The 1908 Great Automobile Race from New York to Paris: Part II… Through Nebraska

The race had barely started when the automobiles were caught in a blizzard that dumped 2-3 feet of snow on the roadway. In this photo, the Thomas Flyer breaks trail for the other racers. In the beginning, the various racers took turns leading.

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 Thomas Flyer fights to get out of a snow drift.

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.

The Italian Zust. Clothing suggests just how cold it was.

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.

When roads were impassable or non-existent, the racers often resorted to using train tracks. The rules were that the riders couldn’t actually ride on the rails. They had to bump their way over the railroad ties.
Trolley lines sometimes substituted for railroads in the cities.

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.

I took this photo of US 30 on Peggy’s and my recent trip around the country. Take away the pavement and add a foot of mud, it might look similar to what the 1908 racers found in making their way across Nebraska.
Whenever the racers came to a major town, the citizens would be out to greet them in force. This is Grand Island Nebraska. Only four of the cars made it this far.
A high school student eager to shoot an action shot caught this photo of the race in the small town of Gibson, Nebraska. He even got a wave!
Buffalo Bill invited the racers to stay at his home in North Platte. Pretty fancy digs for a buffalo hunter! The house was being repainted when Peggy and I visited it.
Buffalo Bill’s barn, Scout’s Rest, would have been standing as well when the racers came through in 1908. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
The barn is packed full of memorabilia from Buffalo Bill’s road show which traveled the world featuring cowboys and Indians and personalities like Annie Oakley. This poster promoted his show in Australia. Note the fancy rope work! I got so excited…
… That I lassoed myself a filly! Boy did she put up a fight!
I’ll conclude today’s post with a photo of the Flyer making its way through hub-deep mud. Some fun!

NEXT POST: On to the West Coast and up to Alaska…

Holy Leaping Lizards! Limping Laptops Lead to Lapses…

My limping laptop seemed like a minor problem in comparison to the Thomas Flyer being stuck in the snow during the 1908 NYC to Paris auto race. (National Archives photo)

I thought that normalcy had returned, that I could get back to putting up posts and reading blogs and commenting on posts and responding to comments. Ha! The keys on my laptop went bad. So I jumped to my backup computer. Bad decision. It crashed. Not just crashed, mind you, but crashed with two long posts I had just written about the 1908 22,000 mile automobile race from New York to Paris. It was a doozy. The race started in February— and no one had ever driven across the US in winter. Then the cars were transferred to Siberia by ship for the next leg! I became interested in the race when I found the actual vehicle that won, a 1907 Thomas Flyer, in the National Auto Museum in Reno when I was traveling down Highway 395.

The Tomas Flyer at the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the clock was ticking. Peggy and I are taking off on a one month trip through Arizona and New Mexico and it looked like I would be computer-less. Horror of horrors! So I went out and bought a new MacBook Pro. It arrived yesterday. We leave tomorrow. I couldn’t have cut it much closer.

It’a a beauty. The screen features a sand dune that adjusts to ambient light. Makes me want to head back to Death Valley. It’s so fast, I’ve named it Jack, as in jack rabbit. I have another Jack name for it when it misbehaves…

I’ll rewrite my auto race stories but I just wanted to give you an update on why I am still playing hooky from the web. Here are a few recent photos…

I know, I post lots of photos of cute deer, but check out how this young fellow has his legs crossed. It was like he was posing for me.
Hemp, hemp, hooray! I think Jackson County is vying for hemp capitol of the world. Peggy and I counted 20 farms between Medford and our home. Last year, there was one.
Our book club made its annual visit to our house in September. We are now celebrating being together for 31 years— the same five couples! This is Peggy with the book club founder, Ken Lake.
It can be disconcerting when you look out your window and see this, as we did two days ago. A fire was raging less than a mile away. Fortunately the forest service had warned us that it was doing a controlled burn. Here’s to keeping it controlled.
Another photo of the controlled burn. My last shot for now.