The 1908 Great Race from NYC to Paris: Part 3… Way Out West

My posts are few and far between. Part of the reason is the times. There is just too much happening now between the pandemic, the fires, and the election. As noted before, these are scary times, more scary than any other time in my 77 years. The other is that I love research and the Great Race has me fascinated. Just when I think I have exhausted my resources I find another article or more photos. This time it was 350 photos of the race stored in the Henry Ford Museum, a virtual treasure trove. Most of the photos in today’s post are from the museum.

Leaving Nebraska, the flat terrain and rolling hills of the Great Plains gave way to the mountain, deserts and distant vistas of the West while the roads became little more than dirt paths.

As the participants rolled out of Nebraska, they experienced their first real taste of the ‘Wild West.’ The unending farmlands of the Midwest gave way to the drier, open lands and vast vistas of Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada. The terrain also changed. The flat and rolling plains the automobilists had been driving through across the Great Plains turned to towering mountains and deserts. The Rockies, the Great Basin and Death Valley lay ahead. Towns and cities became farther apart. People fewer. The already poor roads the racers had been following became little more than tracks in the dirt.

When there weren’t any roads or railroad tracks to follow, participants in the Great Race were left with following emigrant trails.

The animals also got wilder and bigger. The Zust team claimed they were surrounded by a pack of 50 or so wolves that circled their car yipping with anticipation on a dark and stormy night in Wyoming. Blowing the horn and using the spotlight didn’t discourage the hungry predators. They kept circling closer. It was only when the team broke out their rifles and shot several that the wolves decided that they hadn’t been invited to dinner. Local townspeople gathered up the hides the next day and sold them for the bounty paid by the government. The wolves’ taste for an occasional cow would lead to their eventual eradication in the West.

Not everyone made it to the Rockies. Baron Godard, who had driven another car from Peking to Paris in 1907, met his match in Iowa. Between being bogged down in mud and snow, getting lost, and having serious car problems, he decided to ease his journey west by loading his Moto-Bloc onto a train and shipping it to the coast. “San Francisco, here I come!” It broke the rules.

Baron Godard, in the Moto-Bloc in Paris before leaving for the US and the Great Race, shakes hands with well-wishers. Since the Baron had come in second the year before in a race between Peking and Paris, he had high hopes for his NYC to Paris race. They ended in Iowa. An early movie is being filmed here.

A photographer caught the Baron loading the Moto-Bloc onto the rail car. “Quit the race, sell the car, and return home,” the manufacturer telegraphed him. The French, who had started with three entries, were down to one. The greater glory of France now depended on G. Bourcier de St. Chaffray driving the French De Dion-Bouton— which is quite a mouthful to say.

The De Dion-Bouton leaves the Puteaux, France factory outfitted for the Great Race. I believe G. Bourcier de St. Chaffray is driving and Hans Hansen is his passenger. Hans would join the Thomas Flyer team after a hot argument with G. Bourcier that almost came to a Western shootout! Their fast draw was thwarted, however, by the fact the pistols were buried deep under all of the gear.
Monty Roberts, the driver of the Flyer, and Hans Hansen share a laugh.

The Thomas Flyer team had other ideas about who would win the glory. When they reached Cheyenne, Wyoming, the Flyer was a week ahead of its nearest competitor, the Zust. The De Dion was in third. And the Protos fourth. Given the quality of the vehicle, Monty Robert’s driving ability, and George Schuster’s mechanical talent— not to mention sheer determination— the team had been ahead for most of the race. It was a position they had every intention of keeping. The car was about to lose its driver, however. Monty had other race commitments back east and in Europe. He hoped to rejoin the team when it entered Europe to drive over better roads and, I imagine, harvest the fame of crossing the finish line first. E. Linn Mathewson, a Thomson Flyer car dealer, took over the driving from Cheyenne to Ogden, Utah. Harold Brinker, an auto racer out of Denver, drove the car into San Francisco. Schuster would take over then. 

The Thompson Flyer receives a grand welcome in Cheyenne.
E. Linn Mathewson steering the Thomas Flyer. I think that’s a “What have I gotten myself into?” look.
Linn Mathewson shaking hands with his replacement, Harold Brinker, in Ogden, Utah.

Getting into the spirit of the West, George bought a Colt six-shooter pistol before leaving Cheyenne. Who knew what lurked out in the wilds of Wyoming? Wolves or outlaws, perhaps? Best to be prepared.

There would be snow drifts to push the Flyer through…
Brush and mud to conquer…
Ice covered rivers to cross with hopes of not ending up on the bottom…
And high passes to climb over.
It’s no surprise that the teams would need a drink when they reached a town!

Peggy and I had followed the route of the race in Nebraska from Grand Island to North Platte where we spent the night at Buffalo Bill’s ranch as the Flyer had in 1908. We then continued to follow the route to Ogallala where we detoured to follow the Oregon Trail, which early pioneers had used in the 1840s, 50s and 60s. (Posts coming.) I was eager to check out the route that ancestors on both sides of my family had travelled looking for a better life— either by farming in the Northwest or striking it rich in California. So, we missed Cheyenne. We rejoined the race route for a brief time, however, between Rock Springs and Fort Bridger, Wyoming, when the Oregon Trail dipped south.

