Jack Bernvitzke and his good pal Daniel Klapproth, two members of the Racine Motorcycle Club onboard their new machines in front of the Harley-Davidson factory just before setting off on their epic journey to San Francisco in August, 1914. Racine is a shoreline community along the banks of the mighty Lake Michigan, about 45 minutes south of Milwaukee. Being in such close proximity to the state-of-the-art Harley-Davidson plant, it is no surprise that the Racine MC’s ranks were filled with local businessmen, aspiring racers, and two-wheeled adventures, each with a certain affinity for the Milwaukee grey. Bernvitzke and Klapproth were no exception, and when the pair resolved to set out on a cross-country tour to San Francisco for the big Panama-Pacific International Exposition, they made sure their Harley-Davidson model 10F’s were in top form for the journey, including a customized “Racine to Panama-Pacific” script across the tank. Long distance riding was nothing new to American motorcyclists, city-to-city tours and endurance runs had been staple events for the better part of a decade. However, with the exception of a small class of professional transcontinental adventurers like Cannonball Baker, 1915 marked a new explosion in cross country transits, due in no small measure to the lure of the PPIE. So like many others, with only two speeds and a gas lantern to guide their way, the pair set off on August 10, 1914, across America on a 5,000 mile trek to San Francisco.
The Panama-Pacific International Exposition was a massive international affair in 1915, an event on a scale which it is hard for us to imagine today. Organized in San Francisco to celebrate the recent completion of the Panama Canal, in actuality the expo was a grand gesture to the glorification of America itself, a testament to our modernity in the 20th century, our progress, and rising importance on the world stage. It also marked somewhat of a rebirth for San Francisco, the bay city before the Golden Gate Bridge which had been nearly obliterated by the great quake of ’06. Much like the World Fairs to come, vendors from 24 countries filled the dozens of newly constructed buildings within the sprawling event compound, each referred to as palaces, such as the Palace of Fine Arts, the Mines and Metallurgy Palace, the Agriculture Palace, and the Machinery Palace.
Along with intricate displays featuring various international cultures, every aspect of American life was on display, from the economy to transportation, from fashion to farming. Modernity was on-trend and technology was on full parade throughout the event. The buildings burned up the night sky as they dripped with electric light and colored crystal embellishments as towering columns of arc spotlights shot beams into the stars. Transcontinental phone lines were run for the first time, the Liberty Bell was on display, parades filled the streets, and barnstorming aviators took to the air to perform stunts and aerobatics. Among the litany of goods and services displayed inside the palaces, representatives from every manufacture of automobile, aviation, train, and motorcycle put on grand exhibits of their latest and greatest. For the motor-enthused, the expo was a dreamscape, the white hot nucleus of the American auto and motorcycle industry. Cycling races and motorcycle events dotted the nearly year long calendar, even the prestigious Vanderbilt Cup was run around a course built along the exposition’s massive 635 acre perimeter, and the PPIE hosted one of the very first Wall of Death Thrill shows in America, billed as the Race for Life. Without question, the event drew in millions, though most Europeans were tied up at the time, but for Americans the PPIE became the essential destination for the country’s two-wheeled obsessed.
Among the nearly 20 million visitors to make their way to San Francisco in 1915 were countless dozens of America’s most adventurous motorcyclists. The machines had become very capable of such endeavors since their early days, and the culture of motorcycling was turning a corner in 1915, turning away from its more utilitarian beginnings and heading towards a more recreational pursuit, an enjoyable, adventurous love affair. The scope and appeal of the PPIE made for an irresistible goal, inspiring individual riders as well as entire clubs from all over America to set out on a cross-country trip to San Francisco. In a way, the exposition became one of the first event destinations, possibly the first great pilgrimage for American motorcyclists, much like the rallies held in Sturgis and Daytona today. From large club groups to the intrepid loner, dealers, racers, fathers and sons, brothers and friends, it seemed that every town in America sent off at least one local motorcyclist on a grand adventure to the PPIE in 1915. Among the club runners and individual riders, the expo inspired a mother and daughter, Effie and Avis Hotchkiss to hop onboard their Harley-Davidson 11-F sidehack and become the first women to ride cross-country by motorcycle. Even the old “Warhorse” Cannonball Baker was on hand to welcome fellow cross country travelers and take in the wide array of sights and sounds of the expo, all by Indian motorcycle of course.
Also included amongst the long-distance riders were a collection of couriers sent out from Washington DC in a transcontinental relay effort to deliver a message from President Wilson himself, as well as another from the US War Department. The test was to demonstrate the American motorcycle’s ability to easily handle such an arduous journey, solidifying the machine’s suitability for military scouting and dispatch. The Great War in Europe was well underway by 1915 and quickly proving the brutal necessity of machines in a new age of warfare and the American motorcycle would soon find a new facet of its utility at war. However, the test became a bit too close to battlefield realism for the final rider in the of the relay as he found the himself dodging actual bullets in the last miles. According to an interview decades later, it was in those twighlight miles of the cross-country exercise that a San Francisco police officer opened fire on rider Gus Chelini, after he refused to slow down or stop during a 12 mile pursuit. Gus was the final rider to receive the President’s message and as a dispatch felt he couldn’t stop, a point of strong disagreement with the local officer. Chelini, a veteran motorcyclists and prominent pioneer racer evaded the officer as he fired six shots at Chelini’s tires, all luckily missing the mark. Despite the confrontation the transcontinental mission was successfully completed and the President’s correspondence was securely delivered by motorcycle dispatch, but more on that to come. Perhaps not as climactic, Bernvitzke and Klapproth eventually arrived in San Francisco as well, along with dozens of other cross country motorcyclists to take in the splendor and spectacle of the Panama-Pacific international Exposition between February and December of 1915. The grand motorcycle pilgrimage to the PPIE in 1915 inspired countless of the country’s enthusiasts to continue making epic, long-distance trips onboard their beloved machines for years to come, helping to establish one of the cultures most cherished past times, a life lived in the wind.