A Sea of Mud Faced the Racers in Russia.
By Jeff Mahl
Arriving at Vladivostok meant one thing, North America was now well behind them and they had only two continents left to go. With both Asia and Europe ahead, over 9,000 miles separated the Thomas Flyer from the Eiffel Tower. This fact was not lost on the last of the remaining French teams. Bouncier St. Chaffray, captain of the French De Dion team had a problem. The Marquis De Dion, who owned the company, had received an ultimatum from his family: either quit this foolish race, which was draining the family fortune, or they would have him declared legally insane and take control of the company. The Marquis chose to sell his De Dion to a wealthy Peking businessman, which left St. Chaffray without a ride to Paris.
As the Flyer was being offloaded from the ship at Vladivostok, St. Chaffray confronted Schuster and demanded a seat on the Thomas to Paris. When George replied that all the seats were occupied, the Frenchman responded that he had purchased all of the gasoline in Vladivostok and that he would either be on the Flyer, or no other team would be able to continue the race! Without responding to this threat, Schuster went off into the port city and purchased 300 gallons of benzene at $1.25 per gallon from a German trading company. No longer in need of the Frenchman’s fuel, George suggested St. Chaffray ride with the Germans. St. Chaffray declared it would be disgraceful for the man who considered himself the “Napoleon of the Automobile” to ride in a German motorcar, and he chose to take the train to Paris instead.
The Thomas Pulls the Protos Free.
It had been raining for 17 out of the 20 days in Vladivostok, which made the roads an endless sea of mud. At some points, it was so deep horses would drop out of sight and drown in the quagmire leaving things not much better for 5,000+ pound automobiles. On the morning of May 22, the German Protos left first, followed by the Flyer a few hours later. It wasn’t long before the Thomas crew heard the revving of an automobile engine up ahead and soon came upon the Protos mired up to the axles in mud. Gingerly, the Americans made their way around the Germans to regain the lead. It would have been easy for the Flyer to continue on and leave them to their own devices, but it would not have been right.
The Thomas team backed their car up, threw a line to their competitors and successfully pulled the Protos out of the deep muck. Lieutenant Koeppen was so impressed by this show of sportsmanship that he retrieved a bottle of champagne from his duffel which he had been saving for Paris and the two rival teams toasted each other in the vast wilderness of Siberia.
The Flyer would encounter problems of its own with the Protos nowhere in sight to help. The pinion gear, which had previously failed at Twin Springs, Nevada, once again dealt the team a serious blow when it lost two teeth. Parts were thousands of miles away and there was no way to have them shipped anyway. Once again, the ingenuity of these early motorists came into play. Screws were turned into the damaged areas, and then hand filed into the shape of the missing gear teeth. The pinion was then reinstalled and the Thomas got back underway.
The Germans and Americans would trade the lead back and forth many times as they slogged their way across the vastness of Asia. The Italians in their Zust were far behind and having difficulties of their own. At one point, they were forced to cast an engine bearing out of lead from their rifle bullets which was then hand filed to make a replacement.
The crews themselves were showing signs of the stress that this epic race was exacting upon them. George had been using his handmade sextant, a compass and a simple map to find their way across the vast empty stretches of Asia. At one point, a fork in the trail called for a decision. Schuster thought they should go to the right, while Hansen thought the other course was warranted. After a heated argument, Hansen pulled his gun, aimed it at George and demanded that they go left. From the back seat, Miller pulled his revolver out and aimed it at Hansen, saying they would turn right. Tempers soon subsided, and the team took right fork.
Disease was also an ongoing threat, particularly dysentery. Just prior to leaving Seattle, Dr. Shaw questioned Schuster about what they would do in the event of a medical emergency. He confessed that he had not given much thought to that prospect, so the good doctor gave George a Parke Davis medical kit filled with the “wonder drugs” of the day.
On July 8, the Thomas arrived at Ekaterinburg, Russia which marked the border between Asia and Europe. This was a psychological turning point, as Europe had some of the best roads in the world at the time. An impressive monument marked this imaginary line and Schuster climbed onto the stonework to carve his initials on the European side of the edifice (above). Finally, there was hope that the long ordeal endured by both the Flyer and her crew would soon be over. Paris was now on everyone’s mind, and getting there before the German Protos became their singular and overwhelming mission.
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August Hiatus – The next installment our story about the New York to Paris Race will appear in September. I will be journeying by ship up the Inside Passage to Valdez, Alaska, just as my Great Grandfather George Schuster did. It will offer a rare opportunity to speak with local historians at the Valdez Museum, then on to the Fountainhead Museum in Fairbanks in order to learn more historic details of the Thomas in Alaska 1908.
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