How a 1909 cross-country car race inspired new roads | Taking Stock

By Tim Raetzloff | Aug 23, 2017

A few weeks ago I wrote about the Yellowstone Trail from Plymouth, Massachusetts, to Seattle.

Because of that article, I discovered that there is a Yellowstone Trail Organization, and they have a website. On that website, I found a fascinating story about an automobile race across the United States in 1909.

The goal of the race was to arrive at the fairgrounds of the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition on the campus of the University of Washington. The race began in New York, traveling along existing roads from New York to Chicago. When I say roads, I don't mean roads like we have today. I mean dirt, and maybe gravel.

When the cars arrived in St. Louis, even that ended. Heading west from St. Louis, each racer could take whatever route they could find, as long as they checked in at various checkpoints along the way.

The first cars reached Seattle in just under 23 days – 23 days of adventure; crossing rivers and creeks without bridges, bouncing on railroad ties, crossing fields and, at one point, using a shallow river bottom as a road.

Such a race was certain to have disputes, and it did. After protests and challenges, the Shawmut was declared the winner. Now, you probably have never heard of a Shawmut.

The Shawmut Company was located in Massachusetts. It was one of many automobile manufacturers in the Bay State. Massachusetts was competing for leadership in building automobiles. Ultimately, Michigan won that contest. Who knew Massachusetts was once a major competitor in the automobile industry?

The reason we haven't heard of the Shawmut is because they never built another car. The Shawmut factory had burned down before the race began and the entry was a car that had escaped the fire. I would have thought a car that had won a trans-continental race would spur enough interest to rebuild the factory.

It didn't work out that way because the Shawmut wasn't the first car to reach the finish line on the UW campus. The first car to cross the finish line was a Ford, one of two that entered the race. Ford garnered all the publicity, and increased greatly in popularity. So, we still have Fords around.

Shawmut protested that Ford had not followed the rules of the race. Shawmut ultimately won the protest, the $2,000 first-place prize, and the gold and silver trophy that was probably worth more than the cash prize. But the final decision wasn't reached until a considerable amount of time had passed, so it wasn't much publicized.

The Shawmut won the race, but lost the war. Ford lost the race, and clearly won the publicity contest.

The two Fords and the Shawmut finished within a day of each other. Both Fords were ultimately disqualified. The car that was eventually awarded second place struggled in days later.

One car finished by riding the train, which was a much more efficient means of travel in 1909. One car never made it out of New York. How would it have survived in the western wilds?

The race is reputed to have stirred up interest in improving roads in the western states. Washington passed a highway ordinance in 1911 to build a road from the Canadian border to Oregon. The Yellowstone Trail was in existence soon after.

By 1925, the first Stevens Pass Highway was in operation, although it wasn't any more civilized than today’s average backcountry Forest Service road. A number of stretches of the original Stevens Pass road still exist. Which is the easiest to find? Try the Bygone Byways Interpretive Site just east of Stevens Pass.

Tim Raetzloff operates Abarim Business Computers at Harbor Square in Edmonds. What he writes combines his sense of history and his sense of numbers. Neither he nor Abarim have an investment in any of the companies mentioned in this column.

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