Auto travel in the early twentieth century

1906 Maxwell on an early highway
1906 Maxwell on an early highway

By the turn of the twentieth century, representatives of the fledgling automotive industry began to realize that the only way to prove their products’ worth and marketability as a serious means of transportation was to have a competitive contest. Gradually, the idea emerged for a tour through different parts of the country where a variety of road conditions would be encountered.

In 1904, the American Automobile Association developed and sponsored the first run from New York City to the World’s Fair in St. Louis, Mo. Seventy-seven cars officially participated, but many hundreds more took part along the way. Thirty-six different makes were represented.

The 1,350-mile run from New York to St. Louis took 18 days and culminated on August 12 with a grand parade featuring the 66 finishers and 200 local cars. Historically, the car tour was probably the most highly publicized and significant tour the world would ever see.

One of the many obstacles the tourist had to deal with along the way was the absence of highway signs and markings to guide them. To compensate for this, local AAA clubs would send out a pilot car to mark the route with confetti. One time this practice caused near pandemonium when the driver of a pilot ran out of confetti midway between South Bend and Chicago. For a substitute, he brought a supply of corn and beans from a nearby farm. But the resulting road markings drew hundreds of chickens into the path of surprised tourists. The tour’s chairman remarked: “I followed the clearest trail that I have found since leaving home, and it wasn’t corn and beans either. It was chicken feathers: white, russet, speckled and black.”

After 1913, it was felt that the purposes which gave rise to this type of tour had been fulfilled and the activity ended.

Occasionally, I think of these tours while I am traveling on two-lane highways, and back roads.

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