The final chapter.
The 1909 races had been cut short by a tragic accident that sent several spectators to the hospital. One young man, Hosmer Potter of Bridgeport, had suffered multiple broken bones as well as a traumatic head injury. Potter had spent two weeks in the hospital, eventually being released in mid-June. His injuries had not been fatal, but his life had been forever changed. He would die from the long-term effects of his head trauma in May of 1912, just a few days short of the third anniversary of his accident.
Despite the early ending of he 1909 event and the impending threat of lawsuits by those who had been injured during the “Free-for-All” final race, the annual hill climb at Sport Hill was on the 1910 race calendar. In 1909, the town of Easton had been paid their $400 fee, Sport Hill Road had seen additional improvements at the expense of the Automobile Club of Bridgeport, and local residents had profited from renting their fields as parking spots and by selling food to spectators. For all intents and purposes, it appeared that the people of Easton were more than happy to continue the tradition. The national press had provided wide and ample coverage of the races for the third year in a row. Sport Hill was by then known by most in the automobile racing community as a premier event, and in spite of the fact that there was then several major racing events held annually on Decoration Day, some of the best professional drivers had the Easton race on their schedule for 1910.
But there was trouble on the horizon.
Nationally, the 1908 and 1909 racing seasons had seen several accidents on the circuit that had resulted in injuries to spectators. Automobile racing was still in its infancy and although licensed attorneys would always be willing and able to pursue legal remedies for worthy clients, there was still some doubt as to who to sue. Was it the organizer of the event? Perhaps the driver. Or maybe the owner of the racing machine. What about the town where the event was sanctioned? After all, most of those early races were held on public byways. Those roads all had speed restrictions that were temporarily lifted during race day.
The threat of potential lawsuits was beginning to weigh on the minds of the organizers by early 1910. Members of the Automobile Club of Bridgeport were all prominent citizens within the community. They were mostly industrialists and bankers. All were wealthy. And in 1910, it would have been most unlikely that the club would have had an insurance policy that would have indemnified its officers and members for promoting and sponsoring an event that posed such obvious safety risks. While these concerns hadn’t stopped the club from planning the 1910 event, by March of that year it was becoming clear that at least some members were beginning to worry about future litigation.
That spring, Hosmer Potter made a plea to the club for financial assistance. The 34-year old was still suffering from the effects of the injuries he had received during the 1909 race at Sport Hill. Rather than immediately tackle the request, club president Frank Staples instead tabled the matter and moved on that evening to discuss “improper street sprinkling,” advising club members to report such incidents to the proper authorities. It was painfully obvious that the club was worried about opening the door to other claims should they too hastily settle with the unfortunate Mr. Potter.
There were other signs of trouble by March of 1910. A Bridgeport man by the name of Wilber Brooks Smith was demanding that the club cease all racing at Sport Hill. Smith and his wife then owned the old Gilbert Farm on the western side of the highway near the crest of the Sport Hill. He was loud and he seemed persistent. He falsely claimed that a large part of Easton was opposed to the races. He was insisting that he was willing to take the club to court to seek an injunction should they ignore his demand.
But who was Wilber Brooks Smith?
That was the question I wanted answered as I began this final chapter of the history of the Sport Hill Races. Mister Smith presented himself as a most important man. A gentleman of high standing in society, with a family lineage dating back to the mid-1600’s in New York and Boston. His relations supposedly included Governor DeWitt Clinton of New York and the Reverend Phillips Brooks of Boston. According to articles written about Smith in various publications during the early part of the twentieth century, he had reportedly made his considerable fortune “as a large operator in steel” in Western New York early in his illustrious career, retiring at age 35 to travel the world. At least, that was the story he told to everyone.
Wilber Brooks Smith had indeed “retired” when he was only 35 years of age. That is when he married Connecticut heiress Julia Hubbell Billings, and that is when he quit his job as a salesman for a local coal and iron company in Auburn, New York. It was hardly a large operation in the steel industry, and Wilber had never progressed beyond his position as a sales agent. Wilber had longed lived in a modest home at 104 North Street in Auburn, New York – with his parents, Thomas and Elizabeth Brooks Smith who owned the home. Even after his marriage, he and Julia continued to live in that same house. Thomas Smith had died, but Elizabeth still lived there along with Wilber and Julia. The major change was the addition of a servant, a luxury that neither Wilber or Elizabeth had enjoyed prior to the arrival of Julia.
For a short while during the early 1890’s, Wilber became a travel agent. It was in that position that he evidently got the travel bug, and shortly thereafter, he and Julia became world travelers – on her money, not on the fortune that Wilber had earned “as a large operator in steel.”
It was shortly after Elizabeth Smith’s death that Wilber and Julia decided to sell the Auburn home that Wilber had grown up in. They then moved to Julia’s native Bridgeport. They purchased a moderately sized home at 268 Park Place. Their home was just outside of the mansion district of Seaside Park where men such as P.T. Barnum and Doctor Van Der Warner resided. Julia was already well-known in Bridgeport social circles and by that time, Wilber had honed his skills at presenting his false sense of importance and accomplishments to anyone who would listen.
In the early 1900’s, Wilber and Julia bought the impressive Edwin Godfrey home and farm near the crest of Sport Hill. Wilber soon began talking about making the place a model dairy farm. By 1910, The Bridgeport Evening Farmer reported that Wilber had already alienated his Easton next door neighbor, farmer Isaac Goldstein, by cutting down several of Goldstein’s cherry trees, claiming that their shade made it impossible to cultivate Smith’s land. None of the trees were on Smith’s property and his farm consisted of one hundred acres of land, so it is quite doubtful that Goldstein’s trees would have affected novice farmer Smith’s attempt to grow crops.
