No plows, no weather updates, no roads. Slush, snow, mud. It wasn’t exactly happy motoring for George Schuster Sr. during the winter of 1908.
The hardships were worth the trouble for Schuster and friends in the souped-up Thomas Flyer automobile. They were the American representatives in a great race, an endurance competition that matched autos and men from the United States, France, Germany and Italy. Their destination was Paris, their adventure was destined for the history book.
One hundred years ago this week, magnificent men and their driving machines visited the Capital Region. The race had begun on Wednesday, Feb. 12, with much fanfare at New York City’s Times Square. Six cars, featuring the best technology of the day, began their journey at 11 a.m.
Part of the competition was designed to sell newspapers. The race was being sponsored by the Paris newspaper Le Matin and The New York Times. Editors and executives were trying to top the Peking to Paris race, which had been held the previous year.
Cars would be on the road for months, 22,000 miles through Albany, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Alaska, Japan, Russia, Berlin and finally Paris.
Toting some extras
The Flyer, a 1907 model made in Buffalo by the E.R. Thomas Motor Co., had a four-cylinder, 60-horsepower engine and cost $4,500. For the race, engineers mounted extra gas tanks and found places to strap on spare tires. Also in the hunt were the Italian Zust, French DeDion and German Protos. Two other French cars completed the field.
Once out of Times Square, the cars moved north. Three of them, the Flyer, Zust and DeDion, made Hudson to conclude the first motoring day. They left for Albany at 6:45 a.m. on Thursday, Feb. 13, and arrived at 12:25 p.m.
The drivers and mechanics didn’t stay long, but paused while New York Times reporter T. Walter Williams, along for the trip on the Flyer, accepted a letter from Gov. Charles Evans Hughes. The message was for California’s governor, James M. Gillette.
“The contest is of an extraordinary character and one in which, I am sure, the people of California will be deeply interested,” Hughes wrote.
The cars stopped briefly in front of the Ten Eyck hotel at State and Chapel streets. They were behind schedule — so there was no time for a long lunch. The racers gassed up and proceeded to their next stop.
That was Schenectady, and people were waiting. City car owners met the visitors at the city line shortly before 2 p.m. City officials had agreed to sound the fire whistle and tell people the motorcade had arrived. About 2,000 crowded State Street between the armory building (then above Crescent Park on the top of State Street hill) and Washington Avenue for a look at the travelers.
“They were cheered all along the line,” the Schenectady Gazette reported, “and the occupants of the cars seemed to enjoy the reception they received.”
Drivers and mechanics did not stop. They were heading for Utica, and rolled through downtown and over the Scotia bridge (now the Western Gateway bridge). They had some company, as city car dealership owner Benjamin Burtiss and other members of Schenectady’s auto club provided escort service for the trip west.
They could have used plow service. Outside of Scotia, the cars encountered heavy snow banks and decided to retreat. The best plan seemed to be driving back over the bridge and taking River Road, on the south side of the Mohawk River, for perhaps easier passage to Utica.
“Back through Scotia and over Washington Avenue they went, and when passing along the edge of the General Electric Company’s plant, affected no end of attention,” the Gazette reported.
Snow was bad on this route, too, and George Z. Brown and six helpers with shovels freed members of the Paris expedition. The racers took the canal tow path, and moved through Rotterdam Junction and Pattersonville. More trouble was ahead.
Schenectady residents Porter Stevenson, Russell Stevenson and George Wood were on the escort team, and once in Amsterdam, stopped at the Hotel Warner with the French car trailing. The American and Italian teams had lagged behind at this point and did not know about the stop. They continued west and reached Fonda.
“When the Stevensons discovered that they had lost the two cars, they drove at high speed back to the canal tow path in an endeavor to overtake the missing cars,” the Gazette story read. “They rushed on west and met with a mishap.”
The Stevenson special was traveling close to the canal bank at the time. It skidded and fell into the big ditch.
“Porter Stevenson, the chauffeur, was thrown from his seat into a snow bank,” the paper said, adding others in the auto were not injured. Horses pulled the machine back to the road. The engine started, and the three men drove home.
Schenectady got another look at the great race. On Friday, Feb. 14, the Protos and Lt. Hans Koeppen of the German army rolled into town at 10:25 a.m. — a day behind the American, Italian and French delegations.
The Protos stopped at Albert R. Burtiss’ appliance store on Jay Street for directions. Burtiss got into his car and escorted the German crew to the canal tow path. By evening, the Protos was in Utica; the leaders were in Canastota, just east of Syracuse, and the race to Paris was in full swing.
In the months ahead, cars crossed fields where there were no roads. They used railroad track to make the next city.
Arriving 2nd, finishing 1st
The Thomas arrived in Paris at 6 p.m. on July 30, after 169 days on the job. The Protos had actually arrived first, on July 26, but was given a 15-day penalty for taking a train from Ogden, Utah, to Seattle. That gave the German team second place; the Italian car arrived in Paris on Sept. 17, for third.
The three French cars did not finish.
Jackie Frady, executive director of the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nev., tells fun stories about the competition. She said because there was no antifreeze, mechanics had to empty car radiators during cold winter nights to prevent freezing. People would touch the cars as they passed through their towns; some carved initials into the wooden bodies.
Frady said the race was a turning point in the development of the automobile; it proved the four-wheel vehicles could be used year-round, and convinced others that roadside motels, gas stations and restaurants could become profitable businesses.
The museum, which has been observing the race centennial since last fall, is the current home of the Thomas Flyer. A 1964 photo exists of George Schuster, who was behind the wheel in Paris, sitting in his old car. At 92, he still had his driver’s license.
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