I ended my first post on the 1908 Great Race from New York City to Paris with the six competitors zooming down Broadway on their way out of New York City as a crowd of 250,000 roared them on. Their original route had already been changed by the organizers. Instead of driving half way across the US and then up though Canada to the Bering Strait, they would work their way across the nation and then take a boat up to Valdez where they would continue the Alaska portion of the race over dog sled trails and ice-covered rivers.
But first they had to get across the US starting in winter, no small task considering no one had ever accomplished it. Roads would be rough to non-existent. There were no maps or gas stations, or asphalt— it had yet to be invented. In some areas the drivers would be forced to drive over railroad tracks, a guaranteed bumpy ride! Remember the ads when automobile manufacturers would show how good the shocks on their cars were by driving down railroad tracks with an egg balanced on a spoon? You would have to fast forward to the 60s and 70s for that level of suspension.
Problems began immediately. The one-cylinder, small French Sizaire-Naudin dropped out of the race on the first day at mile 96 with a broken differential. The remaining five vehicles soon found themselves plowing through two feet or more of snow in a blizzard. Except in cities, no handy-dandy horse drawn snow plows were around to clear roads. George Schuster, the mechanic for the Thomas Flyer, walked ahead of his vehicle poking a stick into the snow to measure its depth. Or maybe he was looking for the road!
The slow progress came to a dead halt in Dismal Hollow outside of Auburn, New York. The name alone suggests a horror-story-level disaster. The cars became hopelessly bogged down as night approached. Fortunately, horses hired by the Italian Zust team came to the rescue of the automobilists, as they were known then, and pulled them out.
At first, the teams worked together, taking turns at leading. That didn’t last long. It was a race, after all. You can imagine how the Americans, or the Germans or the Italians reacted when the driver of the French de Dion, St. Chaffray, ordered them, “When you wish to go ahead to a city, you ask me.” Right.
The Europeans were soon complaining that the Americans had unfair advantages. When the Thomas Flyer had a problem, dozen of patriotic volunteers jumped in to eagerly help out for free. When the European cars hit a glitch, they had to pay. “They even charge us to sleep on the ground,” one of the drivers whined. A more legitimate complaint in terms of the race outcome was that the railroad and trolley companies favored the Flyer in allowing track usage. Out West, the Union Pacific even scheduled the Flyer to use its tracks like it would a train.
My sense is that the great advantage the Flyer had was George Schuster, however. For one, he had the ability to fix any problem the car had. Each night he would tune the engine and work on whatever else was needed to get the car ready for the next day. The competition complained to the race committee that Schuster had rebuilt the whole car. Possibly. But the complaint was rejected. One of the nightly chores that all of the car mechanics performed was draining the radiator so it wouldn’t freeze. Anti-freeze had been developed but it was used in making bombs, not protecting cars on cold nights
Schuster’s support in keeping the vehicle operating went far beyond his mechanical abilities, however. If someone had to walk 10 miles in a freezing weather to get gas or a part, he did it. If the car needed rescuing from a snow drift or was stuck in a gully, he figured out how to free it. He was dedicated to doing whatever it took to keep the Flyer running.
I suspect a fair amount of money exchanged hands when the racers reached Chicago. Many felt that the cars would be lucky to get out of New York and even E.R. Thomas, the manufacturer of the Flyer, never expected his vehicle would get beyond the Windy City. T. Walter Williams, the New York Times reporter assigned to the Thomas Flyer, bailed out when the cars arrived in Chicago. “It’s insanity” he proclaimed. And it was. But all five cars made it to Chicago and continued on. Snow continued to plague the drivers as they made their way across the Midwest. And when they finally got through the snow, they were faced with hub-deep mud. Lots of it. Tensions soared.
When the De Dion got stuck in a snowbank and Hans Hendricks Hansen, who claimed he had piloted a Viking Ship to the North Pole solo, couldn’t get it out, St. Chaffray exploded. The men decided a duel was in order and went scrambling to find their pistols. Fortunately, they were buried deep in the gear and St. Chaffray had time to decide that it would be better to fire Hansen than to kill him— or be killed by him. Hansen joined the Thomas Flyer, pledged allegiance to the American flag it flew, and swore that he could walk to Paris faster than St. Chaffray could drive there.
Our recent 8,000-mile journey around the US was bound to cross the route of the Great Race. It happened in Nebraska as we followed US 30 along the South Platte River. The racers had been following what would become Highway 30 through Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska. We joined the highway in Kearny and followed it on to North Platte where we stayed at Buffalo Bill’s ranch. Signs along the road proudly proclaimed it had been part of the Oregon Trail and the Lincoln Highway, America’s first transcontinental highway. Before that, it had served as a major path for Native Americans and mountain men. When the route had passed through Omaha on entering Nebraska, the Flyer team met Buffalo Bill who had invited them to stay at his ranch on the North Platte.
NEXT POST: On to the West Coast and up to Alaska…