America's First Auto Race: Chicago to Evanston

December 09, 2018

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NASCAR, IndyCar, motocross—America loves its motorsports. Every year, millions of Americans gather to watch daredevil drivers push metal steeds to their limits.

It’s a tradition that began in a much quieter and humbler fashion. Thanksgiving Day, 1895, Chicago. 30 degrees, six inches of fresh snow. Six cars, most held together with jerry-rigged technology and hope. The Chicago Times-Herald Race—America’s first ever auto race.

Let’s Sell Some Cars and Newspapers

In 1895, cars weren’t exactly commonplace. There were no factories, no assembly lines. Most horseless carriages (as they were often dubbed) were built by hand. Very creative, but not enough to drive an industry. Certainly not enough to drive many Americans.

Chicago Times-Herald publisher H.H. Kolsaat set out to change that. He thought an auto race, similar to one held in Europe, would help spur on automobile production… and maybe sell a few newspapers while they were at it.

The Bumpy Road to Success

They were off to a start with an idea, but the journey was anything but smooth. The plan was to race from Chicago to Milwaukee in July—a handsome distance, and an excellent time of year for outdoor pursuits.

First speedbump: the road between the two cities wasn’t up to the challenge. The cars simply wouldn’t be able to make it. So, organizers amended the route to go from Chicago to the much-closer Evanston and back, a round trip of 54 miles.

The race was also delayed. They were ready to go on November 2, 1895, with 83 cars entered. Unfortunately, only six made it to the starting line. Most entrants simply hadn’t finished building their cars in time (it was new territory for everyone, after all). Others were stopped by police in Chicago, as it wasn’t technically legal to drive an automobile there back then. The solution? Get horses to tow them the rest of the way.

Organizers sorted the legal issues over the next few weeks, leading to another milestone: the legal introduction of automobiles to Chicago streets.

Ready, Set…

Race day was postponed to November 28—Thanksgiving Day. Needless to say, it was typical Chicago Thanksgiving weather: 30 degrees, with snow drifts and muddy roads. Not an easy drive for the “self-propelling road carriages” of the era, which is again why only six made it to the starting line. But, the race was not to be postponed again. Despite the less-than-ideal conditions and small starting lineup, the race was on.

For most, it wouldn’t last long.

On the Road

One of the entrants was a forward-thinking electric-powered two-wheeler. Unfortunately, the cold did not agree with its battery. It was out of the race pretty quick.

Another entrant, a Benz (a predecessor of todays’ Mercedes-Benz brand), didn’t make it far either, but it did accomplish one significant milestone: it participated in America’s first automobile crash, when it collided with a horse.

In the end, only two cars made it over the finish line. First was the entry from the Duryea Motor Wagon Company, the only American-made gas-powered vehicle in the lineup. But it was far from a smooth ride. The steering arm broke after the car hit a rut, requiring repair by a blacksmith (who probably had never carried out such work before). Later, one of the two cylinders stopped firing.

But the Duryea, driven by its builder, J. Frank Duryea, eventually made it over the finish line in a time of 10 hours and 23 minutes. Today you can make the same trip in just over an hour, driving at the regular road speed. Just over 90 minutes later the second (and only other) finisher made it over the line, though without its original driver—he’d passed out from exhaustion and, presumably, stress.

But though the conditions were rough and the finishing time unimpressive, the Chicago Times-Herald Race of 1895 helped usher in a whole new era in American travel and industry. The race was heralded a success across the nation, and it convinced many that the age of the automobile had arrived.

Visit: The Museum of Science & Industry is about where the race began. Decatur’s Hieronymus Mueller Museum has the car which came second. Or drive between Chicago and Evanston to replicate the experience yourself! (Just make sure you obey all the road rules.)

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