Vanderbilt Museum; Newsday Photo
Drivers from all over the world competed for the Vanderbilt Cup, made of Tiffany silver.
Sportsman William K. Vanderbilt II's cup race paves the way to the future
By Sylvia Adcock
The racecourse was ready. Street-sprinkling
carts had covered the roads with 90,000 gallons of petroleum to keep the dust down. William K. Vanderbilt II had arrived from the Garden City Hotel in his trademark white Mercedes, and a half-dozen men pushed the first car, a red Mercedes, to the starting line.
At 6 a.m., the starter yelled ``Go!'' and the red car lurched forward. The crowd roared. An overly imaginative newspaper reporter wrote of ``a crash of exploding oil'' and flames reaching out from the sides of the car. Two minutes later, the next car was off.
It was Oct. 8, 1904. The age of the automobile had arrived on Long Island.
The Long Island Rail Road had run full trains all night long to bring the curious to the Vanderbilt Cup Race, the first international auto race in the United States. ``Almost everyone who could afford a holiday took it,'' one newspaper reported, and some onlookers arrived on horses that ``chafed impatiently on the bit, as if longing for a test of speed with these new things that man had made to take their place.''
The first Vanderbilt Cup Race was not just a test of race cars, it was an event that would popularize the automobile like no other. Drivers from all over the world fighting for a silver Tiffany cup for nearly 300 miles excited the imaginations of the horse-and-wagon populace. And the races that followed would leave a legacy: the first concrete highway in the United States was built after the 1906 race left a spectator dead and Vanderbilt was forced to establish a private road. Called the Long Island Motor Parkway, it also was the first highway designed exclusively for automobiles and the first to use overpasses and bridges to eliminate intersections.
When a New York newspaper reporter asked Thomas Edison for his thoughts on the first Vanderbilt Cup Race, the inventor said he wouldn't be surprised if someone got killed. In that same interview, he had another, more prescient prediction that went beyond the race itself: ``In time the automobile will be the poor man's wagon,'' Edison said. ``He will use it to haul his wood, convey his farm freight, get to and from the post office and for the family for church.''
That might have seemed far-fetched in 1904, when automobiles were still the exotic playthings of the rich. But years later, the easy ownership of automobiles would create and define modern suburbia, a sprawling universe where it would be nearly impossible to live without one. Cars would bring newfound freedom, making life easier. At the same time, they would bring traffic jams, making life more difficult. Most of all, they would make this century very, very different from the last.
But as the 20th Century was dawning, the road ahead was uncertain. And the day of the first Vanderbilt Cup race had not come without obstacles.
When word got out that Vanderbilt and some of his wealthy friends planned to close off public roads to hold a race, there was a public outcry. ``In order that the speed-madness monomaniacs may drive their man-maiming engines at an excessive and illegal pace, the residents and taxpayers of the island are bidden to keep off the road,'' the New York World fumed. ``It is an extraordinary condition of affairs when a coterie of idlers, rich men's sons and gilded youth can take possession of public highways.''
The cup race would last for hours, as race cars covered 10 laps on a triangular route that included Jericho Turnpike, Bethpage Turnpike and Hempstead Turnpike -- all roads used by farmers to take their produce to market. Shortly after the Nassau Board of Supervisors approved the route, the farmers went to court to try to block the race, but failed to convince a judge that the supervisors' action was illegal.
Tensions mounted as the racing teams flocked to Long Island, and a chauffeur for the Pope Toledo Co. who was testing the course was thrown out of his car and killed when he nearly collided with a farm wagon near Hicksville. Residents were outraged when signs were posted saying, ``Chain your dogs and lock up your fowl'' on the day of the race. ``Farmers Will Carry Pistols to Auto Races,'' one headline warned.
On the day of the race, bent nails were scattered on parts of the course but no one brought a gun. The farmers ended up offering parking spots for $25 -- a huge amount of money -- and went through the crowds selling coffee and sandwiches. One fatality marred the race: Carl Muessel, a mechanic for a French team, was thrown from a race car near Franklin Square and fractured his skull.
When the race was over, George Heath, driving a French 90-hp Panhard, took the cup. He completed the course in 5 hours, 26 minutes, 45 seconds. His average speed was 52 mph.
The crowds were attracted by the exotic machines and the thrill of speed. Albert Clement of France described to a newspaper reporter what it felt like to go more than 60 mph: ``When you first start, the ground seems to be rising up in front of you, as if to hit you in the face ... You haven't time for anything but the thrill, and the watching of the long narrow road in front. You haven't time to see what's on one side or the other.''
The onlookers seemed a bit bloodthirsty. During the second race, in 1905, a huge crowd gathered at an S curve near Albertson, ``attracted by the possibility of witnessing something in the way of a death-defying accident,'' The New York Times reported. They were rewarded for their efforts, as ``two of the most sensational smash-ups of the day occurred at this point.''
The turning point came in 1906. This time, it wasn't a racer who was killed, but a spectator. Vanderbilt had hired men to keep order and spent thousands installing wire fencing to hold back the crowds, who would run out onto the road to get a better look at an approaching car. But some spectators brought wire-cutters, and at 9 a.m., the crowd broke through the fence at Krug's Corner in Mineola, the intersection of Willis Avenue and Jericho Turnpike, just as Elliott Shepard's 130-hp Hotchkiss was approaching. Shepard slammed into the knot of people, killing Kurt Gruner of Passaic, N.J., who left a wife and two children. Two small boys were also injured, and the newspapers proclaimed it a miracle that more were not killed.