The Thomas Flyer parked in front of Buffalo Bill’s home on the North Platte River.
Crowds were out to greet the Thomas Flyer’s arrival in Green River, Wyoming. People were still hurrying over to welcome the team. Note the prominent rock in the background…
Peggy and I took its photo when we briefly rejoined the route between Rock Springs and Fort Bridger.
Driving over the railroad ties in Utah, the Flyer was in for a bumpy ride. Another problem was that the railroad spikes tore up the tires.

Ely, Nevada was the next point where our summer road trip crossed paths with the race route. We passed through the town on our way east when we were following Highway 50, the “Loneliest Road in America.” (Another post.) Ely feels like it is in the middle of nowhere. And it is. It would have felt much more so in 1908. The Flyer had made its way south from Wendover, Utah following what is now Highway 93 (more or less) to Ely and then continued southwest across the Nevada desert following today’s Highway 6 (more or less) to Tonopah.

The Flyer team used railroad ties and brute force to get across the Western Pacific railroad in Nevada. They appear to be lifting the Flyer to get it onto the borrowed ties.
And here, they use logs to get the car out of Nevada mud. Peggy and I know from our years of attending Burning Man in the Nevada’s Black Rock Desert that there isn’t a heck of a lot of rain in Nevada, but when it does rain, the mud is no joke. The 24/7 event comes to a grinding halt.
And, as always, the car attracted attention wherever it was. This photo is taken in Cerry Creek, a small town north of Ely.

Along the way, it passed by what would become Nevada’s Extraterrestrial Highway. Think UFOs.  I’ve been interested in flying saucers ever since I saw one in 1969.  The participants in the Great Race didn’t report seeing any, however. Darn. (As an aside, I found it interesting that both the Pentagon and Japan’s military have set up task forces in the past couple of months to track UFOs. A little Twilight Zone music might be appropriate here.) But back to the race. 

Gate to top secret Area 51 in southern Nevada.
Peggy and I drove down the Extraterrestrial Highway and visited Area 51. We weren’t invited in. But then we weren’t arrested for taking photos either. (Post here on our visit.)

It was in Tonopah and the town of Goldfield 27 miles to the south that we first learned of the Great Race. In fact, we’ve driven the route followed by the Flyer from Tonopah south through Goldfield, the now ghost town of Rhyolite, and across Death Valley many times. I’ve actually ridden my bicycle over most of the route the race followed through Death Valley and on to Bakersfield, California.

I kicked this series off with a photograph of a mural depicting the arrival of the Flyer in Tonopah. The scene was looking south. Note the Mizpah Hotel.
It still stands.

When the Flyer was late in arriving in Tonopah, several residents drove out the road to see if there was a problem. They found the Flyer broken down and Schuster sleeping in a bunkhouse. (Another version of the story has him walking toward Tonopah.) He was roused out, given a ride to town, borrowed parts from a Thomas Flyer owned by a local doctor, fixed the car, and arrived to a jubilant welcome. Pretty much the whole town greeted the team.

The Flyer was attempting to cross this quicksand filled creek on the Warms Springs Ranch when it got into trouble outside of Tonopah.
This building still stands on the Ranch.

Cowboys and miners shooting their pistols into the air welcomed them to Goldfield. It was a cast of characters. There is still a cast of characters living there! (And a speed trap.) Crossing Death Valley, the Flyer had to put on balloon tires to get through the deep sand. Stovepipe Wells offered its only water. 

This would have been a view the team had as they left Tonopah for Goldfield.
The Flyer was almost buried by the crowd that gathered in Goldfield.
The Thomas Flyer passed through the Town of Ryolite just before entering Death Valley. Today it is a ghost town.
We took this photo of sand dunes in Death Valley from Stovepipe Wells. There was no lack of sand for the Flyer to negotiate through. I was glad for the paved highways when I rode my bike across the Valley.

The Thompson Flyer rolled into San Francisco on March 24th, the first car to travel across America in the winter. The team was given a hero’s welcome. Factories blew their whistles and cars honked their horns.  Its nearest competitor, the Zust, was still 700 miles away. The first phase of the race was over for the Flyer. Schuster was now to become the driver. He was eager to get to Alaska for the next phase of the race.

Market Street in San Francisco was packed for the arrival of the Thomas Flyer.

NEXT POST: Schuster travels to Valdez, Alaska to check out the next section of the race and the route is once again changed. Cars will be shipped to Japan and then on to Vladivostok, Russia where their next challenge will be crossing Mongolia and Siberia.

16 thoughts on “The 1908 Great Race from NYC to Paris: Part 3… Way Out West

    • I think you are absolutely right, G. My own wilderness adventures have taught me the value of a sense of humor and the ability to laugh in the face of adversity! Sometimes its all you have going for you beyond pure grit and stubbornness! –Curt

  1. This is all well and good, but bring those guys back and let them race through the Atchafalaya and coastal Texas. Alligators! Mosquitos! Prickly pear that can flatten tires! Then we’ll see how tough they are! You can dig your way out of snow, but just try digging yourself out of an alligator’s jaws…

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