Lesson from America’s First Car Race, Thanksgiving 1895 - Independent Women's Network
Something Fun

Lesson from America’s First Car Race, Thanksgiving 1895

Thanksgiving Is for Turkey and Football

More than ten years before the introduction of Henry Ford’s Model T, the Duryea Wagon won our nation’s first automobile race on Thanksgiving 1895 in Chicago, Illinois. Charles and Frank Duryea began work on this vehicle, the only gas-powered American car, in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1892. The brothers tested and operated it as early as 1893. Following the race, in 1896, the Duryea brothers sold thirteen Duryea Wagons, more than any other automobile maker in America at that time.

In May of 1895, H.H. Kohlsaat, owner of the Chicago Times Herald newspaper, found inspiration for the event as he read about an automobile race in France, between Paris and Bordeaux. With the help of one of his enthusiastic reporters, Frederick U. Adams, Kohlsaat initially organized and scheduled the Chicago race to run on the 4th of July in order to attract a large crowd. Plans for the summer race were thwarted when only one of the cars was ready. The newspaper owner therefore postponed it to a much colder day in November.

Race Day

On Thanksgiving Day, 1895, a blanket of snow coated the 30-degree, windy Chicago landscape. The drivers of six automobiles waited in Jackson Park for their race to begin. The night before, eleven of the sixty-something cars registered were still committed to participating. However, many of them broke down in the morning on their way to the starting line. For them, the hope of winning the $2,000 prize (over $50,000 in today’s money) would remain only a dream.

At 8:55 a.m., with thousands of spectators braving the cold and lining the streets of Chicago, the racers began their 52.4 mile-race to Evanston, and back to Jackson Park. In the end, only two of the six cars completed the course because the weather conditions created serious road and mechanical issues for the racers. Along the way, the Duryea Wagon’s left front wheel struck a rut and lost its steering arm, so Frank found a blacksmith shop and replaced it. Duryea also had a 55-minute mechanical delay when he stopped to replace one of the two cylinders that had ceased firing.

Even with the snow, mechanical problems and gasoline stops, the Duryea Wagon managed to finish first place in 10 hours and 23 minutes. The 1895 course covered a distance that many athletes now run in about nine hours, and modern cars easily drive in under an hour.

Only two vehicles finishing the race of the intended sixty-something registrants seemed to provide a sign to Chicagoans that November is not the best time of the year to hold such an event. This sentiment is reflected in a cartoon that appears on the November 28, 1895 Chicago Tribune’s front page, suggesting that Thanksgiving “is the day when turkey and football rule”.

Comments (1)

You must be logged in to view comments.

Give Us Feedback