Try and imagine this – its 1908, automotive technology is progressing in quantum leaps but the supportive infrastucture, little things like roads as an example, were lagging far behind. So, you and a few progressive business associates decide to promote the need for good roads as well as the viability of the automobile by sponsoring an automotive endurance race across som of the most inhospitable country in America, the Mojave Desert and the deserts of western Arizona. That was the origins of the Desert Classic, a race that became a series of races dubbed the Cactus Derby. By the time the final race was run in 1914, it had become an event that garnered international coverage and featured some of the leading drivers of the time, men like Louis Chevrolet and Barney Oldfield. The event was initially conceived by Dr. George W. Vickers, owner of The Arizona Republican, now the Arizona Republic. George Purdy Villard, president of the fledgling Maricopa County Automobile Club, found the idea a fascinating one. Sponsored by Vickers paper, the first race was billed as “The Greatest Long Distance Endurance Race in the History of Automobiling.” This may have been an exageration but not by much when one considers the formidable desert landscapes that were between Los Angeles, the starting point, and the finish line in Phoenix. The monetary reward was sloely for the paper in the form of advertisement from dealers and garages. For the drivers and owners the reward was prestige and a silver cup, as well as possible profits from side bets. The first race consisted of but four entrants. There was F. C. Fenner at the wheel of his stripped White built “steamer”, an ironic entry as the race was also designed to promote the fesibility of gasoline powered automobiles. Other drivers included C.H. Bigelo and Bert Latham with a Kissel Kar, A.J. Smith with an Elmore, and George Dade with an air cooled Franklin. The course snaked from Los Angeles to Pomona and Ontario, into the desert and on to Palm Springs, to Indio, and to the Colorado River at Ehrenberg. I Arizona the course ran through Salome and Buckeye to Phoenix. There were breakdowns, ditches, rocks, sand, rocks, and muddy washes and stream crossings. In spite of these obstacles all cars finished under their own power, an amazing feat in itself, and F.C. Fenner was declared the winner with an elapsed time of 30 hours, 36 minutes. Fenner’s finish was not the only egg on the face of those who had hoped the race would prove the gasoline engine a viable means of power for automobiles. His White was four years old and had already logged more than 60,000 miles before the race began! The race proved so popular a second event was scheduled for November of 1909. The course remained the same but the first prize was now a silver cup and a $1,300 purse. Another change was in the number of entries. The entrants included representative automobiles from Apperson, Studebaker, Ford, Buick, and, incredibly, the four original entrants with the cars run previously. The racing went world went wild when Joe and Louis Nikrent clipped eleven hours from the 1908 finish time. Further fueling the excitement were the disasters and accidents that resulted in only four drivers finishing the race from an entry field of ten. Sponsorships poured in as news about the 1910 race was released. This time there were fourteen entries, more mayhem, and a finishing time of 15 hours, 45 minutes. To ensure the enthusiasm did not wane the course was changed for 1911. Now the drivers would race down the coast from Los Angeles to San Diego, weave back and forth across the Mexican border to Yuma, and then on to Phoenix – a distance of 520 miles. This time there was a $1,000 bonus purse for the first racer to reach San Diego as well as the grand prize in Phoenix and sixteen entrants. The winner, Harvey Herrick at the wheel of a National, completed the grueling course in 20 hours and 22 minutes. Only nine cars crossed the finish line. The others were scattered across the desert and one team was not rescued for two days. None of this detered plans for another run in 1912, a double headed race with one team leaving Los Angeles and the other from San Diego.
However, the most exciting race was also the last. For 1914 the drivers would follow the course of the National Old Trails Highway, later Route 66, across the desert from Los Anglese to Needles, cross the river on the railroad bridge, climb through Oatman, over the Black Mountains at Sitgreaves Pass, then through Kingman, Hackberry, Peach Springs, and Seligman to Ashfork. Here the racers turned south through Prescott and down the winding grades on Yarnell Hill to Phoenix.
For this race there were twenty entrants including Barney Oldfield, Louis Nikrent, a participant in every race, and Louis Chevrolet. H.J. Pink at the wheel of a powerful Thomas was seriously injured when his car slid into a ditch an hour from the starting line. Amazingly no one was killed in spite of horrendous crashes and spectacular breakdowns that included broken frames, broken axles, broken springs, punctured radiators, and stipped gears. Bill Bramlett completed the race with two fence posts wired to the broken steering components of his Cadillac. Another driver limped to the finish with a broken piston, both rear springs, cracked differential, and broken radiator mounts. The last and final Cactus Derby marked the end of an era. With the coming of the good roads the race had been created to promote the days of swashbuckling, Hell for leather racing came to an end. The Mexican Road Races of the early 1950s, the legendary Baja, and the recent great race across Asia and through the Gobi Desert in vintage vehicles captures the essence but not the spirit of those early races. Today we have cell phones, GPS, and all manner of support that negates the raw thrill of literally pitting man and machine against the elements.
