Charles M. Murphy was crazy. There is no other possible explanation for his actions on June 30, 1899.
Already an accomplished amateur racing cyclist, the 28-year-old Murphy held many world and American records while riding for the Kings County Wheelmen racing club of New York City. Full of competitive bravado, Murphy announced that he could keep pace with ANY man-made contraption on Earth. When Hal Fullerton of the Long Island Railroad proposed to test that assertion, Murphy was all for it. They found a suitable two mile stretch of level, straight railroad near Babylon, New York. The Long Island Railroad then built a wooden track between the rails and converted the rear of a railroad car to provide a windblock for Murphy as he pedaled behind the train.
Like I said, the man was clearly crazy.
The event was attended by hundreds of fans, who lined the two-mile stretch of track. Members of the press, five time keepers, a referee, and the Secretary of the Amateur Athletics Union observed from the balcony of the railroad car. The plan was for the train to use the first half mile to get up to a speed of 60 mph with Murphy pedaling behind it. The next mile would be the actual test – could Murphy hang at 60 mph for a full minute? The final half mile would be for slowing down. Nothing could possibly go wrong!
After an embarrassing first attempt where the train didn’t reach the required speed of 60 mph, the engine’s regulator was removed and a second attempt ensued. This time, the train reached 60 mph and the test began in earnest.
Most readers are probably not experts on steam locomotives, so a couple of characteristics might be of interest at this point:
1. Locomotives are heavy. As the train passed over the railroad ties and wooden track, its weight caused them to depress. As it left a given area, these items would rapidly rise up, creating a wave-effect which Murphy was forced to contend with. He spent a fair portion of the test airborne.
2. Steam locomotives are powered by a boiler which requires a rather significant fire. The exhaust of this fire consists of sparks, smoke, and intense heat. On a normal locomotive, this exhaust was expelled harmlessly under the train and out the back. This is precisely where Murphy was now situated. Thus it can hardly be considered surprising to read Murphy’s account of the ride:
“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.”
There was a brief moment when Murphy fell back and it appeared he might fail. He redoubled his efforts and closed the fifteen foot gap, returning to his position just off the rear of the train. He completed his mile in 57.8 seconds. When the train’s engineer cut the power as planned, the train immediately slowed and Murphy plowed into the back of it. The crowd on the back of the train grabbed onto Murphy and hauled him onto the balcony (which, I remind you, occurred at a speed slightly less than 60 mph). He was delirious and on fire. Pandemonium ensued. There was much cheering and crying. A grown man fainted. Others carried Murphy to a cot where they gave him first aid.
The event brought much publicity to Murphy, who was known thereafter as “Mile-A-Minute Murphy.” For his part, the event’s referee, James Sullivan, said he would never take part in such a reckless event again. Murphy toured on Vaudeville then signed on with the New York City Police Department, where he claimed to be the first police officer to fly an airplane and to ride a motorcycle while in uniform. He passed away in Jamaica, Queens, in 1950 at the age of 79.
Murphy’s bicycle (A Tribune “Blue Streak” fixed-gear with no brakes) remains intact but is currently involved in a tug-of-war between the city of Babylon and the Springfield (Mass) Museums Association which currently owns it. Babylon has offered $20,000 for the bicycle but the Springfield Museums Association has declined the offer. The bike is currently kept in storage.