“How fast can your car make the ascent of Fort George Hill? The hill is 1,900 feet from base to crown, with a grade ranging from ten to thirteen per cent and averaging about eleven per cent. It is paved with cobblestones and has two sweeping curves. “ (New York Herald, March 15, 1908)
The Fort George Hill Climb
On a Saturday morning in the summer of 1907 several thousand spectators, speed freaks and reporters gathered on Dyckman Street, near the foot of Fort George Hill, to witness a controversial race that would pit newly designed automobiles against one of the most grueling inclines in the metropolis.
The rules were simple.
Almost anyone could enter the race.
Professional roadsters competed alongside individual owners.
Modified automobiles were forbidden.
The only vehicles allowed in the contest were “stock” cars; meaning the vehicle hadn’t been altered in any way after leaving the showroom.
The event was essentially a public proving ground for a then fledgling automobile industry.
After the race a consumer could walk into any automobile dealership and know just how his intended purchase would perform when put to the test.
Over the course of the afternoon similarly priced vehicles would compete against one another.
But the most exciting event of the day was the free-for-all in which all makes and sizes competed against one another.
One by one each driver was given a flying start down Dyckman Street and timed as he screamed past the Dyckman Street subway station towards the finish line at the summit of the hill above.
The run was a race against the clock.
At the end of the day the contestants would gather inside a concert hall atop the great hill where course clerk Tom Hall would present the beautiful silver Automobile Topics Cup to the racer with the fastest time.
The event, organized by the Metropolitan Automobile Association, would be the first hill climb to be held in the city of New York
The spectators, who arrived by car, subway and trolley were said to number at least three thousand.
In all, twenty-seven cars would make it to the top of the hill that spring day more than a century ago. Of these only five were foreign imports.
The Dyckman region, with the exception of the elevated subway, would be almost unrecognizable to anyone vising the district today.
In 1907 the area was still relatively undeveloped.
The Dyckman Street subway station had been completed just three years earlier.
The elevated station just one stop to the north still sat in a flower-strewn pasture where horses grazed under the tracks.
A lone apartment building, the Solano and Monida, stood to the west at the intersection of Dyckman Street and Broadway.
The then out of the way locale was perfect for an automobile demonstration.
After being given a racing start east, down the length of Dyckman Street, the racers would cross the starting line before making a wide right turn towards the base of Fort George Hill.
The rapid climb up the hill proved a torturous experience for the drivers of these rickety early contraptions. The serpentine course was paved with Belgian bricks that caused the machines to rattle horribly as they zoomed up the steep and dangerous course.
“The Belgian blocks were somewhat “cobbly” and without intending a pun,” an automotive reporter would muse, “it follows that the steering wheels were decidedly “wobbly” as the cars bumped over the rough surface.” (The Motor World, Volume 18, April 16, 1908)
“The hill offers a splendid test of motor-climbing abilities,” wrote a Times reporter. “Its length, from the base at Dyckman Street to the top, at 193rd Street, is a trifle over a third of a mile, and the grade averages 10 per cent. Just after leaving the narrow roadway, flanked by the Dyckman Street Subway railroad station, there are two fairly sharp curves, forming the letter “S,” and from the top a clear view is obtained of the machines as they rounded these turns at high speed, forming an exceptional spectacular feature for an automobile hill climb.” (New York Times, August 4, 1907)
Police officers in the section leading up to the hill screamed for the drivers to gun their engines.
“Use more gas.”
“Keep your clutch in,” the bluecoats would yell.
They’d need all the power they could summon as they darted up the steep incline.
But before the drivers even arrived at the base of the hill the course presented a deadly challenge—an iron column that supported the elevated subway tracks directly overhead stood directly in the racers’ path.
Drivers would later take to calling this dangerous passage, between pillar and curb, “the squeeze.”
The Eye of the Needle
During a practice run, before the official hill climbs commenced at noon, driver William Watson, smashed into the pillar.
The accident, viewed by everyone in attendance, added a specter of danger to the climb that the organizers hadn’t likely anticipated.
But the crowd loved “the squeeze.”
“The beginning of yesterday’s climb was at Dyckman Street,” read one breathless account.
“There the subway comes from the ground, running as elevated for some distance. Two steel pillars supporting the easterly side of the elevated structure were in direct line of the beginning of the ascent. In making the start the cars were given some distance to get underway, taking their choice of going either side of the first pillar, but having to leave the second one on the right at a point where the jutting structure of the elevated was not out of the subway far enough to allow much headroom and also where the distance between the pillar and the edge of the sidewalk was only about nine feet.” (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 4, 1907)
Watson, a thirty-four year old Brit, had just finished adjusting a magneto on his Simplex car Number Six when he and his mechanic, William Stark, made the decision to take the car up the hill.
“He got the machine under tremendous headway and tried to leave the first post on the right,” the journalist continued. “The rear hind wheel of the car struck the round granite base of the pillar a glancing blow. Then on an endeavor to straighten out to get through the rather narrow roadway past the second pillar the rear wheels skidded toward the right, going some twenty feet and then falling into a depression where the block pavement had been removed. At the side of this was a pile of lumber which stopped the progress of the car.” (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 4, 1907)
“When the car stopped Watson and the mechanic were still in their seats, with the machine at right angles to the roadway. The right rear wheel was crushed to pieces and the axle bent almost parallel to the left frame,” the reporter continued. (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 4, 1907)
Watson and Stark walked away from the accident unscathed, but they could easily have burned alive.