There was a time not so long ago when the world was a bit less generic, a whole lot more colorful, and the adventure of the journey was often more exciting than the destination. In a nut shell, I suppose the hunt for this lost world is at the heart of what fuels the ever growing fascination with legendary Route 66. I suppose that is also what makes the virtual world we build with assistance of the Internet so interesting. We set out with a destination in mind but our concentration is broken with a colorful, flashing website and then find ourselves taking the next exit with eager anticipation of what we might find. My quest for information about the ghost towns along Route 66 has been filled with a wide array of detours. As with trips along Route 66 itself, a few have been rewarding, a few interesting, and many a complete waste of time. However, when seen in the context of the overall trip each and every one were just a part of the adventure. The Legends of America website now rates very high on my list of “must see” attractions along the information superhighway. In the virtual world this site is The Thing, The World’s Largest Ball of Twine, Trader Jack’s Indian Trading Post, and the Mohave Museum of History & Arts all rolled into one. If you are short on time but simply need to keep abreast of what is happening along the old double six its tough to beat Route 66 News. This is the closest thing I have found to a virtual morning newspaper. To get a feel what it is like to be at the forefront of the dawning of a new era on Route 66 try this site. This blog has led me to place Afton Station in Afton, Oklahoma, high on my list of attrations to see when we make our trip east this spring. For those to young to remember DeSoto was a Chrysler brand from 1929 to 1961. The cars built by this division were stylish, durable, and are relatively reasonable to purchase today. Apparently, if the DeSotoland website is an indicator, the owners of these cars are quite loyal to the brand. Few things found on line have proved to be a bigger, more entertaining time sink that the vintage promotional films and commercials on Youtube. Check out this commercial for the 1957 Chevy trucks – I hope you enjoy kettle drums. I can see some similarities between an adventure on Route 66 circa 1958 and “surfing the web” today. Still, there is nothing like the real thing and with that said, I hope that if you are not familiar with the exciting adventures that are only found with a road trip this is your year of discovery. On a final note, if you find yourself in Oklahoma on this adventure stop by Afton Station, say hello to Laurel for me, and let her know that if all goes well we will be stopping by for a visit in May.
There was a sense of anticpation in the air yesterday morning at the office that seemed to build in direct correlation to the rising winds. About an hour after opening, the salesman from Martin Swanty Chrysler began moving the inventory to the truck lot which meant I had to move the trucks to the back of the property. By about 1:30 the winds were gusting to thirty miles per hour and the first of the vintage Mopars began rolling in on their journey to the Cruise to the Mopars at the Strip in Las Vegas. As with previous years, the Swanty family generously provided lunch for all in attendance and soon the entire lot stretching for more than two blocks along old Route 66 became a veritable sea of colorful, vintage Mopar muscle. The throaty rumble of V8 power echoed up and down the street as car after car rolled on to the lot. The Mopar history on display ran from a 1966 Imperial and 1965 custom Dodge truck, a very rare Shelby Omni, and a new Challenger convertible and a Viper, to Hemi Cuda convertibles. What a display!
As Kia and other companies are rapidly developing vehicles filled with futuristic innovations, including the use of hydrogen instead of gasoline for propulsion, we have informed, intelligent people calling this a case of putting the cart before the horse. The argument is that as we have no ability to refuel these vehicles this futuristic development is a moot point. It would seem we have forgotten our history. We have forgotten that in the year that Route 66 was first signed, roads were little changed from those that Beale, Sitgreaves, and other adventurers traveled on a century before. We have forgotten that in spite of these limitations, automotive technology had made quantum leaps spuring the development of supportive infrastructure. Consider this – in 1896 the Barnum & Bailey Circus gave a Duryea Motor Wagon top billing over the albino and the fat lady. Montgomery Ward noted this was something the children should see before the fad passed. During this same period, an automobile race in Chicago ended badly. The lead driver collapsed from exhaustion after driving twenty-five miles of the fifty mile course, and he was a blacksmith! Ten years later a Stanley steam powered automobile was driven to a new speed record of 149 miles per hour. Automobiles were being driven from coast to coast. A year after this an epic automotive race traversed the globe testing both man and machine over a course that stretched from New York to Paris through Peking, the wastes of the Gobi Desert, and the wilderness of Siberia. In 1909 there were less than a half million motor vehicles manufatured in the United States. During the same period more than one million horse drawn vehicles were built. Twenty years later almost twqo million automobiles were manufactured in a twelve month period. In the same year less than 30,000 horse drawn vehicles were built. In a mere two decades age old industries such as blacksmiths, livery stables, and harness makers were being swept from the stage. In their place were a staggering array of new enterprises – gas stations, mechanics, wrecking yards, after market parts suppliers, automobile dealerships, and tire companies to name but a few. The very lexicon of the nation was transformed with words like motel and automobile. Have you ever given thought to the magic behind the invention of the light bulb by Thomas Edison? After years of tedious trial and error his efforts were rewarded with success of a very dubious nature as this was but half the battle. Of what use was the electric light if there were no stations to generate electricity, no infrastucture to deliver the power, no wiring in houses, and no switches to control its flow? These things existed in minute quantities before the light bulb but it was the creative genius of Thomas Edison to put the cart before the horse and create the demand that built the infrastructure. Fittingly, Route 66 appears to be a key link between that point in the past where the world stood poised with one foot in the stirrup and the other on the gas pedal, and the world of the future. Case in point is the wide array of plans to utilize the fame of this legendary highway to shine the spot light on technologies of the future. Treasure the past, embrace the present, and look forward to the future. Isn’t that the message behind the current face of Route 66, the one where old gas stations become gems such as Afton Station and Gary Parita?
