Monday, November 28, 2016

Thanksgiving, Snow and Chicago—First U.S. Auto Race Takes Off

Frank Duryea in his Motor Wagon, winner of the Chicago Times-Herald Thanksgiving Day Race in 1895, the first ever in the U.S.A.  Note the slush on the streets.

The first automobile race in the United States was held in Chicago on Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 1895. 
Chicago was always a tough newspaper town.  A half a dozen or more daily papers scrambled to survive, in the shadow of Joseph Medill’s Chicago Daily Tribune.  In 1895 the Chicago Times, a struggling Democratic paper in a city dominated by Republicans since the Civil War, had recently merged with another also-ran in the newspapers wars, the Chicago Herald. 
H. H. Kohlsaat, publisher of the new Chicago-Times Herald was looking for a way to build circulation and challenge the mighty Tribune.  Looking around for something new and exciting, they hit upon those new-fangled horseless carriages that various tinkerers were beginning to produce by hand in tiny shops.  Most people had never seen one and those who had found them noisy and ridiculous looking.  Hardly anyone thought there was a future in them.  But in a country that had recently undergone the revolutions of electrical and telephone services, nothing could be dismissed out of hand. 
On July 9, 1895 the Times-Herald announced that it would give a whopping $5,000 to the winner of a Moto-cycle race between Chicago and Milwaukee.  The hefty prize indeed stirred interest.  Over 80 entry applications were turned in, many of them for cars that had not even yet been built or were still under construction.  Originally slated for late summer, a number of problems caused a series of postponements.
The final route of the race from a 1945 50th anniversary account of the race.
First, there proved to be no good route to Milwaukee.  In an era when trade between the cities was conducted by rail and Lake Michigan freighters, there was no single road connecting the two cities.  Various routes patched through country lanes proved, even in August, one of the driest months of the year, to be muddy and impassable.  The route was changed to at 54 mile round trip from what had been the Palace of Fine Arts at the 1893 Columbian Exposition (now the Museum of Science and Industry) and the northern lakefront suburb of Evanston.
The race was rescheduled for November 2, but had to be delayed again because hardly any entrants had arrived in Chicago.  Most entrants could not finish their autos in time, others could not get them transported.  One was damaged in route.  Then entrants arriving in the city in their cars were stopped by police.  City ordinances forbad self-propelled vehicles on the streets.  Drivers had to hitch their automobiles to teams of horses to enter the city. 
The race had to be delayed again as Time-Herald lawyers frantically lobbied the city to change the law.  Finally, with city approval obtained, the race was given a go-ahead for Thanksgiving.  
Three Benz Velos, considered the world's first production automobile, were entered in the race and were the heavy favorites.  One finished the course well behind Duryea.

Six vehicles made it to the starting line.  Three of them were manufactured in Germany by Karl Benz.  The German had patented his Motorwagen, the first vehicle powered by a gasoline fueled internal combustion engine in 1885 and by 1894 was producing his Velo model, considered the first mass produced automobile in the world.  It were Velos with 3 horsepower engines and a pivoting front axle controlled by a tiller that were entered in the race Two vehicles were electrically powered by storage batteries. 

The Pennington Victoria, one of two electric vehicles that quickly were out of the race when the cold weather drained their storage batteries.   Notice the jump seat saddle on the rear for a mechanic to attend the workings.  The failure of the cars in the race was a major set back for electric cars clearing the way for the further development of internal combustion autos.
The final entrant was a Duryea Motor Wagon built by brothers Frank and Charles Duryea, bicycle mechanics in Chicopee, Massachusetts with Frank at the helm.  The vehicle was just the second completed by the infant company.
Conditions the day of the race were not good.  Several inches of snow had fallen overnight and temperatures hovered just around freezing, giving drivers a challenge of fresh drifts in some spots, icy ruts on city streets, and slushy mud in the country. 
The race got underway at 8:05 a.m. with Duryea in the lead.  The electrical vehicles found their batteries drained by the freezing temperatures and were quickly out of the race.  One of the Benz autos hit a horse and was also out.  Duryea was in a comfortable lead when he skidded in the icy street and snapped off his tiller.  It took more than hour to locate a blacksmith and have him re-forge the end of the tiller and thread it to fit.  The remaining Benz vehicles passed him, but he regained the lead at the turn in Evanston.
On the way back, near Humboldt Park, one of the two cylinders in the Duryea engine stopped firing and Frank had to tinker for an hour.  Not realizing that the faster of the two remaining Benz autos was out of the race, Duryea struggled through heavy snow, but claimed never to have had to get out and push. 
Near the finish line he was held up by a frantic search for gasoline, which was sold only in small quantities at pharmacies for use as a cleaning product.  Then he was held up for more than five minutes by a freight train.  Duryea finally crossed the finish line at 7:18 p.m. having completed the route in seven hours and fifty-three minutes at an average speed of 7 miles per hour.   The remaining Benz crossed the finish line an hour and a half later.  No other vehicles completed the race.
The race succeeded in selling newspapers—but not enough to stave off the collapse of the final successor to the Times Herald before World War I.  The race generated national publicity and led to a surge in American auto innovation and production.  The quarreling Duryea brothers continued to manufacture Motor Wagons through the end of the century selling almost 300 of them.  After that each continued to produce cars separately.  Frank produced his with gun maker Stevens Arms for a few years.  Charles continued his production until 1917 by which time more modern machines had made his obsolete.        

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