This is the second of the Historical Society of Easton’s 3 part series on the Sport Hill Races:
The 1908 Sport Hill Races had been a rousing success. Nearly sixty entries, nine races, and more people than Easton had ever seen. But even success sometimes breeds ill consequences.
With a crowd that was reported to be in excess of 5,000 spectators, it had been obvious from the start of the first race in May of 1908 that the Connecticut Coastal Artillery contingent of 60 men was overwhelmed by the numbers and had been hard-pressed to keep the eager race fans from sitting and standing too close to the course. The narrowest part of Sport Hill by the cliff was certainly the most exciting spot to view the action, but the steepness of the terrain on both sides made it impossible to keep those closest to the roadway remaining a safe distance from the racing surface. Those standing nearest to the action couldn’t possibly jump out of the way should a vehicle go off course – the sheer size of the crowd surrounding them made that an impossible feat.
The town fathers of Easton had been unprepared for the large 1908 turnout. As in every previous year, they had approved the one-mile section of Sport Hill to be closed during the approximate 4-hour long event. The town’s incentive for allowing the hill climb had been the extensive improvements to the road surface that the Automobile Club of Bridgeport provided each year. Gravel was added and then graded, and the roadway oiled prior to race day. While modern environmental concerns would preclude the application of raw oil to a dirt & gravel surfaced roadbed, in the early part of the twentieth century, oil was regularly used to keep the dust down. Houses that sat close to early highways were routinely filled with road dust during the summer season, and curtains needed to be washed on a regular basis. The racing action on Sport Hill each Decoration Day was more than most of the residents along the road could tolerate, so oiling the road was meant to at least partially appease their concerns.
Immediately following the 1908 event, the selectman of Easton had called for a special town meeting that very evening. Ignoring any and all legal considerations that one party cannot unilaterally change the terms of an agreement – especially after-the-fact – the town voted to charge the Bridgeport club a post-race $400 fee for their use of the roadway. After all, such a successful event should benefit the host town monetarily in addition to those road improvements. Obviously, the club refused payment, and it immediately began searching for a new venue for the 1909 hill climb.
The challenge of finding a suitable replacement course for the 1909 races was more than the Bridgeport club could handle. The only other viable option had been the Snake Hill portion of Burr Street. It was located just north of the North Street crossroad at Fairfield. However, almost the entire course would have still been in Easton, and the race itself only about 7/10ths of a mile in length with the straightaway at the beginning rather than at the end. Cars crossing the finish line going only 20 MPH was hardly as exciting as having them race across doing 60. To make matters worse, Snake Hill had even less of a well-developed road surface than Sport Hill. The work needed to make it into a safe course would have been overwhelming. In the end, the club decided that negotiating a deal with Easton for the use of Sport Hill was their only viable choice.
The club agreed to pay Easton the $400 fee to use Sport Hill on the day of the race. But in paying that fee, Easton had to agree to allow race teams to practice on the hill between the hours of 1:00 and 3:00 PM each afternoon, beginning on Monday of race week. That meant that the normal 15-mph speed limit would be waived, and a flagman would halt normal traffic while the drivers made their timed practice runs. While the selectmen were fine with this new arrangement, the residents living along the racecourse were not. More noise, more dust, and when the practice sessions began, a large influx of curious spectators sitting on their lawns and stonewalls.
The road was prepared early during the final week of May. As the Bridgeport club had done the previous year, it also paid to have a temporary foot bridge built over the Mill River to allow spectators to gain pedestrian access to the race course while keeping them off the bridge the race cars would be using during the event. While spectator safety was on everyone’s agenda that year, there were still no barriers installed along the most dangerous portion of the road course – the sharp and twisting turn known as Miller’s Curve that ran alongside the rocky cliff about half-way up the hill.
Despite concerns about crowd control that had aired after the previous year’s event, the Connecticut Coastal Artillery sent about the same number of men to control the crowds in May of 1909 – a total of about 60 men to cover both sides of the one-mile course. This would turn out to be a colossal blunder in planning. The 1909 crowd was at least double those who witnessed the 1908 races. Estimates ranged as high as 15,000 spectators, although given the propensity of early 20th century journalists to either greatly embellish the facts, or to simply fabricate much of their narrative, it would seem that a figure closer to 8,000 to 10,000 would be much more probable.
Anticipation for an exciting set of races for Decoration Day of 1909 was high. The star of the event had been touted for several weeks in the local newspapers as well as in several national automobile journals. Henry Walter Webb from the Yale Automobile Club would be there with his 120 HP Panhard-Levassor racer. Webb was an amateur driver, but at 120 HP, the Panhard would be difficult to beat. Webb’s recently purchased race car had finished 9th in the Grand Prix of France when driven by George Heath the previous year. The 1908 winning Isotta driven by Al Poole had only 50 HP, so it was expected that Webb’s big Panhard racer would easily eclipse Poole’s record time of 1:17.
