By Michael Blanchard
Feature | This is a story of two scrapbooks. One is full of photographs. The other consists mostly of newspaper clippings. The two scrapbooks are each more than a century old. Until this year no one realized how closely related they are. Put together they offer a vivid and charming view of the Northern California motorcycle scene before the First World War.
The story begins with a mistake. A fellow he had never seen before, and whose name he can’t remember, came into Terry Cox’s bicycle shop, College Cyclery. The fellow bore a scrapbook of photographs that he thought might have originated from the bike shop. He was wrong. The scrapbook is much older than the bike shop.
The photos are the personal memoir of William A. Langley, who was the Excelsior, Henderson and Pierce dealer in Sacramento from 1908 to 1914. They document his business, family and social activities from 1903 to roughly 1914.
The Langley photographs have been characterized by Richard Osterander, club historian of the Fort Sutter chapter of the AMCA, as one of the most significant archives of early motorcycling to surface on the West Coast.
Starting in 1903, Langley appears in the Sacramento City Directory as an “expert bicycle repairman” working out of his house. By 1907 he moved into his first shop, 1025 Tenth Street in Downtown Sacramento, and followed in his father’s footsteps selling and repairing umbrellas. In addition, Langley was a locksmith, sold and repaired phonographs and was the agent for Sterling bicycles.
In 1908 Langley became the agent for Excelsior Auto Cycles. He was one of Excelsior’s very first dealers. It is clear from the photos that he fell in love with motorcycling. In 1913 the Sacramento Union newspaper referred to Langley as “one of the most enthusiastic motorcycle riders in the city.”
George Robie founded the Excelsior Supply Company in 1876 to sell sewing machine parts. When the bicycle craze hit in the 1880s Robie diversified into bicycles and bike parts. He kept his eye open for new opportunities, and by 1905 Excelsior was one of the largest distributors of automobile and machine parts in the country.
Robie’s brilliant, star-crossed young son Fredrick wanted to build motorcycles, but Robie resisted. It is reported that he saw the manufacture of complete vehicles as a risky proposition. In 1905, despite his father’s objections, Fredrick began assembling motorcycles from brought-in parts. The product must have satisfied the old man because Excelsior spent the next couple of years building prototypes. In 1908 Excelsior came out with the single cylinder 26.8 cubic-inch, belt drive, Model A Auto Cycle and began developing a dealer network.
Robert Turek in his excellent article, “The Origins of Excelsior” (The Antique Motorcycle Vol. 52 No. 4), writes: “Excelsior considered 1908 its first year of actual production.” This puts Langley in on the ground floor.
The photos in Langley’s scrapbook show he believed in showing off the qualities of the Excelsior motorcycle by putting it to use.
Langley’s wife Elma is regularly seen in the photos. The two of them traveled extensively, getting as far afield as Mexico and Pismo Beach. You get the feeling looking at the pictures that she must have been a remarkable woman. She was game for an adventure at the very least.
Interestingly, there are no photos of Harley-Davidson products in the book and only a few shots of Indians. There are, however, Excelsiors, Hendersons, Popes, Jeffersons and Thors galore.
Langley ran a very active dealership. He competed in endurance runs, toured, organized rides for his customers and volunteered at racing events. He was a member of first the Sacramento Wheelmen then the Capitol City Motorcycle Club and after 1913, when several of the local clubs merged, the Sacramento Motorcycle Club.
The Sacramento Wheelmen was founded in 1886 as a bicycle club. But cycling was not the only activity the club pursued. These guys were true sportsmen. They had an active baseball team, a shooting team, a swimming team, a whist team and a motorcycle section of the club.
Because of the ancestral connection between the motorcycle and the bicycle there had been interest in motorcycles within the club from a very early date. Finally in 1912, at the urging of George Redman, the Wheelmen proposed forming the Capitol City Motorcycle Club.
As luck would have it, one of the scrapbooks of the Sacramento Wheelmen resides in the archives of the Center for Sacramento History. The name is a little misleading because the scrapbook contains the early history of the CCMC starting in 1912.
This timeframe roughly coincides with the Langley photographs.
While the Langley book is a personal view of an era, the Wheelmen’s scrapbook is an overview of motorcycle culture in the Sacramento area and Northern California.
Elwood Smith, club historian from 1912 to 1918, filled the book with articles from the Sacramento Bee and the Union newspapers as well as ephemera like photographs, racing programs, badges and club gala invitations.
The titans of the sport, from before the First World War, appear in its pages. Bob Perry, national champion on the Excelsior; local boy “Kid” Fabian; Don Johns on the Cyclone; Ray Creviston and “Fearless” Charles Balke riding Indians and Otto Walker on the Harley-Davidson are just some of the riders who are chronicled in its pages. In later pages of the book, 14-year-old Joe Petrali signs in as the official club historian and keeper of the scrolls.
In the scrapbook there is a humorous clipping from the Sacramento Bee from the year 1915. C.S. Pixley, who was the club president as well as the president of the Board of Education, was stopped by motor officer Brown and arrested for “burning up W Street at 41 miles an hour” on his 8 hp Harley-Davidson. Pixley was especially embarrassed because, as it turned out, he was a member of the board that helped draft California’s speed laws.
