Babylon Beacon

Horseless Carriage Race to babylon 1900

Part of a series on the formation of the Town of Babylon, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.

 

 

After 2-years of COVID, the New York Auto Show took place April 15 to 24, 2022, and included innovative new displays from dozens of car companies with hundreds of new models. For the first time, the exhibits included a dedicated muti-brand Electric Vehicle (EV) Test Track featuring more electric cars than ever before. Most people attending the show never knew about the historic first race of horseless carriages in the United States, which took place on the south side of Long Island, won by an electric car 122 years ago!

On June 7, 1899, a group of men met at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan and founded the New York Automobile Club of America (ACA). The new organization would sponsor the nation’s first full-fledged auto show, which opened on November 4, 1900. Just eight months before the show, Albert Carton Bostwick, Sr., chairman, of the Club with their runs & tours committee was looking for a course, 25 miles each way, to have a road race during the summer.

 

 

Albert’s father was a founding partner of Standard Oil Company, a major shareholder of the New York & New England Railroad, and a member of the New York Cotton Exchange.

The competition would be a battle between steam, gasoline, and electricity horseless carriages owned by the “rich and famous” at the end of the Gilded Age. During this period, there was a high concentration of wealth among the industrialist families, known as robber barons: Bostwick, Carnegie, Macy, Mellon, Morgan, Rockefeller, Roosevelt, Vanderbilt, and more. The new horseless carriage became their plaything!

Albert, along with the club’s committee, agreed that the race would take place on April 15th over Merrick Road, a paved road, also known as the South Country Road (27A) from Springfield (Gardens), Queens County to Deer Park Avenue in Babylon Village, Suffolk County. The 2-hour race would start as near to 10 o’clock as possible. Nine machines of the fifteen started, and all but two finished. All but one of the nine starters used machines especially prepared for racing purposes, although all were of the regular shape seen daily upon the streets.

 

 

The Sun, a New York newspaper, April 15, 1900, mentioned, “At the starting point, opposite a hotel that was called ‘Hotel She’ because the ‘d’ of the last word had disappeared, there were several scores of persons waiting, where Whitney Lyon called off the seconds.

“David H. Morris, who drew No. 13, started away and never was heard from thereafter,” the newspaper stated.

Holding the stop watch was Valentine Everitt Macy, the son of Josiah W. Macy Jr., a sea Captain, industrialist, and philanthropist; upon his death in 1876, Valentine inherited 20 million dollars.

One of the timekeepers was Homer Washington Hedge, a wealthy advertising executive in New York City, who helped to found both the Automobile Club and the Aero Club of America. A member of the club was stationed at every cross road from Springfield to Babylon to alert the general public of approaching racers and cyclists!

 

 

In writing about the horseless carriage race, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 13, 1900, told its readers, the drivers were called chauffeurs, like in France!

The article continued, “ … as it will be impossible to start these big machines in a bunch, they will be sent off thirty seconds apart, and each will be timed separately. It is generally regretted that there is, but one electric motor entered, but fifty miles is too long a run for the average automobile of this kind.”

The chauffeur and owner Andrew L. Riker, formerly of Queens, had designed and manufactured the one electric car. His racer was constructed specifically for racing, a road wagon body set on running gear and equipped with sixty storage battery cells. He was towed out to the starting point by a big electric delivery wagon to save power. It had a capacity of fifty horse power and the immense storage space allowed it about 200 miles without replenishing, under ordinary racing pressure.

 

 

During the competition, a gale was blowing from the west.

According to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle: “So severely did the breeze retard the steam-propelled affairs that, although Samuel T. L. Davis, Jr.’s steam auto gained more than two minutes on Riker on the first leg of the course, yet he lost seventeen minutes during the return trip into the teeth of the breeze.”

Davis also stopped twice for water, losing six minutes.

“As a sporting event yesterday’s automobile race on the Merrick Road was not such a thrilling affair…” the paper told its readers.

The Eagle continued, “there were painfully big gaps between the luckier contestants as they came home, and this, couple with the fact that the spectators could see only a few hundred yards at the start and at the finish, made the affair not much for excitement.” The race did not live up to Albert Bostwick’s expectations.