Had information about Wilber Brooks Smith been as readily available as it is in today’s digital world, perhaps the members of the Automobile Club of Bridgeport would have simply ignored Smith’s claims that he had talked to a Judge Brown of New York (who, even if Smith had actually known the judge, he wouldn’t have had any jurisdiction in Connecticut). According to Smith, the jurist had informed him that he had every right to insist that the races be halted. Smith also claimed that the judge had advised him the club needed the unanimous approval of every property owner along the course to be able to race on Sport Hill. It was also Smith’s contention that he had already talked to officials in Hartford and he would call in the State Police should the Bridgeport club decide to hold the races that year. He further claimed to have engaged legal representation, although no attorney’s name was ever mentioned in the numerous newspaper articles of the day published in Bridgeport. In any event, the Automobile Club of Bridgeport bought Smith’s bravado and decided they were unwilling to take on a challenge in court.
The Bridgeport club immediately began looking for another hill. They revisited Snake Hill on Burr Street. Their decision to forego holding the event there in 1909 had been based largely on the need to improve the road surface enough to make it safe. That remote section of northern Burr Street was still more of a wagon trail than an automobile highway. After a short discussion, Snake Hill was once again ruled out.
In the meantime, the Supreme Court of the Queens County in New York ruled against the Locomobile Automobile Company of Bridgeport in the injury of a young spectator during the 1906 Vanderbilt Cup Race on Long Island. The court held Locomobile, the owner of the race car, liable and awarded the plaintiffs $7,000 in damages, plus $1,000 in medical expenses. Andrew L. Riker, Locomobile’s chief engineer, had been associated with the Sport Hill event from its inception and was a prominent member of the Bridgeport club. Riker’s voice carried great weight when it came to club matters. The New York decision could have monumental consequences in the world of automobile racing.
A precedent had been set. It was now clear that car owners could be held liable for the injuries their racing machines inflicted upon the spectators at automobile races. It would only be a matter of days that spring before one of the injured men from the 1909 Sport Hill event brought a civil action against John H. Tyson, the owner of the Isotta driven by Glenn Ethridge in that race. That suit was for only $5,000, but the plaintiff in the case against Tyson was also the least seriously injured of those who had been hospitalized as a result of the previous year’s mishap at Miller’s Curve. Surely more lawsuits would soon be on the horizon.
Suddenly, participants were rethinking their decisions to run in any event where the crowds could stand close enough to the action to be injured. On April 11, 1910, the Automobile Club of Bridgeport suddenly abandoned the event. With less than 60 days until the scheduled races, it was simply too late to find and make ready a new hill capable of safely handling both the race cars and the crowds.
It took less than two days for the Bridgeport Automobile Dealers Association to pick up the mantle and take over the event. They were enthusiastic, yet completely inexperienced in handling an event of that magnitude. They eagerly jumped at the chance to run the race at Snake Hill. They called the road “ideal for a hill climb” in an April 13th article published in the Bridgeport Evening Farmer.
But Wilber Brooks Smith wasn’t the only Grinch in Fairfield County. Suddenly, there was serious opposition from another local part-time resident. This time it was Frederick Sturges, a New York millionaire and one of the directors of Standard Oil. Sturges maintained a summer home on Burr Street and filed an injunction in mid-May to halt the race. In an examination by Judge Ralph Wheeler at a hearing on the matter on May 25th, Sturges described the road as “his”, since he had been maintaining it and that the race cars would destroy if they were allowed to run. He admitted that he owned no autos, but that he had ridden in them. “The only time I ride in a car is in a taxicab in New York, and then I take my heart in my hand every time I do it.”
In the end, Judge Wheeler lifted the injunction and allowed the races to be run.
But it was too late to avert a disastrous climb. There were several other Decoration Day events that ran in the northeast, including a hugely attended hill climb in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Unsure if the Connecticut event would even be run, many of the better drivers and machines withdrew their entries in the week leading up to the event. On race day, only a little more than half the heats would be run due to some classes lacking any entries at all. A total of only fifteen machines had pre-registered to run in the event, amounting to only about twenty-five percent of the previous year’s total registration. Five more automobiles were entered on the morning of the race, but of the twenty cars entered only eleven would compete. The remainder of the field either had last minute mechanical failures or the owners got tired of the endless delays and simply left. The crowds were respectively large – estimated to be in the range of 7,000 spectators, but they were certainly disappointed to see so few vehicles run the course. Automobile Topics’ June 4th recap of the event was almost generous with its headline: “Snake-Hill Climb Nearly a Fiasco.” The inclusion of the word “nearly” was a kind attempt not to embarrass the sponsors more than they had already embarrassed themselves.
The 1910 races would be the last to be run, The automobile association had clearly taken on more than they could handle and they immediately offered excuses upon the completion of the races, saying they would be too busy conducting their own businesses to run the event again in 1911. They left that option open to the Automobile Club of Bridgeport that had already exercised its own good judgement when it abandoned its plans for the 1910 event.
A sad ending to an exciting annual event. The arrogance and selfishness of two Grinches who stole the Sport Hill Races from Easton and the world will forever be remembered by those of us who cherished those eight early years in motor racing.