Needless to say, one can spend hours engrossed in the Wheelmen Scrapbook as history unfolds page by page.
Despite all this information there are still tantalizing mysteries surrounding the Langley photographs. None of them are labeled, so it is hard to know who is who. The Wheelmen scrapbook does not contain any photos of Langley. His name appears in clippings from the Sacramento Union and the Sacramento Bee that are pasted in the book. He shows up in the city directory and there are a number of advertisements for his shop in the archives. But there are no photos of the man himself.
The Capitol City Motorcycle Club is still active and one of the oldest clubs on the West Coast. In fact, if one were to count the history from the Sacramento Wheelmen through the mergers and name changes, it would be the oldest by far. However, given the good relations between the Sacramento and San Francisco clubs, the subject is probably a can of worms not worth opening. Ralph Venturino, serving in the unofficial capacity as club historian, generously made the club’s archives available to search for a photograph of William Langley.
The current clubhouse dates to the 1930s and is a wonderful building full of a century’s worth of history. As it turns out, the club has one photograph of William Langley. It is a shot that is also in the Langley scrapbook and it shows him sitting on a motorcycle parked at the curb while a cop on the sidewalk points his finger at him as if reading him the riot act.
So now we were able to connect the Langley scrapbook, The Wheelmen scrapbook and the archives of the Sacramento Motorcycle Club. Here then are a couple of stories from years gone by.
When we think veteran motorcycles we normally think of them as road bikes. It is easy to forget that before the First World War, and for decades after, outside of cities, the vast majority of roads in America were unpaved. The machines of the time were in fact what we would now refer to as dual-sport machines. Riders had to cope with often-treacherous roads on machines with limited suspension and delicate tires.
Langley was no slouch as a rider. In 1913 the Capitol City Motorcycle Club organized a series of three endurance races open to club members. The prizes for the series were a silver loving cup, a gold medal and a pair of tires. The cup still resides in the trophy case of the Capitol City Motorcycle Club.
The first race was from Sacramento to Colfax and then on up to Truckee and back to Sacramento. Up the road that is now Interstate 80. The race was run as a rally with the target speed for the first event set at 20 miles-per-hour. This was a tough schedule up some of the steepest grades in the Sierras. The organizers allotted three hours to get to Colfax and another three and a half to get to Truckee. Riders had to hit checkpoints at the correct time or be penalized. The one restriction was competitors had to have an effective muffler on their machine.
Three riders returned to the clubhouse with perfect scores: William Trapper, George McCormick and Langley, who rode two-up with Elma. The Langleys started at 5:10 a.m. and returned to the clubhouse at 6:30 p.m. after more than 13 hours in the saddle.
For the second race, 10 competitors signed up. Indians were the most popular machine with six riders astride the products of the Wigwam and one rider each on Harley-Davidson, Thor, PEM and of course Langley riding his Excelsior X.
The route started in Sacramento and went out to the east through rolling hills and river bottoms to the old gold mining town of Jackson. It then turned north and climbed through the foothills of the Sierras to Placerville. From Placerville the route plunged in and out of the steep canyons of the American River and climbed to Auburn. It then wound its way down out of the scrub hills back to Sacramento. The run was a veritable tour of the gold fields of 1849.
The Sacramento Bee reported that there was “smooth sailing to Jackson” and all the competitors were on time. ‘After leaving Jackson, the trouble began. Some rough roads and grades were met. One was two miles long and a 30 percent grade all the way.”
Capitan Scott broke the frame on his Harley-Davidson and was left in Placerville. “Kid” Fabian, 16, riding a PEM, was pulled out of a ditch near Placerville by Langley. The “Kid” was finally forced out by broken chains and returned to Placerville. Leo McCarthy broke his front spring and his muffler and was forced out.
Farther up the hill, the Bee reported that Langley took several bad spills. In one incident, Langley hit a culvert and was thrown 10 feet over the bars. Despite having bent the forks on his Excelsior he soldiered on.
Dogs and the smaller farmyard animals in general seem to have been very hostile to the motorcycles' appearance on some of these country roads. The Union headline blared, “Animals killed galore.” Pigs, chickens, sheep and dogs all fell victim to the “speed demons.”
This time Trapper and Langley were the only perfect finishers.
The third run was held in December and the route led from Sacramento to Jackson, from there to Angels Camp and then west to Stockton and back to Sacramento. The weather was bad with lots of rain, and the competitors faced 180 miles of deep mud.
Langley and Trapper each held high hopes for winning the race and clinching the silver cup, but for Langley it was not to be. Anticlimactically, he was forced out by the mud and road conditions. Trapper went on to win the club championship.
Motorcycle clubs of the time were eager to put on races to promote their sport, and the CCMC was no exception. In 1912 they joined with the Sacramento Motorcycle Club to organize a combination motorcycle and bicycle race.
The race was to be run April 21 at Agricultural Park; at the site that later became the California State Fairgrounds. The race was open to all comers but was primarily a contest between the boys from Sacramento and riders from the Stockton motorcycle club.
