When the World Came to Campus, 1909

Automobile race

About the race
Concurrent with the opening of the AYP, a transcontinental auto race from New York City to Seattle began on June 1, 1909,. The race was promoted and sponsored by the Seattle Automobile Club, the AYPE, the Automobile Club of America, Henry Ford, and Robert Guggenheim. The race was intended to showcase the latest products of the automobile industry and to emphasize the need for new and improved roadways across the nation.

Because of the lack of roads (particularly west of the Mississippi), participants went west to Chicago, south to St. Louis, on to Denver, and then up through Wyoming, Idaho, and across Washington. Automobiles were still a new technology in 1909 and many people considered cars too dangerous to be on city streets. Because of the concerns about speed, the organizers divided the Ocean to Ocean race into two events, an endurance run from New York City to St. Louis and a speed race from St. Louis to Seattle. East of the Mississippi, driving was only permitted during daylight and only at legal speeds. West of St. Louis, the rules were wide open. The Auto Club believed the western roads were so bad that speed law violations would be impossible.

The Pace or Pathfinder car, preceded the racers in order to select the best routes. The famous Thomas Flyer, winner of the 1908 New York to Paris race, was used as the Pathfinder. When the Thomas Flyer car took two months to cross the country, it was clear that the roads along the way were in bad shape.

Robert Guggenheim donated the transcontinental trophy and the prize money for the race. The winner received the trophy and $2,000. Second prize was $1,500. Inscribed with: "Alaska-Yukon Automobile Race Guggenheim Trophy New York to Seattle," the trophy has small figureheads of Chief Seattle at its base, and pictures of the Agriculture Building and a view of Seattle's main street near its top.

About the race winners and conditions
The declared winner of the race was Ford No.2, a stripped down Ford Model T driven by Bert Scott. The Ford arrived in downtown Seattle at 12:55pm on June 23rd, covering the 4,106 miles from New York in 23 days.

Five months after the race (and after the close of the AYP), the Model T was disqualified for breaking race rules for changing engines part way through the race. The second place finisher, a Shawmut, was declared the new winner. In the meantime Henry Ford used the victory to help advertise and market the Model T.

The roads were bad west of the Mississippi. H.B Harper, one of the participants for Ford, wrote, “every day we wore rubber coats and hip boots and pushed through mile after mile of mud.”  Thirty-five miles outside of Denver, both Fords mired in quicksand. Harper said, “with the aid of the roof of a deserted pig pen which. . . we shoved under the wheels. . . we got both cars out and made Denver.”  The worst part of the trip for the winning car was over Snoqualmie Pass. The racers crossed Lake Keechelus by ferry at five in the afternoon then floundered in snow in the Pass. They reached the summit at 8pm and went on for another hour and a half. After sleeping for a while, they started out again at 2:30AM. The drivers noted that “in many places we had to dig our way out of the snow and practically climb over logs which lay across the road.”  “Besides the snow there were steep grades, and it was pushing pulling, holding back, and digging all the way through the fifty miles.”

About Good Roads building
The Good Roads Building was erected by the State of Washington to promote better highways for travel and commerce. Exhibits included road building materials, and processes. Roads in 1909 were undeveloped outside of urban areas; the 1906 census showed 763 autos in all of Washington. Outside of the cities, roads meant rutted, muddy tracks. Roads were described as elongated mud holes in winter and dusty, sandy tracks in the summer. There were no signs and if the driver made an unlucky choice, driving might mean long detours, dead ends or impassable roads.

The Good Roads building was used for various purposes until it was destroyed by fire in 1961.

Items from other institutions:
Exhibit of the Office of Public Roads
Exhibit of the Office of Public Roads
(The Internet Archive)

previous page
next page


Follow Us:

Follow our Blog Twitter Flickr Support Digital Initiatives. Make a Gift.