing through Kansas and Illinois she met terrific rainstorms, bridges being washed out, fields flooded and streams swollen. This verified my friend Brant’s prediction, and I was all the more anxious to get started and trail after that storm.

I then hunted up the Indian agents at San Diego, C.A. Sheppard & Co., and asked them if my machine had arrived. Sheppard smiled and said it had and wanted to know where my eyes were that I didn’t see it stuck in the window together with a large display of a map, showing my proposed route across the continent. I took the machine out of the window, a mount I had never seen before, and took a little ride on it. I took a trip into the mountains to be sure of my adjustments before starting, and the returned to the agency. It then struck me that I could make faster time over my rough going in the desert and on rocky trails if I put on larger tires, so I put on three-inch Goodyear tires, both front and rear, and this was the only change that was made to the machine.

I hung around the agency and began to realize that a lot of the boys were stacking up their dollars in betting as to the number of days I would do the trip in, and I began to figure I was going to fool the whole bunch.

Editor’s note: Baker’s story continues with his account of May 3, 1914, his first day of riding from San Diego to Yuma, Arizona.