The program included 10 different races, and 40 competitors signed up for the 10-race program. In addition to motorcycle races from one mile to 25 miles, there was a bicycle sprint race, a paced bicycle race, a 25-mile club relay motorcycle race and a novelty race in which contestants had to stop and eat pie or drink pop after each lap. William Langley was one of the scorers, and photographs show he and Elma out at the track the week before the race.
The day before the race, the two clubs organized a grand parade up J Street and invited all motorcyclists to participate. The Bee headline proclaimed, “Speed burners to race on motorcycles.” Special trolley car service was added for the race and 4,000 spectators turned out.
The CCMC team consisted of Capitan Scott, Reed Orr and Gallaway. Orr won three events including the five-mile and the ten-mile races for twin-cylinder machines and the novelty race. Unfortunately, Orr was killed at San Jose Driving Park later that summer, in a wreck that involved “Hap” Alzina.
In 1913 the race saw a number of western riders but none of the national stars. The Union reported that the race committee added a free-for-all event to give the new 9- and 10-HP machines an opportunity to race.
“Hap” Alzina, Indian; and “Red” Perkins, Excelsior; were two of the big names entered. Undefeated Chester Scott, of Sacramento, on his “monster seven-horsepower Jefferson twin,” vowed to win the prize offered for a mile lap under 52 seconds.
Langley’s endurance adversary Billy Trapper caused a sensation with the Indian “Bearcat.” He had recently purchased the full race Indian from Jake De Rosier who claimed the bike was fast enough to do the mile in less than 50 seconds.
In a sign that Sacramento was attracting national attention, the Federation of American Motorcyclists held its West Coast meetings in conjunction with the race, and the organizers had high hopes for the 1914 event. They were not to be disappointed.
In 1914 the Sacramento race was a national championship race for the FAM. There were 12 races with classes for everything from amateurs riding fully equipped roadsters to professionals on fire breathing race machinery. The winner of the five-mile, twin-cylinder professional race would be the western champion of the FAM.
The stars of the 1914 race were “Fearless” Charles Balke riding for Indian and Bob Perry, star of the Excelsior factory team.
In the weeks leading up to the race, local newspapers reported that Don Johns was entered to compete for the Excelsior team, but he does not show up in any of the race results and recaps so it is probable that he never made the trip west.
Perry was the man of the moment, having won the 300-mile Savannah Grand Prix earlier in the year. The Excelsior star was riding high, and he would go on to be the FAM national champion for 1914.
Newspapers reported 5,000 spectators turned out to watch the race with more than 40 racers signed up for the competition. Clubs from all over the West and most of the professional riders from Northern California attended. The Bee reported it was the “first time in five years that a national championship race will be held in the West.”
In the championship race, Perry led from the start and was never headed. He eventually pulled a 10-second lead on Balke’s Indian and won with a time of 4:18, doing the last mile in less than 50 seconds. Local rider A.E. Smith of the CCMC came in third riding an Indian.
According to FAM rules, any rider who worked in the trade was considered a professional. Any mechanic, salesman, agency owner or anyone who had anything to do with the motorcycle industry had to run in the same class as the factory stars on works machines. The locals protested and threatened to boycott the 11th race, the ten-miler for twin- cylinder machines, because Perry and Balke were entered. A compromise was reached whereby those who wanted could race against the hot shots. That done, there was a special race added for riders who were considered professionals, but the factory boys would sit it out.
The ten-miler was a seesaw battle between Perry and Balke, with Balke pulling out the win.
The local newspapers proclaimed 18-year-old “Kid” Fabian the outstanding rider of the meet. Fabian rode three different machines, Pope, Jefferson and Indian, to a first-place and two second-place finishes. Apparently Perry was not amused because he protested Fabian’s amateur status to the race committee.
The 1914 race also featured a spat between the CCMC and the Sacramento police officers union. The club contracted with the union to provide security for the race. The union insisted on $5 a day for their officers. The club race committee refused to pay more than $4 a day and the cops boycotted the race. Some of the officers crossed the picket line and worked the race for $4. This caused a split in the police union that lasted for several years and led to much grief for local motorcyclists. The Sacramento Union reported that the cops hassled the “go devil boys” for months after the race.
It is about 1914 that William Langley fades from the pages of the Sacramento Wheelmen’s scrapbook. In 1914 Langley sold or lost his Excelsior dealership to E.O. Putzman.
The 1915 city directory lists Langley doing motorcycle and bicycle repair from his home on O Street. He appears in the 1940 census but that is the end of his appearance in the public record. He finished out his career doing odd jobs and general repair from his home.
The thing is, it doesn’t take long for the historical trail to run cold. Two or three generations are all it takes. History turns its gaze elsewhere and a once-prominent member of the community, and what he achieved in life, disappears as if he was never there.
Thanks to a long lost photo album and a club scrapbook, a fascinating period in the history of motorcycling is brought to life. Through research, connections are made, and hopefully with work and a bit of luck, more of William Langley’s amazing story will be revealed.