In writing Ghost Towns of Route 66, I discovered a number of excellent reference and guide books. Here are reviews of the best as well as my thoughts on vintage maps. http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=1968adventurer&o=1&p=8&l=bpl&asins=0970995164&fc1=000000&IS2=1<1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr If you are planning a trip on legendary Route 66 and want to make the best of your time this guide is the best I know of. The research, the detail, and ease of use place this book at the top of my list for guide books to the iconic double six. Now, as to the history of the highway Legendary Route 66: A Journey Through Time Along America’s Mother Road is a must for any library. The depth of research involved with chronicling the roads history, origins, and future is quite impressive. However, it is the wide array of historic images that really grabs the attention and has you turning pages. All aspects of the highways, including its dark side as seen in vintage photos of wrecks along the road, are captured making this book more time capsule than dry, historical collection of facts. You won’t have to be a fan of Route 66 to enjoy this book. Anyone who has a fascination with the evolution of American society as reflected in its transportation will find this book a welcome addition to the library. http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=1968adventurer&o=1&p=8&l=bpl&asins=0760329788&fc1=000000&IS2=1<1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifrThis book, Route 66 Backroads, is special as I wrote it to share a few of my favorite places and to encourage travelers to see Route 66 as more than a destination unto itself. From Chicago to Santa Monica there are an amazing array of sites and attractions only found with short detours. The idea for the book came from an old picture post card that showed a billboard on the Arizona/New Mexico state line. The billboard was sponsored by the Route 66 Association of Arizona and proclaimed the sites to see in the state along US 66 as well as with detours, places like the Grand Canyon and Sedona. I expanded on this idea by applying the concept to the entire route. So, in addition to being a tour guide to the sites along Route 66 it is also a guide for those wanting a bit more out of their trip. Counted among the detours in this book are the stunning landscapes of Palo Duro Canyon south of Amarillo, Death Valley in California, Roswell in New Mexico, the treasure box that is Galena, Illinois, and Supai in Arizona. Perhaps the two best examples I can offer of amazing attractions often missed are Supai and Palo Duro Canyon. The former is the most remote community in America nestled in an awe inspiring land of towering canyon walls and thundering waterfalls. The latter is a wonderland of buttes and mesas that comes as quite a surprise to those cruising the vast plains of the Texas Panhandle. http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=1968adventurer&o=1&p=8&l=bpl&asins=076032817X&fc1=000000&IS2=1<1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifrNext on the list is a deviation from travels on Route 66 to another legendary road, the Lincoln Highway. Michael Wallis sparked the resurgent interest in Route 66 with his classic work chronicling that highway and its demise som twenty years ago.
I found this book to be quite fascinating on a number of fronts. Specifically, I have developed an interest in the period that spans the closing of the frontier era and the modern age. This book chronicles the history of a coast to coast motorized military convoy in 1919. Covered bridges that had to have their tops removed, bridges that had to be reinforced, and roads so deplorable covering twenty miles in a single day left the men completely exhuasted. Enhancing the well researched text that reads like a novel are a number of photographs, many never before published. These alone will give pause to ever refering to this period as the good old days. I am unable to give an honest review for this next title, Greetings From Route 66 as it has yet to be released. However, the sneak peak I had as well as the list of contributing writers leads me to believe this will enhance any Route 66 collection. http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=1968adventurer&o=1&p=8&l=bpl&asins=076033885X&fc1=000000&IS2=1<1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr This little book by Jack Rittenhouse may not have sold very well when it was first published in 1946 but today it is a coveted by Route 66 enthusiasts everywhere. Fortunately it is available as a reprint. This is an excellent travel companion that will add a new dimension to any trip on Route 66. So, if your motoring west or east on the double six you might want to pick up this guide book for a then and now look at the roadside.
http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=1968adventurer&o=1&p=8&l=bpl&asins=0826311482&fc1=000000&IS2=1<1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifrNow, a final note on maps. In an effort to ensure accuracy and to decipher the confusing alignments of Route 66 over the years I purchased a number of vintage maps on Ebay. For obvious reasons using a map from 1929 to plan a trip is not the best idea. However, to enhance an adventure these old maps are an endless source of possibilites. They are a bit more expensive but my preference is the RandMcNally Atlas over service station maps. They seem to be a bit more accurate and often have some interesting detail not often found with other maps. Here is to a summer of road trips and adventures on Route 66, the Lincoln Highway, and the road less traveled!