San Francisco Here We Come!
By Jeff Mahl:
After traveling from NYC and reaching Chicago the teams hoped for the end of the snow that they were forced to endure so far. The snow would soon end but the mud would then begin and it was a thick, sticky sand and clay mixture the racers would call “gumbo”. The greater problem would be the hundreds of pounds it would add to the Flyer’s already too heavy weight, rapidly approaching 3 tons! With still freezing night time temperatures, leaving the mud on the car would result in a solid block only to be added to the next day.
Entering a small midwest town, Schuster spotted a local firehouse. After finding the chief, the alarm soon sounded and the firemen responded with a horse drawn “pumper” wagon powered by four men. Rocking the handles on either side of the apparatus by the men, pressure was created in the fire hose which an additional two firefighters used to squirt off the mud from the Thomas. Little did they realize, they had created what we know today as a “car wash”. It was so effective that the Flyer crew planned stops around towns large enough to have a well equipped fire station.
By the time they reached Cedar Rapids on March 1, T. Walter Williams, the New York Times, reporter had reached his limits. This would be the end of the line for a reporter who had traveled with President Teddy Roosevelt covering his African Safaris. However, this was not a Presidential excursion; this was brutal and exhausting daily ordeal. He thought the rest of his team mates would surely die if they continued! Giving his reporter’s notebook and camera to Schuster, he took the next train back to New York City. With the task of keeping the Flyer running, George had no time to write news dispatches, so the job of reporting back to the Times was left to the Associated Press and local newspaper reporters along the way.
Miller, Hansen and Schuster in coon skin coats to protect themselfs from the Alaskan cold
The empty seat would soon be occupied by Capt. Hansen in Omaha, Nebraska, who you may recall quit the French De Dion team in Chicago. E.R. Thomas had asked Schuster if he would accept Hansen on the Flyer Team. With Hans living in Siberia, able to speak Russian and knowledgeable of Arctic conditions, it seemed like a good idea to all concerned.
Arriving at Cheyenne, Wyoming meant the planned departure of Monty Roberts, as he had a prior commitment to drive in the Briarcliff Race back east. Before he departed, Monty gave George the Automobile Club of America 45 star U.S. flag which the winning team would return for a $1000 prize. That flag would become one of the most precious items that George was responsible for in traveling around the world. Mr. Morse, the Thomas Factory sales manager was also in Cheyenne to give Schuster $500 cash for expenses (worth $12,500 today). He asked George if he had a gun, where upon Schuster displayed a .32 caliber Savage pistol he had carried in his jacket pocket since Times Square. Morse replied “Get a real gun and carry it in a holster”! George then purchased a .38 caliber Colt with a six-inch barrel. Charles Duprez, a N.Y. Times photographer, had also purchased an Iver Johnson pistol at the same time.
While in Cheyenne a 13 year old youngster named Floyd Clymer (son of a doctor in Berthound, Colorado) came 60 miles to see the Flyer Team and the Thomas. After a three minute ride in the Flyer, he went back home and started to advertise that he was handling the Thomas. Clymer was already famous as the “Kid Dealer” of the West, and later went on to become well known as a publisher of automobile books.
The Flyer departed from Cheyenne the morning of March 9. A moving picture cameraman left Cheyenne just ahead of the Flyer and captured the Thomas driving through a Wyoming canyon. This was the second of two known films made of the Flyer. The first was taken at the start of the Race in Times Square by the American Vitagraph Company on February 12, 1908 showing the competitors in front of Hammerstein’s. It was titled Starting of The Around The World Automobile Race, and was played in movie houses on Broadway. The American Film Institute Catalog also refers to it in a Variety Magazine article dated February 22, 1908. The quest continues to find either of those two historic films.
