Just a Simple Wrench
by Ann & Jake Snyder
Proposal for Anniversary Observance
of America’s First Automobile Race
To be held each Thanksgiving Morning in Jackson Park
Few Chicagoans may be aware that the first automobile race to occur on this continent was held locally, from a site in Jackson Park, just south of the Museum of Science and Industry, to Evanston and back. This event occurred on Thanksgiving Day in 1895 and was second only to a race held in France in 1893. Herman H. Kohlsaat, publisher of the Chicago Times-Herald saw that such an event could generate interest in the automobile in this country. In June of 1895 he announced that the newspaper would sponsor a race in Chicago with $5,000 in prizes, including $2,000 for the winner. Various accounts state that between 60 and 80 entrants applied, but the race was postponed twice because few were ready. It was finally held Thanksgiving morning of that year, following an overnight snowfall of 6 to 8 inches. Even with the postponements, only 6 vehicles were able to start the race. Two of them had been imported from Germany. Only two vehicles finished the race, and the winner, J. Frank Duryea, completed the grueling 54 mile route in 7 hours and 53 minutes. Duryea, an Illinois native, had also designed and constructed his entry, which was the only vehicle in the race that had been completely built in this country. Many credit this event with introducing the automobile to the United States by proving that these vehicles were, in fact, a match for horse-drawn carriages. One could call this the spark that ignited the American automobile industry.
On Thanksgiving Day of 1995, a centennial commemoration was held through the efforts of the American Motorsport Centennial Committee, an organization that was formed for that specific purpose. The day’s events included a retracing of the route by approximately 100 antique and vintage automobiles and the placement of a marker at the start finish line of the race, in Jackson Park where eastbound Midway Plaisance meets S. Cornell Avenue. The marker consists of a large rock bearing a metal plaque that briefly describes the 1895 race. In the years since the centennial celebration, a number of automobile enthusiasts have met informally at this centennial marker each Thanksgiving morning to observe this moment in Chicago's history. Among the first to mark the observance were members of the Chicagoland MG Club, one of the largest clubs representing that marque in this country. Also present from the start has been Bill Wildt, who features the event on his local access cable program, Motorsports Unlimited. Others who have joined the gathering include those with immaculately-prepared hotrods or classic cars and Chicagoland Toys for Tots Motorcycle Parade participants. The format of the event has simply evolved over the years. It most closely resembles a classic car concours. In the past, vehicles have been parked on the adjacent street or within the park. By groups, participants, some with their cars, assemble around the "Rock" for photographs and for the filming of interviews for Mototsports Unlimited.
Specific Aims of this Proposal
This proposal is presented with the goal of allowing enthusiasts to commemorate the Chicago Times-Herald Race of 1895 each Thanksgiving at the start/finish point in Jackson Park. Further, it is hoped that this observance will increase awareness of the Chicago Times-Herald Race as America’s first automobile race and will bring recognition to the role that it played in the introduction of the automobile to this country. Sanctioning this event and entering it on the Park District Calendar may lead to other activities related to the Race and may eventually bring local and national attention to this historical event and its place in the rich history of the City as a whole and of Jackson Park in particular.
Options for achieving these aims
The observance that has evolved since 1996, the year after the marker was placed, has taken the form of an informal concours of classic, sport, and modified automobiles and motorcycles. In the past, the displayed vehicles have parked along eastbound Midway Plaisance where it adjoins the park or within the park itself near the race start/finish marker. If there is no possibility for an exception to the prohibition of displaying cars within the park, the spirit of the event could be maintained by closing Midway Plaisance between S. Stony Island Avenue and S. Cornell Avenue, so that the vehicles could be displayed there in an orderly manner. Traffic on eastbound Midway Plaisance at that point has been extremely limited each Thanksgiving morning during the years that this gathering has taken place, and the proximity of alternative routes should assure that no problems are created by this street closure.
A key feature of the gathering has been its informality. There is no judging of vehicles, no awarding of prizes, no entry fee. It is simply an opportunity to gather and acknowledge the role that Chicago has played in motorsports and in the introduction of the automobile. However, the Chicagoland MG Club, a nonprofit organization that is registered with the State of Illinois, would be willing to participate in any efforts that the Park District considers necessary for organizing the event. We appreciate your consideration of this event and any accommodations that can be made that allow it to continue.
Submitted to the Chicago Park District, November 9, 2004