Bostwick, the moving spirit of the race, made the startling charge that his gasoline motor had been tampered with during the night. The car had difficulty starting; then, the water gauge blew out.

When the racers reached East Amityville (now Copiague), they were joined by local cyclists, who had difficulty in keeping pace; even though the roads were paved, there were deep ruts. Along Merrick Road were “feed stations” in wagons, carrying barrels of water, gasoline, and other supplies.

The turn seventy-feet wide at Babylon Village near Deer Park Avenue opposite the hotel was made around two barrels placed in the center of the road, and here the only accident took place. C. J. Field, Jr. turned too short ripping off the outer cover of his clincher tire, then the inner tube began to balloon, and Field stopped the machine. John Wetmore, a bicycle handicapper, and Charley Wells, a bicycle racer recorded the times of the competitors as the cars turned west.

Heading west, the cars with steam engines suffered from the wind, which blew the flames away from the boiler costing the chauffeurs to reduce speed.

The president of the St. Louis Southwestern Railway Co., David Hennen Morris’ automobile broke down near Amityville. He was married to Alice Vanderbilt Shepard, the granddaughter of William Henry Vanderbilt. He patched up his automobile and limped home, bringing W. H. Hall, who had lost a tire during the race, as a passenger. Later, he had better luck when he was appointed the US Ambassador to Belgium by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Back in Queens, the last hundred yards to the finish line was all downhill; therefore, the organizers positioned a car and volunteer at the top of the hill in an effort to avoid an accident. The volunteer was to signal with a handkerchief as each automobile approached.

Just as the chauffeur Fischer‘s racer coming along at a two-minute clip was signaled, a two-horse farm truck reached the hill, going east toward Babylon. The approaching racer frightened the horses, causing the driver to lose control. His team went directly across the road; the spectators screamed as Fischer passed between the frightened horses and the other automobiles, according to the New York Tribune, April 15, 1900.

The article continued, “It was a remarkable piece of steering, and the spectators yelled in their delight and appreciation.”

First place went to Riker and his road wagon body set on running gears and filled with storage batteries, leaving only space enough for the feet of the chauffeur, the only electric horseless carriage. It had been built, and fitted for racing, with double batteries, containing 64 cells, instead of the usual number of twenty. When one battery was used up it could switch to the other without stopping.

Second place was won by Samuel T. L. Davis, Jr. in an ordinary steam trap runabout with an extra-large boiler, and third place was taken by Alexander Fischer in his gasoline carriage. It could make the time for the first 25 miles of 58 minutes and 15 seconds, beating the electric carriage that distance by two minutes and a half. The stops required to take on supplies of water, and the strong head wind, which affected it more than the heavier carriages, delayed it upon the home run, and it finished fifteen minutes behind the electric carriage and twelve minutes ahead of the first gasoline carriage.

On April 21, 1900, the South Side Signal (Babylon) reported, “There may be pleasure in driving an automobile at as high a speed as electricity, gasoline or steam can propel it, but it does not seem to me that the pleasure thus derived can possibly equal the joy that comes to every genuine horse lover as he drives his favorite horse at his best speed.”

On May 5, 1900, the South Side Signal informed readers, “No automobile should be allowed to travel over a village street at a speed exceeding ten miles per hour. Our people will welcome the horseless vehicle and those who own or control them, but the prospect of being run over or into by one is not alluring.”

One hundred and twenty-two years later, the New York Auto Show featured electric vehicles (EVs) at the Jacob Javits Center from April 15 to 24, 2022, and most people attending the show had no idea about the race won by an electric car in 1900 along the south shore of Long Island.

Sandi Brewster-walker is an independent historian, genealogist, freelance writer, and business owner. She is chairperson for the Board of Trustees and acting executive director, Indigenous People Museum & Research Institute. She has served in President William J. Clinton’s Administration, as deputy director of the Office of Communications at USDA. Winner of the Press Club of Long Island’s 2017 Media Award for 3rd Place for Narrative: Column. Readers can reach her at LI.Indigenous.people.museum@gmail.com.

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