Who was Prince Wells, and how did he get the great William Donner so blinkin’ high?

William Henry Donner, founder of Donora, was an astute, no-nonsense businessman. He became business partners with some of the wealthiest men in history, including Henry Clay Frick and the Mellon brothers, Andrew and Thomas, owners of US Steel. He was stern, quiet, stolid.

He was also highly competitive, and in his younger years enjoyed bicycling. In 1884 Donner enticed a few friends to run high-wheel bicycle races in Columbus, Indiana, where he lived at the time. High-wheel bicycles, also called ordinaries or penny farthings, were popular at the time, and Donner enjoyed the spectacle and danger of them, including their apparent ability to draw the interest of members of the opposite sex.

“We visited nearby towns on our wheels for advertising purposes,” Donner wrote in his privately-published memoir, “but mixed those trips with pleasure, as there were some very attractive girls in Seymour and Edinburgh. Several times we were detained so late that we returned via train.”

W. Prince Wells

Donner once won a high-wheel race against W. Prince Wells, a well-known trick bicyclist from Kentucky. Donner used a bit of trickery himself in what was called a slow race. In a slow race competitors would pedal as slowly as they could for a hundred yards, and then race to the eventual finish line, often another hundred yards. Slow races served largely as entertainment for audiences, and no one took them terribly seriously, least of all Donner. That didn’t mean he wouldn’t try to win, however. Donner described the time he beat Wells this way:

“The track was divided by strings into courses 10 feet wide. A contestant who touched a string, stood still, or fell off fouled and was disqualified. It was easy to stand still but difficult to continue at a slow gait. The danger points were when the pedals of your wheel were near their high and low points, because if you exerted sufficient pressure to move the wheel beyond those critical points, you were likely to pick up speed, run on the foul line, or fall off.

“I discovered that when the pedals were near those points I could take hold of the rim of the wheel with my hand and push it slowly and maintain my balance. It was that little trick which gave me the race. My competitors attempted to go too slowly and were all quickly disqualified, with the exception of Prince Wells. Finally he looked back to see me, and when he discovered that I was pushing the wheel with my hand part of the time, he laughed and fell off, so that I had no competitor the last half of the race.”

Donner was also an honest man, a gentleman in every sense. After describing his “win” against the hugely successful Wells, Donner admitted with all sincerity, “If Wells had thought of pushing the wheel with his hand [as I had], and had an hour or two to practice, I would have had no chance against him.”

Leave a Reply