Tag Archives: American Automobile Association

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.

Finding Your Way – Part Two

As I mentioned in a previous article, finding your way along America’s highways was not always as easy as it is today. One auto pioneer who made our journeys easier was Anton L. Westgard.

Today, his contributions are recognized as little more than a footnote in early automotive history, but he deserves more. We discovered him while working on our book Hoosier Tour: A 1913 Indiana to Pacific Tour. He became a celebrity for his trailblazing efforts by the time his book Tales of a Pathfinder was published in 1920.

Previous to 1913, A.L. Westgard established a touring record for automobilists by crossing the continent three times in 147 days in a stock automobile while collecting data for a series of strip maps published by the American Automobile Association.

A.L. Westgard 1913
A.L. Westgard 1913

On June 2, 1913, Westgard, as the new vice president of the National Highways Association, left New York City on a tour of 17,000 miles of American roads. The majority of his travels were over terrain that could hardly be called roads. The routes across the Rockies, Sierras, and deserts were over country in which trails were recently designated. The purpose of the trip was to compile first-hand data by a competent civil engineer, geologist, and road expert for a report of the NHA. The association hoped to use the data to convince the federal government to build roads.

Westgard was the recognized expert in preparation of road data. Since 1910, while he was engaged in his work with the American Automobile Association, he opened up and logged the Santa Fe Trail. He also laid out routes for the Glidden and other tours, as well as a series of three transcontinental trails. These were known as the “Trail to the Sunset,” “Midland Trail,” and the “Overland Trail.” The Overland Trail was the northern-most trail to the northwest.

In 1913, after leaving the IAMA Indiana-Pacific Tour in San Francisco in late July, Mr. Westgard and his Premier automobile were shipped to Seattle in preparation for additional trailblazing. He then retraced some of his earlier routes from Seattle through Portland to San Francisco and Los Angeles. In late October, he left on his return trip to New York via San Diego, Phoenix, El Paso, Dallas, Little Rock, Memphis, and Nashville.

A.L. Westgard encounters a covered wagon</br>
A.L. Westgard encounters a covered wagon near Big Springs, Nebr. 1912

Westgard’s goal with the NHA was to mark out and plot each of the principal roads in the 48 States with the exception of Michigan by the end of 1914. NHA asserted that 50,000 miles of national highways – a little more than one-fifth of the total mileage of public roads in the country – would directly serve two-thirds of the entire population. The association’s aim was improvement of these roads.

For 1914, he planned to cover 18,000 miles of highways in the Middle Western and Southern states. That year’s journey started from New Orleans, LA, and went as far north as Pembina, ND, on the Canadian border, east to Tallahassee, FL, and west to Cody, WY. He covered the roughly 18,000-mile distance in a little more than seven months.

In the summer of 1915, Westgard published his map showing the main motor travel routes with special emphasis given to transcontinental and other long-distance highways. A separate map published by NHA showed the 50,000 miles of national highways advocated by the association.

Two Trails Across Continent</br>
Two Trails Across Continent published by The New York Times 1915

There is a good chance that some of those early two-lane byways that you are familiar with today were covered by A.L. Westgard over 100 years ago. We salute this “Daniel Boone of the Gasoline Age.”

For more information on Indiana auto pioneers follow this link.

Long distance auto racing debuted in the Midwest in June 1909

With all of the hoopla regarding the opening auto races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in August 1909, sometimes it is easy to forget that long distance auto racing debuted in the Midwest at Crown Point and Lowell, Indiana in June 1909.

Under the direction of Ira M. Cobe, the Chicago Automobile Club planned and organized a two-day speed festival, including the Indiana Trophy Race and the Cobe Cup Race. The two events, scheduled for June 18 and 19, constituted the Western Stock Chassis Championship sanctioned by the American Automobile Association Contest Board.

Howard Wheeler of Crown Point was among those who planned the 23.37-mile race course from Crown Point to Cedar Lake, on to Lowell, and then returning to Crown Point. The route featured only three towns, no railroad crossings, and was paved with tar macadam roads, which were high-tech for the day.

Cobe Cup Poster
Cobe Cup Poster

Grandstands were built at Crown Point, Cedar Lake, Creston, and two sites in Lowell. One location on North Clark St. was advertised “to be safe from the cars and the racers could be seen for two miles on the fastest part of the course.” The other stand was across the street from the Civil War Monument on Commercial Ave.

Despite being advertised as a stock chassis race, rather liberal modifications were permitted for the contests. Gas and oil capacity could be increased; lighter rear springs were permitted; any size wheel and tire could be used; auxiliary oil pumps were allowed; and steering columns were lowered.

The first event was the 10-lap Indiana Trophy Race for cars limited to 300-cubic-inch displacement, on Friday, June 18, with cars made by Buick, Chalmers-Detroit, Corbin, Fal-Car, Locomobile, Marion, Moon, and Stoddard-Dayton.

At 7 am, National Guardsmen took control of the course to prepare for the start. Box seat holders included Carl G. Fisher, founder of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Ira Cobe, the Studebaker brothers, and W. E. Metzger from Detroit.

Joe Matson Winning Indiana Trophy Race
Joe Matson Winning Indiana Trophy Race

Joe Matson took the checkered flag in four hours, 31 minutes, and 21 seconds in his Chalmers-Detroit with an average speed of 52.2 miles per hour. The remaining finishers were George Robertson – Locomoblie, second; Adolph Monsen -Marion, third; Jim Florida – Locomobile, fourth; and Fred Wiseman Stoddard-Dayton, fifth.

Saturday’s 17-lap, 395.65-mile Cobe Cup Race was for cars limited to 525-cubic-inch displacement with entries from Apperson, Buick, Fiat, Knox, Locomobile, and Stoddard-Dayton.

Louis Chevrolet in his Buick
Louis Chevrolet in his Buick

Louis Chevrolet won in eight hours, one minute, and 39 seconds with a 65 second margin driving a Buick with an average speed of 49.26 miles per hour. What makes Chevrolet’s finish so incredible is that on the 11th lap his engine broke a valve in the cylinder head and he was forced to drive the rest of the race running on three cylinders. By the 14th lap, he captured the lead, which he held to the end. The remaining finishers were W. Bourque – Knox, second; George Robertson – Locomoblie, third; E. A. Hearne – Fiat, fourth; C. A. Englebeck – Stoddard-Dayton, fifth; and Louis Strang – Buick, sixth.

Ira Cobe left his box seat with the big trophy and motored to Crown Point’s public square. On the courthouse steps he presented the trophy to Chevrolet and worshipping fans carried the winner and trophy, on their shoulders to his car.

In 1910, the Cobe Cup Race shifted to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Lake County race course returned to the somnolent quiet of a sleepy Indiana countryside.

For more information about Louis Chevrolet follow this link.