Perhaps the subject I get asked most about when it comes to Easton history is the annual Hill Climb that was held at Sport Hill every Decoration Day on May 30th during much of the first decade of the twentieth century. This is the first of three articles the Historical Society of Easton will be presenting over the next few months detailing the final three years of the event that has become known as the Sport Hill Races.
First, a little history about early automobiles and the advent of racing competition. The earliest automobiles to gain commercial success were mostly electric and steam powered. Well into the early part of the twentieth century, the majority of the automobiles produced in America were built in the northeast. In fact, thirty-eight of the original eighty-four manufacturers of steam powered automobiles were built right here in New England.
Electric vehicles were perfect for city use. Electric cabs dominated early horseless taxis in New York and London. They were quiet – so they didn’t spook the horses that most folks still used through the early years of the twentieth century. They also didn’t require transmissions that needed shifting between gears, and they were exceedingly easy to start – no cranking needed! The drawbacks to electric power were basically the same as they are in today’s world: a short range (back then approximately 25 to 30 miles), a lengthy recharging time, and a price that sometimes ran as much as three times their gasoline counterparts. The largest additional obstacle to high sales numbers was the fact that other than in the cities, there were very few electrical transmission lines in rural America. Living in the country was not at all conducive to owning an electric vehicle
Steam power was also popular in early vehicles. It too was quiet. And if the operator was brave enough to maintain enough pressure, a vehicle powered by steam could be extremely fast. But steam power required as much as 30 to 40 minutes time to build enough initial pressure to power the vehicle, hardly a selling point for a mode of transportation that was intended to be less trouble than hitching a horse to a wagon. During the first two years of the twentieth century, steam powered nearly one in every two vehicles registered in the United States.
By 1905, gasoline powered automobiles began to dominate. The discovery of large deposits of oil in Texas made fuel extremely cheap. In addition, the price to build a gasoline powered car made it affordable to a growing number of middle-class Americans. But the drawbacks were many – they were difficult to start with the use of a hand-crank; they required their operators to shift between gears on hills; and they produced noxious fumes along with a great deal of noise. Almost as soon as they began selling in numbers, mufflers began appearing on gasoline powered vehicles to alleviate much of the noise issue. And in 1911, electric starters began appearing on some of the more expensive automobiles, making them more attractive to women users who had mostly shunned the laborious cranking process.
I’d venture to say that automobile racing began the first day that two men found themselves operating their new horseless carriages headed in the same direction on the same road.
Early racing began mostly on public byways. Owners of most horse racing venues weren’t particularly fond of the thought that those obnoxious motor cars might soon replace the sport of kings.
What better test of speed, handling and driving prowess than racing up a steep and winding hill to determine which man and machine could cover the same amount of ground in the fastest time? And in the greater Bridgeport area, what better hill to challenge man and machine than the steep, twisting terrain on Sport Hill that flattened out at the top to provide a long enough straightaway to achieve speeds that rivaled many locomotives of the day?
The Sport Hill Road of the early 1900’s was vastly different than today’s highway. The original road sat further west, following today’s Old Sport Hill Road a good deal of the way. Closer to the crest of the hill, the roadway sat tightly against a rocky ledge and was made up of a series of steep and twisting turns. The entire surface was a combination of mud and gravel.
There is some debate as to when this event was first held. The claimed dates range between 1902 and 1907. The May 6, 1908 edition of the Horseless Age suggests it was 1906, while the June 4, 1908 edition of The Automobile claims it to have started in 1907. The first date I have been able to confirm with published results in local newspapers of the day is 1907. However, an article in the October 11, 1902 edition of Automobile Topics definitely proves that the event dates back to 1902! Steam cars ruled the day at that early date, covering the one-mile course in less than half the time it took the fastest gasoline powered machine. That year saw only eight entries, all by members of the Automobile Club of Bridgeport. By 1907, the races were open to professional and amateur drivers alike, with silver cups given as awards to both.
Run on Sport Hill in Easton beginning at the Mill River Crossing in the Plattsville section, the course was just over a mile in length, ending a bit south of Flat Rock Road. The same course was used through 1909, with the final races in 1910 moved to Snake Hill on Burr Street in a last- minute site change after a heated series of court arguments necessitated the promoters to come up with a new location.
The races were officially sanctioned by the Automobile Club of Bridgeport that also sponsored the event. By 1908 it had already become one of the most recognized hill climbs in the entire country and was getting national media attention by newspapers and periodicals alike. The Sport Hill event drew large crowds – estimated by some to exceed five thousand spectators – and by 1909 it was arguably the best- known automobile racing event on the east coast after the prestigious Vanderbilt Cup races that were held on Long Island each year between 1904 and 1910.
Automobile manufacturers of the day began entering their professional factory sponsored teams as early as 1907. Locomobile, Pope, and Isotta all had their team drivers participate. Of course, it certainly didn’t hurt that Locomobile’s head engineer and design chief Andrew L. Riker was on the governing board of the Bridgeport club that sponsored the event. Locomobiles were built in Bridgeport and had already gained notoriety as capable racing machines.
The 1908 event attracted fifty-nine entries, with nine events run. In the first eight races, the entrants were classified by the manufacturer’s selling price of each vehicle. Race cars were sent off in one-minute intervals in each event. The final race of the day was the “Free-For-All,” where any-and-all could compete head-to-head regardless of class. For the first time in the race’s short history, all entries were gasoline powered and no steamers competed.
The Automobile Club of Bridgeport spent several days preparing the course prior to the event. Gravel was added to the often muddy road surface and a horse-drawn road grader was used to flatten and fill the ruts in an attempt to make the route easier and safer to navigate. Captain George E. Hawes was in command of the 14th Company of the Connecticut Coast Guard Artillery that deployed about 60 soldiers to police the event – in 1908, neither Easton nor Fairfield had a paid police force.
There was a threat of rain on the horizon on the morning of the 30th. Spectators began lining the course as early as 6:00 AM. Many parked their automobiles along the Easton Turnpike in Fairfield, just south of the starting line at the bridge in Plattsville. The flagmen for the race met at Robert Marsh’s house at 218 Sport Hill at 7:00 AM to receive their final instructions. By 8:00 AM the first race, featuring gasoline cars listed at $850 or less, began as the starter yelled, “Caaar Coming!!!” just as a 12-HP Maxwell roared across the starting line at the Mill River bridge and raced up the hill. It finished the race in two minutes and five seconds.
The fastest time recorded in that day’s schedule of races was posted by Al Poole driving a 50-HP Isotta-Fraschini at one minute and seventeen seconds. Poole had previously ridden as the mechanic alongside of Locomobile Team driver Joe Tracy in the Vanderbuilt Cup Race of 1905 where their entry recorded the best finish of any American built car in what was then the most prestigious automobile race in the country. Poole’s time at Sport Hill was a new course record for gasoline powered racers, eclipsing the old record set by Tracy in a Locomobile the previous year at one minute and twenty-four seconds.
Lest anyone think that any Easton drivers competed, they did not. Automobiles had not yet gained much popularity in Easton. In fact, in 1908 there were but two vehicles registered with the State of Connecticut that showed Easton owners. A motor car owned by C.B. Cutter and a motorcycle registered to Arthur Wheeler. By 1910, the last year the races were held in Easton, those numbers had risen to only seven. It is likely that summer residents from New York brought additional motor cars into Easton during those years, but many of Easton’s populace may have gotten their first close-up looks at an automobile during the Decoration Day races at Sport Hill.
Next up: The 1909 race where large crowds and mayhem marked the day.