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Race Along the River


Raymond Hoag 

     "CARS ARE COMING," that was the call heard along the race course in 1908 when Lowell hosted its first automobile carnival and road race. During this period, New England was attracting an increasing number of automobiles each year. Drawn by the number of model state highways that were being extended every season and by the wonderful 
variety of scenery that had nicknamed this part of the country the Switzerland of America, New England was a primary destination for motoring tourists. 1908 and 1909 events drew lovers of the sport to 
Lowell not only from the region but from all over the country and Canada. 

     The rapid development of the automobile industry in the United States was due in no small measure to the racing contests that were held during this era. These races brought the motorized machine to widespread recognition. The sight of horseless carriages attaining a speed of 50 miles an hour on the 

old Guttenberg race track in New Jersey at the Three Counties fair in 1893, was enough to set the crowd talking and the newspapers commenting.

     Henri Fournier made the first sensational record in 1901 when he raced a mile in 51 4/5 seconds driving a gasoline automobile in Brooklyn. In the year following, Alexander Wilton covered five miles in five minutes and 29 1/5 seconds at Providence, Rhode Island and at Cleveland in the same year did 10 miles in a little over 10 minutes. The first long distance road race covered 225 miles in 15 hours and 11 minutes.

     Automobile racing was popularized in those times by the efforts of many people involved in the auto industry. John O. Heinze, president of the Lowell Automobile Club and owner of Heinze Electric Company that made parts for Detroit car manufacturers was a major advocate for racing. A major question during the first decade of the century was whether or not automobile racing should be sanctioned and what benefit did racing offer to the user. Heinze's answer was that the rapid strides made in perfecting and making safe modern motor cars were the result of the many lessons learned in racing.

     Heinze further believed that when people compared the 1909 models with ones built 10 years earlier, the improvements that had been achieved in such a short time were unimaginable. He also said that 

running a motor car at continuously high speeds over ordinary roads would cause breakdowns to occur inside of 4 or 5 hours. 

     Every instance of a breakdown forced auto technicians to invent better devices and systems that would enable the motor car to run longer and faster endurance trials. No doubt, to many people a road race and the motor car that won meant nothing, where to Heinze and his associates it was very important. The technology could only be improved by testing and the races served that purpose in a very romantic and publicized way. The 1908 and 1909 Lowell races were a major contributing factor to the development of the automobile. The races were not only entertainment, but were also technical achievements at the highest level for the times. 

     The races were held under the auspices of the American Automobile Association and the Lowell Automobile Club. They were the first of such magnitude to be held in New England on the state highway that became known as the Merrimac Valley Course. Informal meetings were held between the newly formed Lowell Automobile Club led by Heinze 
and enthusiasts from Boston. Arrangements were made to hold a 250 mile road race of national importance, and US Representative Butler Ames, himself an enthusiastic automobilist, promptly offered a valuable trophy as the first prize.

     The necessary resolutions were introduced into the Lowell City Council and the Tyngsboro Board of Selectmen providing for the use of the highway on the day of the race. A request was also made of the
adjutant general for the use of several militia companies to patrol the course during the day. At this point the committee met with two serious obstacles. While the resolution passed unanimously by the Lowell City Council, the mayor, Frederick Farnham vetoed the act on the advice of his city solicitor. The solicitor found that under the law a highway could not be closed without special permission from the Legislature. The militia was likewise refused because of the legal limitations established at the time.

     Public sentiment, however, turned the tide and encouraged the committee to overcome the difficulties that had grown in the way. President Heinze and Vice President Frank Corlew of the Lowell Club, aided by many friends, went to the State Legislature and secured passage of a favorable bill. It was promptly signed by the acting Governor, making a legislative record of three days from the time the petition was heard by the committee on roads and bridges, to the final signing of the act. The act gave Tyngsboro and Lowell, as well as the State Highway Commission, authority to grant the use of the highway for the race.

The problem of the militia was solved by enlisting the service of individual militiamen to police the course as special officers. 

     The date for the Auto Carnival was set for Labor Day week, and with plans proceeding the races gained the support of the Automobile Club of America along with the AAA. The Carnival was scheduled with a full week of events starting on Monday with three classes of light cars, 2100 pounds and under, competing for the Vesper Club Trophy, the 
Yorick Club Trophy and the Merrimac Valley Trophy. On Tuesday, eleven events all located on the one mile straight away in front of the grandstands were held.

     Wednesday was the biggest of the racing days. During 1908 the course was 250 miles increasing to 30 laps or 318 miles in 1909. Cars entered were 451 to 600 cubic inches of piston displacement and with a 
minimum weight of 2400 pounds and the entry fee was $400. In 1908 the winner received the Butler Ames Trophy and $1000 and in 1909 the prize was the Lowell Trophy and $1000. 

     Thursday's events turned to the Merrimac River for motor boat races with craft over 30 feet long competing over a distance of 100 miles. Other competitions were a 26 mile marathon run for the American championship, and two wrestling bouts, 

light and heavy weight, for the championship of New England. Friday concluded the week with motorcycle races.

     The 1908 race was an incredible effort put forth by the organizers. The official race program mentions that the Carnival was put together for the pure love of sport and not for any personal gain. The Auto Club
proposed that any money made beyond the actual expense of the event would be turned over to Lowell and Tyngsboro to improve public highways. While the races ran a deficit anyway there was a definite
attempt to create a commercial as well as civic benefit from staging the races.