By 1909, many of the entered motor cars were full-blown racing machines of their day. Besides Webb’s Panhard, the Isotta driven by Glenn Etheridge had been the winning entry in the 1908 Briarcliff Road Race. That same Isotta had also competed in several Grand Prix races later that season, winning an event in Georgia. Although Webb was considered an amateur, most of the other drivers piloting the more expensive racers were seasoned professionals. The professionally prepared race cars had larger engines and lighter bodies. They were designed for speed. But those faster cars hadn’t been specifically designed to handle the tight turns of a course such as Sport Hill. Keeping them upright and on the racecourse became more of a challenge as the speeds increased. Many drivers opted to have “mechanics” ride along – not to make repairs during the one-mile race, but to act as ballast – shifting their weight inside the car to help the driver keep all four wheels in contact with the ground. In some photos taken that day, the mechanic can actually be seen hanging outside of the automobile in an attempt to keep it from skidding and rolling sideways.
The weather on Monday, May 31, 1909 was nothing short of spectacular. It was claimed by one of the many journalists covering the event that day, that there were well over 500 automobiles parked along the roads leading to Sport Hill. Andrew L. Riker of the Locomobile Company in Bridgeport was once again the head Referee. At 8:15 AM he gave the call to begin the races.
As in previous years, automobiles were classed by selling prices. The first car to run the course was a 10 HP Maxwell that put in a time of 4:51. Hardly a barn-burner of a time, the average speed over the course would have been just shy of 20 MPH. As the price of the vehicle increased, the elapsed race times decreased. Dramatically.
But with the faster machines came greater danger. According to an article in the June edition of Automobile Topics, Veteran driver Lee B. Lorimer in a factory prepared Chamlers-Detroit “had a narrow escape from turning turtle directly in front of the referee’s stand at the start” of the 4th race.
When Henry W. Webb’s much heralded Panhard made its run in the Amateur class during Race number 8, he crossed the finish line with an elapsed time of an amazing 1:09, knocking a full 8 seconds off Al Poole’s 1908 record. In fact, Poole’s previous record was surpassed no less than 7 times that day. Webb’s new record in the speedy Panhard had the crowd in a frenzy. They roared as he drove back down the hill after his epic run. The “Free-for-All” was next. The final event of the day.
Captain Hawes’ 14th Company of the Connecticut Coastal Artillery had been overwhelmed by the crowds all morning. Attempts to have the spectators keep their distance from the racing surface were often met with jeers and taunts. Shortly before the start of the “Free-for-All,” Captain Hawes had walked the course urging spectators to give the racers more room through the treacherous curves near the cliff. He convinced one woman with two small children to move farther up the hill, as they had been standing in a narrow spot where there was but about a half-dozen feet of space between the road course and a 4-foot high stone wall. Hawes’ convincing argument with the woman likely saved her and the children from certain peril.
The first six cars in the “Free-for-All” covered the course without incident. The road surface had obviously deteriorated by the time the final event began. 4 hours of record setting speeds had loosened the gravel in the turns, making if difficult for the drivers to keep their machines running their preferred lines. When Glenn Etheridge crossed the starting line at the Mill River bridge, he had something to prove. He had failed to beat Al Poole at Sport Hill in an identically prepared Isotta in May of 1908 when a cracked intake pipe caused his car to fail inspection. His initial 1909 run in the same Isotta had been too slow. Amateur racer Webb had bested him by several seconds in the Panhard. He needed a far better run in this event if he was going to win a trophy that day.
There had already been one close call in the large “S” curve midway up the hill that day. During the Amateur race, driver Ken McNeil momentarily lost control of his Stearns and nearly left the course. McNeil quickly regained command of his machine and sped on as spectators dove for safety.
As Etheridge wheeled the heavy Isotta out of the first half of the same large “S” curve, one of the front wheels evidently hit a deep rut, breaking the suspension, and causing the vehicle to lose control. As it ran off the right side of the road, the Isotta mowed down several of the spectators that had been standing too close to the course to escape.
In all, 5 men required hospitalization that day, with more than a dozen more suffering minor injuries. Ethridge’s mechanic had been thrown from the machine but was relatively unscathed.
The worst injuries belonged to Hosmer Potter, a 34-year old machinist at the Singer Sewing Machine factory in Bridgeport. Although many publications reported that Potter had died from his injuries, those accounts were greatly exaggerated to put it mildly. Potter was the most seriously injured one of the group – having endured a fractured skull, a broken right leg, 4 crushed ribs and a ruptured kidney. He did however survive and was released from the hospital on June 14th of that year. But in all likelihood, those injuries eventually contributed to his early demise only 3 years later in May of 1912.
The others, including William Belling of the 14th Company of the Artillery, all suffered broken legs, or shattered knees and ankles. They were all treated at the scene and then transported to either Saint Vincent’s or the Bridgeport Hospital. Some were even transported by the race drivers from the event.
The race was halted, and the final event cancelled. Newspaper coverage was expansive, with the accident even making the front page of the Intermountain Republican in Salt Lake City where the headline read: “Madly Racing Auto Strikes Big Crowd.” Not content with a crowd size of only 15,000, the Intermountain Republican made it 20,000 instead. The over-zealous reporter also made the speed of the offending Isotta a full 60 MPH while still in the “S” curve. Not content with those wild claims, he continued by describing the “wind of death” felt by more than 100 people as the Isotta rushed by, and women fainting from fright from the sounds of the moaning by the injured men.
That would be the final race held on Sport Hill, not from that accident, but rather from a series of injunctions and delays that caused both the venue and the sponsor of the races to change in 1910.
Next up, the final chapter. The 1910 races at Snake Hill.