``I am deeply distressed that the contest should have been marred by any fatalities, but I am sure it was unavoidable,'' Vanderbilt said after the race. At the Garden City Hotel that day, the young millionaire and his friends decided to build a toll road that could be used as a racecourse. Before long they had formed a corporation with stock of $2.5 million and a board of directors that included such notables as John Jacob Astor and Harry Payne Whitney.
``The Long Island Motor Parkway is a necessity,'' said the 1906 prospectus. ``The use of the much-frequented highways of the Island by motorists is becoming irksome.'' The new road was expected to greatly increase property values so much that property owners were asked to donate strips of their land for the right-of-way.
In a massive public relations campaign, Arthur R. Pardington, the parkway corporation's vice president, went from town to town speaking about the advantages of the new road. In an article for Harper's magazine, Pardington wrote that it would be ``the modern Appian Way for the motorist.''
The reaction on Long Island was mixed. A Melville farmer donated rights to his land and convinced a few landowners around him to do the same. A Dix Hills farmer donated a strip of his farm. But others resisted. ``Mr. Pardington thinks landowners ought to give their land to millionaires for their pleasure,'' said one letter-writer to the Long Islander newspaper in Huntington. ``And I think the millionaires should pay for what they want.'' Another complained that the parkway was ``an experiment to cut an island practically in two separate parts.''
The parkway route ended up snaking across the Island, twisting and turning around spots where Vanderbilt couldn't get the land he wanted.
Construction began in June, 1908, using a new paving method of reinforced concrete. Two layers of heavy crushed stone were laid upon the roadbed, separated by a sheet of wire mesh. A thin, soupy mixture of cement and sand from Jones Beach was poured over the stones and the surface was brushed for texture. By October, nine miles of the roadway were open, from the Westbury area to Bethpage. Bridges and overpasses avoided intersections with other roads, a feature that had been used only on the traverse roads through Central Park.
The 1907 race was suspended but in 1908 cup races were held on a circular route that included Jericho Turnpike and the nine miles of the new parkway. As cars became more powerful, the number of accidents mounted. A planned 30-mile racing loop in Riverhead had never been built, so Vanderbilt still had to use some public roads for the races. After the 1910 race, when four were killed and 20 were injured, Scientific American called it the ``Vanderbilt Cup Race Slaughter.'' Automobile manufacturers and race-car drivers declared the race unsafe and refused to return. Indianapolis, not Long Island, became the auto racing capital.
The motor parkway would never again be a racetrack. But it continued to be used as a testing ground for leading car and tire manufacturers, including Packard and the U.S. Rubber Co.
By 1910, it stretched for 43 miles from Lakeville Road in Great Neck to Ronkonkoma, and in 1911 Vanderbilt extended it west to Springfield Boulevard in Queens. The parkway had 65 bridges. Its 12 toll lodges were designed in the French Provincial style by John Russell Pope, who designed the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. Where the road ended at Lake Ronkonkoma, Vanderbilt built an inn called the Petit Trianon, also designed by Pope.
In early years the parkway toll was $2, a hefty fee in those days. Auto traffic was still relatively light, as few could afford the tolls, much less to own an automobile. Vanderbilt reduced the tolls to $1.50 in 1912, and to $1 in 1917.
The parkway's popularity increased in the 1920s as car ownership became more affordable. After 1924, 150,000 cars traveled on the motor parkway each year, some on their way to East End vacation spots, some out for a Sunday drive. A parkway brochure in 1925 advertised the picnic spots at the parkway's end: ``Shaded grove for basket parties. Free boating. Duck dinners $2.''
In 1926 Vanderbilt poured more money into the parkway, building a two-mile extension to Horace Harding Boulevard in Queens, and a two-mile spur to connect the road to Jericho Turnpike in Commack. He also widened the roadway from 16 to 22 feet. But traffic began to wane in the 1930s as the Depression slowed car-buying. In 1933, the toll was reduced to 40 cents.
The biggest blow to Vanderbilt's parkway came in 1929, when Robert Moses began construction of his Northern State Parkway. Vanderbilt had approached Moses about buying the motor parkway for his new road. Moses rejected the proposals, saying the motor parkway was badly constructed. ``A white elephant for the last 20 years,'' he called it.
In 1933, when the Northern State opened from Queens to Mineola, Vanderbilt knew he'd been beaten. In 1938, he turned the road over to the state in lieu of back taxes. In a brief speech at the Nassau County executive's office, Vanderbilt reflected on the parkway's history. It owed its existence, he said, not to any hope for profit, but ``to the enthusiasm of a group of motorists, who 30 years ago felt the need for an express highway where high speed could be permitted with safety.''
In all, Vanderbilt spent $10 million building and improving the Motor Parkway. Neither he nor his investors ever made a cent of profit. On Easter, 1938, the roadway was shut to traffic and the toll lodges were offered for $500 to the tollkeepers, who had reared their families in the tiny four-room houses.
Queens County chose to use its small portion of the roadway for bike trails in Alley Pond Park. Nassau gave its portion to the Long Island Lighting Co. for a right-of-way. Today, there are only tiny stretches of concrete remaining, running through backyards and vacant lots. Only Suffolk County kept part of the road in use, calling it the Vanderbilt Motor Parkway.
``Think of the time it will save the busy man of affairs,'' Pardington had said at the groundbreaking ceremony in 1908. ``Speed limits are left behind, the Great White Way is before him, and with the throttle open he can go, go, go and keep going, 50, 60 or 90 miles an hour until Riverhead or Southampton is reached, in time for a scotch at the Meadow Club, a round of golf and a refreshing dip in the surf, and all before dinner is served, or the electric lights begin to twinkle.''