Thursday, December 4, 2014

Old Scout and Old Steady, the endurance race of a matched set of curved dash Oldsmobiles in 1905 from New York to Portland, along the Oregon trail

Sixty years after the first great columns of prairie schooners lumbered along the Oregon Trail, two tiny and primitive automobiles followed the historic ruts across the West.

The year was 1905, and the cars were in the first transcontinental automobile race. The pair of 7-horsepower Curved Dash (so called because of the sleighlike front of the body) Olds Runabouts made their historic journey from New York City to Portland, Oregon.

 Essentially motorized buckboards, these were the first automobiles negotiating the Oregon Trail, first to cross the United States from east to west and the first over the Cascade Range.

The automobile was a growing presence in larger cities and even in some towns. Endurance races and tours were popular events. The densely settled Eastern states had a network of established roads, some of which even had graveled surfaces, but most were little more than smoothed-out trails. There were less than 150 miles of hard-surface roads in the entire country, all of it in cities.

The race was a publicity event as well as a contest. The first prize was a very respectable (particularly in those days) one thousand dollars, awarded at the finish line, the The National Good Roads Association's 5th annual convention at the Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland on June 21, 1905.

For the race's organizers, a snow-free crossing of the Cascades was considered the most important factor. They had not considered the unpredictability of spring weather.

 Three days into the trip, rain began and continued for half of the race. It rained every day for three weeks. Miles and miles of the route became lakes and swamps. Dwight Huss wrote of following roads that were completely under water, and he steered by keeping parallel to the telegraph poles. -

They crossed the Missouri at historic Council Bluffs, Iowa, the major jumping-off point for earlier pioneers. Eastern civilization was left behind. From Nebraska on, the two cars were on a journey under conditions not that different from half a century before. The racers had neither road maps nor gas stations. The only guidebooks were those written for the pioneers crossing the Oregon and California trails, 50 years before. Conditions got worse. Only trails and tracks crossed the wilderness.

Old Scout took an early lead and held onto it. The two Runabouts began meeting numerous covered wagons still using the trail. As one participant wrote: 'We passed many parties of traveling prairie schooners to and from the east. These schooners, usually a single wagon drawn by two or four horses, or mules, with one or two saddle ponies and a cow tied behind, are visible for miles, their big white canvas bow tops glistening in the sunshine, and we often pass as many as half a dozen of them traveling together.'

The race was a well-publicized and popular event for the lonely settlers. Townspeople, ranchers, cowboys and sodbusters rode for miles to see the Runabouts pass through their country. People were interested not in the sport of the race, however, but in the utility value of the machines. They wanted to know if automobiles were practical in the rugged West.

Navigating through the gumbo, Huss wrote, the cars carried a half-ton of mud. That nearly doubled the little cars' 650 pounds.

Two hundred pounds of tools and fuel were carried as well. The cars were packed to double their weight, counting the mud. Driver and mechanic added another three hundred pounds-7 hp to move nearly a ton. Surprisingly, on good stretches, the cars could actually speed along at 15 miles an hour!

Huss wrote of one day in Wyoming, 'we drove 18 hours, forded five streams and made a total of 11 miles.'

Iron-hard clay cut the tires to shreds. Rocky stretches were worse. One set of tires was worn out every 90 miles. Huss said he had no idea how many tires were destroyed on the trip.

Supplies, for the most part, were not a problem. Abbott arranged supply depots along the course. While gasoline was generally available, at least in small quantities (in drug stores, for dry cleaning), larger amounts had been stockpiled in advance by train and stagecoach. Stocks of oil, tires and batteries had also been arranged.

At one point, Old Steady was topped off with the wrong kind of engine oil; the combination caked and seized the engine. Megargel had to walk to the nearest settlement, hire a team, and tow the car back into town. Gasoline, kerosene and lye were tried; nothing freed the piston. After laboring all night, they discovered that only muriatic acid would cut the resulting varnish.

Old Scout fell into a badger hole and severely damaged the front axle. A reluctant blacksmith (Huss bribed him $10 dollars to work at night) made repairs that lasted the rest of the trip. Many field repairs were extremely creative, but they worked. The simplicity of the cars and the resourcefulness of the drivers were the secrets of their success.


They encountered herds of antelopes, and chugged through miles of prairie dog towns. One participant wrote: '…about every five miles we would strike one of these dog villages, comprised of from two to five hundred mounds. The dogs would congregate on the tops of their houses until Old Steady would be almost upon them, when they would scamper down into the regions below.'

Most existing bridges had been washed out by the spring rains. Old Steady, driving with inadequate lights at night, crashed into a broken bridge and bent both axles. No matter: They hastily pounded the axles back into a simulation of straightness and continued.

Some swollen rivers were too much for a block and tackle. After one storm, Old Steady was engulfed in a raging stream:
'We half waded and half swam to the shore, leaving the car with just the top of the seat above water. … Sighting a sheep ranch in the distance, we walked to it. Eventually we found the owner, Lone John, in the barn…. He had just been released for cutting open the head of one of his neighbors with an axe, and he regretted the fact that he had not killed the man. Despite his grievances, he willingly threw the harness on his horses, and telling us where we would find the wagon, and to use his team as we saw fit. … We drove the broncos down to our stranded machine, and, attaching a line, soon pulled it out of that creek, and through four others before we got to the ranch.'

Crossing the Cascade Range was the hardest part of a hard trip. The road over Santiam Pass  had originally been a military road, 'paved with boulders.' Time and time again, they had to pile rocks to allow the cars' small wheels to negotiate giant rocks. Portions of the ascent were simply too steep for the heavily laden little cars. The blocks and tackles came out again.

The descent was terrifying. The brakes on the Runabouts were little better than the ones on covered wagons. Like the pioneers, trees were cut and dragged behind, to add braking power.

Old Steady came close to destruction: the car went into a four-wheel slide down a fifty per cent grade in the Cascade mountains. Finally Old Steady tossed out the driver and co-driver, and came to rest hanging over a precipice. A prairie schooner came along and hauled the little runabout back onto the trail. This may well be the only time an automobile was ever rescued by a covered wagon.

Eventually, Old Scout made it to Portland only an hour before the opening of the convention. The trip had been figured at taking a month; it took 44 days. Megargel and Stanchfield were eight days behind. Haberdashers gave them new clothes in exchange for displaying their worn garments in shop windows.

Later in the year, Megargel repeated the trip; this time he went south from Portland, into California, and then east again. He is credited with being the first person to cross the Mojave Desert in an automobile, as well as the first to cross Arizona.

Text from
image from

Someone in Idaho followed some of the route, and took photos, recently

the book written about this trip can be found in some libraries

you can read on in micro fiche online, it seems,exact,233987563

and there was once a VHS tape

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