EVANSTON — In March 1908, riders on horseback rode out east of Evanston to meet the competitors in the 22,000-mile New York to Paris auto race as it came through town. In June 2018, riders on horseback again went out to meet the drivers participating in a re-enactment of the New York to Paris trek.
In 1908 automobiles were a luxury for the rich. They were impractical, couldn’t be driven in the wintertime and just over 100 miles of paved roads existed in the entirety of the United States. That didn’t stop some inventive and daring folks from devising a plan to drive from New York City to Paris, with a plan to cross from North America to Asia and Europe by way of the Bering Strait. This would require racing in winter so the strait would be frozen over, and the race began in early Feb.
National teams, three French, one German and one Italian, planned to take part. Teddy Roosevelt, U.S. president at the time, wanted an American team to not only participate but win the race.
After 169 grueling days an American did just that. It took 41 days for George Schuster to cross the North American continent in a 1907 Thomas Flyer. Upon reaching Alaska, it was determined there was simply too much snow to reach the Bering Strait so teams had to cross the Pacific by way of ship.
The voyage required tenacity and ingenuity. With few paved roads, it required traveling across open fields through mud and snow. At times the cars straddled railroad tracks. Mechanical problems had to be dealt with wherever and whenever they should come up.
When Schuster reached Paris on July 30, he was stopped for failing to have a working headlight on the Thomas Flyer, so he borrowed a bicycle, strapped it to the hood and crossed the finish line that way.
After parading through town, the cars were parked on Main Street near the Strand Theatre where Evanston residents had gathered to greet the drivers and get a glimpse of the classic automobiles, with a street party arranged by resident Jonny Pentz.
Mahl gave a presentation in the Strand, detailing the trip made by his great-grandfather. His enthusiasm and passion were evident as he described the conditions encountered and why it was a trek many believed could not be done.
As Mahl explained, his great-grandfather George lived to the age of 99, and Mahl had fond memories of hearing the adventurous tales first-hand. He even d photos from the original trip, taken near Evanston.
Mahl said as a result of the race, people began to view cars as less of a novelty, and they eventually became the automobiles many enjoy today.
He also d some words for the young people in the audience.
“You should sit down with your parents and your grandparents and get their stories,” he said. “That’s part of who you are.”