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A Philadelphia motorcycle buff takes to the area

Published August 14. 2010 09:00AM

With all the natural beauty it has to offer, this area has always served as a magnet for travellers, and it's especially popular with the two-wheeled vehicles.

A century ago, the motorcycle, no longer considered a luxury toy enjoyed only by the more affluent, was becoming more affordable to the average citizen. It was part of the new wave of transportation - including airplanes and automobiles - that spun out of the first decade of the new century. Groups like the Reading Motorcycle Club formed, giving bike riders an opportunity to bond with others.

Peter Nathaniel Klinger Schwenk, Jr., the son of a Philadelphia physician, was one of those pioneering bike enthusiasts who loved this area. During the summer of 1910, his two-cylinder Yale motorcycle was a frequent sight on the roads of Carbon and Schuylkill counties, where he spent a great deal of time vacationing.

Throughout the first decade of the 1900s, the motorcycle captured the imagination of many Americans. The quest for a self-propelled two-wheel vehicle was not new. Experiments with steam-powered cycles date as far back as the 1860s and the first model appeared just two years after the Civil War ended.

L.D. Copeland of Philadelphia produced a steam-powered cycle in 1884, but because it required too much fuel and was too difficult to operate, the gasoline driven motorcycle became the focus. Gottleib Daimler, the German engineer and industrialist who designed an internal-combustion engine that proved key to automobile development, also turned out the first true gasoline-powered motorcycle in 1885.

Until World War I, the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world was Indian, which produced over 20,000 bikes per year. By 1920, the torch was passed to Harley-Davidson, which grew into a worldwide enterprise, selling motorcycles in 67 countries.

Whenever the 18-year-old Schwenk hopped on his Yale motorcycle, he was the envy of area motor fans. The heavily-built and well-tanned Philadelphian certainly looked the part in his Khaki riding suit and leather leggings.

His Yale model bike, which was produced by the Consolidated Manufacturing Company in Toledo, Ohio, was a popular model of the day. By 1911, more than 100 motorcycle brands were available, including models sold through mail-order firms such as Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward. Other well-known brands included Ace, Excelsior, Merkel, Pope, Reading and Thor.

A person could own a 6 1/2 horsepower 1910 model like the one Schwenk drove for $300.

One early advertisement stated that the Yale "embodies all the desirable features of the highest-priced machines and sells at a figure in reach of all." Another ad boasted that "the Yale held the world's record for endurance, operated at less upkeep than any other, and is ideal for touring and business because it runs all the time and is free from trouble."

Schwenk's parents had their doubts about that last point when their son was missing during a scheduled trip in August of 1910. He had planned to travel from Tamaqua to Schwenksville, where he planned to hook up with his parents.

Schwenk made a brief pit stop in Weissport where was seen refueling his gas tank. When he missed his Montgomery County rendezvous, his parents became concerned. Dr. Schwenk used his automobile to retrace his son's suspected route, searching the roads from Schwenksville back to Weissport.

Road conditions were quite bad at the time. In 1910, there was a great need for first-class roads in this country, and only 204 of those miles were paved. Also, Pennsylvania motorcycle plates didn't make their debut until 1914 so motorcycle owners were required to furnish their own license plates.

Three days after disappearing, Schwenk suddenly reappeared in Allentown, where he had been staying with two of his friends.

Schwenk obviously had a thirst for adventure at this point in his life. Two years later, he would transfer his energy to military service, enlisting in the infantry.

He re-enlisted in the 1st Penna. Cal. in 1916, and saw duty on the Mexican Border. With the nation's entry into World War 1, he was transferred to the 103rd Military Police, participating in the battles of Chateau Thierry and Fismes on the western front in France.

In the latter engagement, Schwenk was gassed and spent the remainder of the war in a hospital. He was honorably discharged on February 15, 1919.

On a more positive and personal note, Schwenk met and married Marie Rene Hondel, a French Red Cross worker, while convalescing in a hospital at Nantes, France. She later worked among the Belgium refugees and also assisted in caring for the sick during the great flu epidemic in 1918.

Schwenk could also look back on another very positive time in his life: Those carefree days vacationing and exploring the mountains of eastern Pa. on his Yale motorcycle.

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