     A great focus of the event was to bring attention to the city as a tourist destination and as a location for the founding of new industries. As the official 1908 program heralded.

     "Probably no other city in the country offers a better opportunity at the present time for establishing an automobile industry. The help is already here, a sober, industrious class that can live cheaply…. Many
automobile supplies are already manufactured here, and there is not only Boston, but the whole of New England for a ready market."

     Undoubtedly, John Heinze would have been at the forefront of capitalizing on the increase in auto industry within the city.

     The management of the race was vested in the Executive Board and Rules Committee, while competing cars were examined by the Technical board. Entrants were limited to not more than two cars of one make.  During the race no repairs or adjustments were allowed to be made by anyone other than the driver and mechanic, with the single exception of tire repairs and tire replacements. 

     The details of the race were in the hands of different committees. Harry Presto Graves was the architect of the grand stands. Captain Gardner W. Pearson of the 6th Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Militia, was in charge of policing the course. Joseph H. Hibbard was chairman of the committee on music. Ernest L. Kimball designed the 
billboard advertising while Lewis E. MacBrayne edited the Official Program. 

     The race was scheduled to start at 10:00 a.m. The starting and finish point was in front of the grandstands on Pawtucket Boulevard (what today is known as Regatta Field). An official car ran the entire course 15 minutes prior to the actual start warning that the race was beginning and the course had to be kept clear. The racing cars were started at separate one minute intervals. Buglers were stationed at all the dangerous curves to give warning of approaching cars, and signal men displayed flags to designate whether or not the course was clear.

     The course ran along what today is known as Route 113 or Pawtucket Boulevard, while the Tyngsboro Bridge was the turn around point or the Hairpin Turn. The return to the grandstands was along
Varnum Avenue, down Dunbar Avenue and back to the starting line on the Boulevard. A special pontoon bridge was constructed across the Merrimac River just for the race. It allowed departing train passengers to cross the river right at the grandstands, rather than walk from the end of the trolley line to the starting area.

     The raceway passed by the old Durkee house, well known as a tavern and stage coach stop during Revolutionary times, which stood between the boulevard and the back stretch of the course. Further along the course competitors passed Tyng's Island, currently Vesper Country Club, where Chief Wannalancit spent his remaining days after his nation was scattered in 1665. Continuing around the Hairpin Turn was the Solomon Gilson house built in 1783, and the neighboring William Sherburne House that was built in 1780. Other houses along the course were D.P. Coburn's and D.L. Page's little red house at the intersection of Tyng Island Road. The back stretch of the course was open farm land. If driven today many of the points of interest can be visualized and some
still remain.

     The entrants for the 1908 race were a diverse lot of men. Frank Lescault, driver of a Simplex, had been identified with fast automobiles for 14 years. He was born in Holyoke, Massachusetts later winning a 
race at Wildwood, New Jersey. George Robertson, driver of a Fiat, was a New Yorker. He had been racing for over eight years, his family had been in the automobile business for some time importing the Renault and Mercedes. Robertson broke the world record for track racing at the Morris Park track driving a 120hp Hotchkin car and still holds the honor. One of Robertson's chief competitors was Lewis Strang who beat him at a previous race in Briarcliff. 

     Strang, driving an Isotta, was another New Yorker and had only been racing for three years. He started in the Vanderbuilt Cup Race but did not fare well. He also ran the Gran Prix in Paris where he did not even finish. In 1908 he went on to win both the Savannah and the Briarcliff races and set a world record for the mile in St. Paul covering the distance in 51 3/5 seconds. 

     Robert Burman, driving a Buick, was a Westerner. He won the 24 hour Saint Louis race in 1907 and came in second at Brighton Beach in 1908. William Bourque, driving a Knox 38 hp, was born in Springfield, Massachusetts and had been racing for 

ten years. In 1908 he won all the heats and finals at the Wildwood races and was better known for his abilities in auto hill climbing events.

 Charles Basle, driving a Knox 55hp, was called “The Flying Dutchman.” He was born in Paris and had been racing for five years. He qualified for the Vanderbuilt races driving for Mercedes but was disqualified for not having German made tools whereas each entry had to have tools to match the country of origin of the automobile. He held many records for flying starts and the fastest 10 mile record in Providence, Rhode Island.

 Harry Grant, driving a Berliet that was manufactured by the American Locomotive Company had been racing for two years. He was a Bostonian who took first place in the 20 and the 5 mile events at Readville in 1908.

 The 1908 Great Race was won by Lewis Strang, driving the Isotta, covering the 254.4 miles, 24 laps, in 4 hours, 40 minutes, 47 seconds at an average speed of 53 6/10 mph. Grant in the Berliet finished second and Bourque in the big Knox finished third. Robertson’s Fiat was fourth and the remaining three did not finish the race.

 Over 100,000 gathered over the length of the course to witness the greatest auto event of the period. From start to finish the carnival was heralded as a success and organizers were proud there were no accidents to the racers or to the spectators. The event, though not financially a winner had achieved many of its goals in promoting the car as a viable mode of transport and helping to publicize Lowell as a city of destination.


Charles and Lucy Glidden
Charles and Lucy Glidden leaving Boston, MA

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