America's first auto race was run on this date in 1895--right through the streets of Chicago.
In 1895 automobiles were a new invention. They were small, open, and delicate. The year before there'd been an open-road race in France. Now the Chicago Times-Herald announced it would sponsor a race.
The event was scheduled for Thanksgiving Day, November 28. The route would cover 54 miles, from Jackson Park to Evanston and back, mostly through the city's parks and boulevards. First prize was $2,000 and a gold medal.
The infant auto community was excited, and the Times-Herald confidently predicted 100 entries. Then, the Monday before the big day, Chicago was hit with 10 inches of snow. Many drivers backed out. But the paper declared that the race would go on.
The sun was shining on Thanksgiving morning, and the snow was beginning to melt. About 2,000 people came out to Jackson Park to see the racers off. Six cars were ready--four gasoline-powered, two electric.
At 8:55 the starter stepped forward, surveyed the scene, then shouted "Go!" With the crowd cheering, the first car roared down Midway Plaisance at a break-neck 12 m.p.h.
The race went west to Michigan Avenue, then turned north toward downtown. More spectators had gathered all along the route. Policemen on horseback rode ahead of the cars to clear the people out of the way.
After a few miles through the slush everyone began slowing down. One of the electrics stopped cold. When leader Frank Duryea passed the Water Tower, it had already taken him over an hour to cover the first nine miles.
On they went, up Sheridan Road into Evanston. They reached Davis Street and turned back south. Two more cars were forced to quit. Three gasoline vehicles were still running--the Duryea, the Mueller, and the R.H. Macy.
As the cars moved back into Chicago, Duryea misread the direction signs and headed down Clark Sreet instead of Ashland Avenue. He was two miles off course before he realized his mistake. By the time he corrected and reached Humboldt Boulevard, he had no idea whether he was still leading.
Early in the race, a broken steering arm had forced Duryea to stop at a blacksmith for repairs. Now a cylinder gave out and he lost another hour. Then he got going again, only to be stuck at a railroad crossing while a freight train passed through.
It was after 7 p.m. when Duryea crept through the darkness at the Jackson Park finish line. To his surprise, he found he was the first car there. Nearly two hours later the Mueller arrived. The R.H. Macy did not finish.
The Times-Herald race was never repeated, and the paper itself folded in 1901. Frank Duryea died at the age of 98 in 1967. Though he'd long since left the car business, his obituaries celebrated him as the winner of America's first auto race.