- The original Union Pacific train order making the Flyer Engine #274
One of the problems west of Cheyenne would be the terrific beating the Flyer took with no roads. Upon reaching Carter (a stop on the Union Pacific Railroad), they could go no further. It was there Schuster telegraphed the UP offices back in Cheyenne for permission to drive on the railroad bed. Driving on the steel rails would have disqualified the team, but nothing in the rules said they could not straddle the rails and drive on the ties. With permission granted, and a UP conductor making the Thomas Flyer an “official” Union Pacific locomotive #274, they started west. With no stone between the ties as you would see today, they didn’t get far on the unballasted bed and soon blew a tire. This repeated problem nearly meant the total destruction of the Thomas and her crew by an oncoming locomotive with the Flyer stuck square in the middle of the tracks and unable to move. After a narrow escape, they continued west.
The Flyer narrowly escapes a westbound Union Pacific Express – Painting by Peter Helck
Finally the American team reached the Rocky Mountains. Though it was then mid-March, snow still blocked the mountain passes and the Southern Pacific Railroad officials near Ogden, Utah refused permission to use their tracks as the tire chains had seriously damaged the Union Pacific ties. So the team was forced to change direction and turned south through Nevada, which would mean traveling into Death Valley and then approaching San Francisco to the north west by traveling through California.
In 1908 there were no bridges as are seen today for stream crossings, just rocks which were strewn across creek beds, that were used by ranchers for crossing with wagons or horses. One particularly bad crossing was at a place called Twin Springs, notorious for its quick sand bottom. Part way across, the Flyer drive train was severely stressed on the uneven footing and six teeth were broken from the drive pinion.
With no parts stores or overnight Fed Ex, which modern racers would turn to today, George set out on foot walking to Tonopah, Nevada some 75 miles away. In the town was a Thomas that had been sold to a local doctor, and the plan was to secure the needed pinion from his car and then return to the creek bed to make the repairs. After walking, buying a horse for $20 and finally getting a ride in a Simplex the plan worked out. Schuster then returned to the creek and had to tunnel out under the partially submerged Flyer. He replaced the damaged pinion gear and once again the Flyer was on its way to San Francisco. You can hear the actual sound of the Thomas Flyer engine in this audio clip
The other crews had suffered their own perils. Lieutenant Koeppen with the German Protos contracted “mountain fever” west of Cheyenne. The Protos had also become mired in a stream bed, and Koeppen set out on foot for help to a place called Rock River. Walking on a path at 2,600 meters high (8,600 feet) he collapsed. The staunch German Army officer would later recount in his memoirs: “ Stretching myself out to collect new strength for the continuation of the march. It was a feeling of desolation and dejection, which I had never thought to be possible”. Fortunately, a rancher found him before Koeppen could have possibly frozen to death. The New York to Paris Race was to become the ultimate long distance automobile endurance test of men and machines, never since equaled.
The young Italian lads in the Zust had fared a bit better, though still far behind. They did not seem to share the same sense of urgency as the other teams. Young Antonio Scarfoglio would write of their journey through California approaching San Francisco, after finally arriving on April 5:
“It is called El Camino Real, the name which was given to it by the Spaniards on account of its regal beauty. And I am quite unable to imagine anything more grandiose and splendid than this marvelous road. It is flanked by numerous towns, lost in a wealth of flowers; Los Olivos, Ventura, Santa Clara, through which we pass as quickly as possible so as not to yield to the desire, so delicious are they, to put on our brakes and dismount beside one of these gardens, near one of these white robed women who send us smiles and kisses on the tips of their fingers, and to finish here our race and our lives”
Thomas Flyer arrives in San Francisco (note famous clock tower in background)
On March 24, just 41 days, 8 hours, 15 minutes and 3,836 miles from Times Square, the Thomas Flyer, with George Schuster now in charge, arrived in San Francisco. He had become the first man to travel across the country in an automobile during winter. Well in the lead, it was now time for the Flyer to be loaded on the City of Pueblo steamer bound for Seattle, on route north to the final destination Valdez, Alaska. Little did anyone realize, the most treacherous and grueling part of the ordeal was yet to come…
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Copyright 2013 © Jeff Mahl – Great Grandson of George Schuster – All rights reserved