A lens on Lenz on the South Side


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When Frank Lenz left Pittsburgh in 1892 on what was then a newfangled "safety" bicycle, carrying little more than a camera, a revolver and a homemade umbrella, he expected to return to the city two years later, after completing a spectacular bike ride around the world.

He didn't. Lenz and his bicycle disappeared in Turkey, after he made it roughly 15,000 miles across the United States and several countries including Japan, China and Iran.

Now, 120 years to the day after he pedaled away -- with 800 onlookers wishing him well from the Smithfield Street Bridge -- the city on Tuesday will officially commemorate "Frank Lenz Day."

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl will issue a proclamation at noon at the OTB Bicycle Cafe on the South Side. He will also be recognizing the opening of the city's first on-street bicycle parking corral, as well as other advances that the city has made for bicyclists.

"Frank Lenz's courage and ambition lives on in Pittsburgh's growing bicycle community of today," said Mr. Ravenstahl. Lenz's story is fitting to remember now as the city has made great strides for bicyclists in recent years, said the mayor, from bike lanes to its trail system to recognition last year by Bicycling.com as a top 50 bicycling city.

For years, Lenz's journey was utterly unknown. Author David Herlihy stumbled upon his story as part of his research for another book and decided there was enough material for a separate book just on Lenz.

That book, "The Lost Cyclist," was published in 2010.

"He was a celebrity when he disappeared but he was forgotten fairly quickly," said Mr. Herlihy. "The bicycle boom went bust with the automobile, and there was a sense that Lenz had been foolhardy. His legacy is kind of lost."

Mr. Herlihy lives in Boston but is doing his best to bring Lenz's story back into Pittsburgh's public consciousness. He is in early discussions with the Riverlife Task Force about a memorial on the South Side bike trail and with the Heinz History Center about an exhibit. He even dreams of a Lenz museum in the house that still stands on Western Avenue.

For Linda Boxx, president of the Allegheny Trail Alliance, the story of Lenz is so grand in scale that it barely seems real.

"It was a native son, who tried this phenomenally impossible task," said Ms. Boxx. "To think that he was going into these remote places in China, Asia, and Turkey, where he ultimately met his demise, where people hadn't seen a European, much less a European on this crazy contraption. It's worthy of a movie, and it's special because this was a Pittsburgh boy."

At age 24, Lenz quit his job as an accountant to attempt his journey around the world. The bicycle boom was in full swing and though Lenz had enjoyed some success in bike races, he felt that his talents were better suited to long distance travel and exploration.

A worldwide bike trip had been completed five years prior by Lenz's idol Thomas Stevens, but Lenz would be the first to do so solo, on a more extensive route and with a camera. He would be documenting the adventure for Outing magazine.

In his book, Mr. Herlihy re-created his journey through those dispatches and through Lenz's letters home to friends and family. His adventures were truly larger than life, from a night spent in jail in San Francisco, to being robbed and stoned by villagers in China to biking through tiger-filled Burmese forests.

He set out from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., following roughly the route that is now the Greater Allegheny Passage. He traveled across the United States and Canada to San Francisco, sailing from there to Hawaii and Japan. He biked across parts of China, India and what were then Burma and Persia before disappearing in Turkey.

Two years later, Outing magazine sent another bicyclist, William Sachtleben, to solve the mystery of Lenz's disappearance, a journey also detailed in Mr. Herlihy's book. He found that he was likely killed by a bandit after somehow insulting a Kurdish chief. His body and bicycle were never found, but eight years after his death the Turkish government paid Lenz's mother a $7,500 settlement.

For Mr. Herlihy, even though his book on Lenz is complete, there is still much more to be discovered.

"Somebody probably has a trunk full of letters in their attic," he said. In particular, he's hoping for information about a seamstress named Annie R. Leech who was Lenz's girlfriend. She died, unmarried, in 1950.

"It'd be great to see a little more recognition for Frank," said Mr. Herlihy. "I do think he stands out as a courageous fellow with good intentions -- one of those icons who will always be young."

travel - neigh_city

Anya Sostek: asostek@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1308.


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