Monday, June 1, 2009

The First International Auto Race in America – in West Hempstead

The following originally appeared in the Winter 2008 edition of the West Hempstead Civic Association News & Views newsletter -

Here’s a pop question. Name the first ever professional sports event to take place in West Hempstead. If you answered the home opener of the ABA New York Nets 1969-70 season at the old Island Garden, you would be wrong. You’d have to go back another 65 years before that when contestants in the Vanderbilt Cup, the first ever major international auto race in America, zoomed past the West Hempstead farms that lined the Hempstead & Jamaica Plank Road on what is now Hempstead Turnpike. The 300-mile race was the first of its kind in this country and it has an intriguing tie-in to West Hempstead history. Here is the story:

In 1904, heir extraordinaire and sports car aficionado William K. Vanderbilt II organized an auto race on Long Island for the purpose of what he claimed was to stimulate the advancement of the American automobile which lagged behind the innovation and performance of its European counterpart. The contest would be modeled after popular European auto races that were held for a few years since, and would be as much a measure of sturdiness and endurance of these early machines as it would be of performance and speed.

The plotted course would run clockwise along Jericho Turnpike, Route 106, and Hempstead Turnpike, forming a virtual triangle though parts of North Hempstead, Oyster Bay, Hempstead and Queens, and the driver who completed ten circuits around the course in the shortest time would be declared winner. To deal with the risk of running through the highly populated areas, two ‘control’ sections were designated where drivers were required to slow down to under 20mph - a three-minute control at Hicksville and a six-minute control through Hempstead Village. (The western end of the Hempstead control was located in West Hempstead, around where the IHOP is now situated on the Turnpike).

But not everyone was convinced of Vanderbilt’s altruistic motives. Many Long Island farmers viewed the race as a needless form of entertainment for the wealthy and thought of the race car as nothing more than a rich kid’s toy. The disruptions caused by using public roads for an event of this type were obvious, as the affected rail lines and roadways, the primary means through which farmers delivered their goods to market, would essentially have to be shut down for the day. The perils to locals and their livestock that might inadvertently wander onto the course presented a serious risk. The filth created by the 90,000 gallons of oil that was to be spread over the roads as an anti-dusting agent, the belching exhaust from the cars, and the profusion of fuel turned Hempstead into what the NY Evening World called a ‘gasoline village’ and left it ‘smelling like Hunter’s Point’.[1] During the trial runs, well-bred ladies who kept fine homes along Fulton Avenue in Hempstead were so incensed about their rugs being soiled by people dragging in oil from the street that they considered suing the promoters of the race for damages.[2]

One West Hempstead farmer, Edwin C. Duryea, was so vehemently against the race that he was determined to prevent it from taking place. (Duryea, along with his brother Frank, tended a farm that was bounded by Hempstead Ave and Woodfield Rd., between Woodlawn Ave to the north and Chestnut St. to the south.) Together with fellow West Hempstead locals William Stringham and George Langdon, he formed the People’s Protective Association of Nassau County and appealed to the County Board of Supervisors to block the event. They retained another West Hempsteader, Francis B. Taylor, as their legal counsel, and circulated a petition that garnered hundreds of signatures in opposition to the race.[3] When the Board of Supervisors rebuffed their appeal on the grounds that, dangers notwithstanding, the Cup was good for commerce in the County, they filed an 11th hour injunction in court the day before the race to declare the race illegal. The judge refused to intercede and so the stage was set for an event the next morning, October 8th, the magnitude of which was never before witnessed on Long Island.

Cartoon depicting Long Island farmers' protest of the 1904 Vanderbilt Cup. Photo Courtesy of The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum (via the Vanderbilt Cup races website)

Throngs of people came out to see the big show. The NY Times claimed that 50,000 fans were at hand[4] while the NY Sun estimated a much more conservative 20,000 at the course at any one time[5]. While the true number was probably somewhere in between, it’s certain that not a vacant hotel room nearby was to be found the night before the race. As one observer put it, “every hotel within three miles of the highways concerned [was] sold out at Waldorf-Astoria prices”[6]. The Sun reported that even the barbers’ chairs in Garden City had been rented for the night[7]. In West Hempstead, it’s doubtless that Henry Woest, keeper of the Munson House, had all his 5 rooms quickly booked for the event.[8] His little inn was located at the intersection of Nassau Blvd and Hempstead Turnpike, where it’s likely that guests could have opted to merely lean out of their beds to have a front row seat of the race from their windows.

Perhaps Woest's guests may have just as well stayed in bed, for despite all the hype generated prior to the event, newspaper accounts described the affair as a real snoozer. There was only so much excitement produced by watching a loud machine whiz by in a flash, only to have to wait another five to ten minutes for the next five second thrill. Bored spectators who had motored out from New York City that morning hopped back into their touring cars while the race was far from over and used – what else? – the Hempstead & Jamaica Plank Road to get back home, creating a veritable obstacle course for horrified contestants who still had laps to finish. (Think of that next time you see a speeding car zig-zagging in and out of traffic along the Turnpike).

To the chagrin of the home crowd, a French car won the race, though as a small measure of consolation, it was an American-born who was at the helm. Overall, the competition was enough of a success as to warrant its establishment as an annual event. A couple years later, a spectator fatality finally convinced the organizers of the recklessness of hosting auto races on public roads, so as a result, the famed Long Island Motor Parkway was built. The LIMP was one of the first concrete roadways in the nation built specifically for the automobile and the first auto road to utilize bridges and overpasses to eliminate crossings. The LIMP was the archetype for the second oldest controlled-access highway on Long Island, the Southern State Parkway which, when completed in 1927, contributed more than any other factor to the housing boom in West Hempstead during the roaring 20’s.

Recognizing the realities of the demands in the local housing market brought on by the construction of the Southern State, the Duryeas sold their 35 acre farm in December, 1926 to a developer who built the “Plymouth Colony”, the name chosen for the cluster of homes and businesses that now occupy that site[9]. Soon after the sale, Hempstead Avenue then quickly transformed from a dusty country road that fronted Ed Duryea’s former property into a budding business corridor. For the erstwhile farmer, after watching his crops grow year after year, the 1927 growing season yielded a different sort of crop – in the form of the brick and stucco homes that sprouted up over his old farm.

By then, West Hempstead had bigger problems like finding more space for its school district that was experiencing an explosion in its student population. Ed Duryea sat on the Board of Education that presided over the expansion of the Chestnut St. School and the construction of the George Washington School in 1930. (You can find his name on the dedication plaque in the foyer of the GW School).

This June 6th marks the 100th anniversary of the dedication of the Long Island Motor Parkway, a road that literally paved the way for the proliferation of the modern controlled-access highway, and by extension, for the development of West Hempstead.

To learn more about the Vanderbilt Cup, see the recently published Vanderbilt Cup Races of Long Island by Howard Kroplick or visit his wonderfully informative website
[1] NY Evening World, Oct. 8 1904, pg. 6
[2] NYT, Oct. 3, 1904, pg. 1
[3] NYT Sept. 29, 1904, pg. 7
[4] NYT Oct 9, 1904, pg. 1
[5] The Sun Oct. 9, 1904 pg. 2
[6] NYT Oct. 8, 1904 pg. 1
[7] ibid.
[8] Long Island, 1905, (A Lodging Guide Published by the Long Island Railroad Co.), pg. 134
[9] NYT Dec. 5, 1926 sec. 11 pg. 1

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