During the accident the gas tank had been thrown clear of the car. The flammable contents of the mangled canister spilled down the slope.
“The two men in the car clung to their places and were not injured,” another reporter wrote, “and a score of the men hauled the wreck out of the way to a spot directly in front of the subway station.” (New York Press, August 4, 1907)
“This might have seemed hard luck enough for one day, but it wasn’t.
A careless man dropped a light near the car and the gasoline that had leaked from the tank flared up and in a moment it looked as if the car were totally done for. Water and sand were tried without effect on the blaze and then someone got an extinguisher and the fire was out in a moment. It is needless to say the car didn’t enter the races.” (New York Press, August 4, 1907)
The First Race
Just as the competition was set to begin the event organizers realized they had a serious technical problem.
The electrical timing apparatus had malfunctioned. The glitch proved a terrible dilemma because this was, after all, a race against time.
Ultimately it was decided that a timer would be placed on the start and finish lines. The necessary calculations would be made when the event was over and the times would be announced later in the day.
“This necessary recourse,” opined one journalist, “robbed the spectators of the pleasure of knowing each performance as it was made, but this state of affairs could not be helped. (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 4, 1907)
The favorite of the 1907 climb was a mechanic and test driver for the Stearns Company named Frank W. Leland who sat behind the wheel of a six-cylinder roadster equipped with a 45-horse power engine.
Leland’s racing career, though marked by flashes of brilliance, would be short lived. He would later set up a testing facility for Stearns on a farm sixty miles outside of Cleveland.
But from 1907 to 1909 Leland raced his employer’s roadsters in competitions around the country.
“Frank Leland drove the car with superb skill and didn’t spare many inches in cutting the corners of the winding course,” a reporter wrote of the event. “W.I. Fickling, in the Stearns runabout, also gave a good exhibition of driving, and when his car would come in sight of the finish, roaring away like another dragon, the spectators always gave him a cheer. Charles Schlipp in the Stearns 30, went by the finish so fast in his first trial at the climb that it was impossible to see his number and the judges had to run after him to get it for the record.” (New York Press, August 4, 1907)
Leland, the track favorite, would indeed win the silver cup; crossing the finish line in 28 1/5 seconds.
Other drivers also left lasting impressions.
“R.T. Peckham made a hit with the spectators with his yellow Pennsylvania runabout,” wrote a New York Press reporter, “for he had two brown Teddy bears fastened to the front ends of the mud guards. H.E. Wagner also caused amusement when he went up the hill in his little electric which took about five times as long to negotiate the incline as the fastest Stearns did. But he won his cup, just the same.” (New York Press, August 4, 1907)
By all accounts the organizers did an excellent job of pulling together an event that was enjoyed by all.
“The police aided this materially,” one newsman wrote, “although they had their hands full with spectators who wished to risk their lives by walking out in front of the flying cars just to see if they really were ‘coming,’ as the flagman announced. (New York Press, August 4, 1907)
History of Hill Climbs
The narrow window between the turn of the Twentieth Century and the beginning of World War I represented the golden age of hill climbing.
Initially the gatherings had been illegal gatherings of automobile enthusiasts hell bent on outwitting law enforcement while testing their machines against the forces of gravity.
Fort George Hill was a natural choice for the completion. During the years leading up to the first event the site had hosted motorcycle climbs which also attracted fanfare and press coverage.
Even today the New York Fire Department subjects any new apparatus to a Fort George Hill climb before making a purchase.
While these outlaw gatherings afforded the winners bragging rights among a small circle of racers it was not until the automobile manufacturers joined the party that the sport really took off.
These were the early days of automobile sales and there were plenty of shoddy products on the market.
By legitimizing the outlaw circuit auto manufactures ensured that these “bragging rights” would now be theirs. No longer would a consumer have to rely on an automobile salesman for his take on the latest model.
Instead the customer could be told that this was the same thirty-five horsepower English Daimler that Hugh Harding had driven to victory in the 1906 Giants Despair Hill climb outside Wilkes-Barr, Pennsylvania.
“Two minutes and eleven seconds,” the salesperson might state in a voice of admiring disbelief.
And, after considerable political wrangling, the first ever hill climb sanctioned by the City of New York took place on the public roadways of upper Manhattan.
The contest proved as exiting as it was controversial.
Using furious prose worthy of today’s social media, one editorial writer condemned the Fort George Hill Climb stating, “a certain Metropolitan Automobile Association had the effrontery to turn the streets of New York City into a race course to exploit a concern whose publicity engineer was the head and sole member of the aforementioned association. An enabling act was sneaked through the local aldermanic board and signed by the acting mayor, clearly an act of malfeasance on the part of all concerned. Then the subsidized newspaper automobile reporters and the equally guilty trade journals featured the results thereof in sensational headlines.” (“Whom the Gods Would Destroy They First Make Mad, The Horseless Age, Volume 20, 1907)
Politicians and manufacturers alike would be wise to take the “anti-automobilism” movement seriously lest they risk “the total exclusion of all motor vehicles from public highways.”
“The automobile manufacturer who contemplated an entry in this race,” the anti-automobilist continued, “should be reminded that the automobile industry is no longer in the first blush of its youth. Indiscretions, which are pardoned in youth, will not be forgiven in mature years. The public will not hold him blameless for such blunders, and for years to come the motor car business may be crippled by the disgust and distrust of an indignant people should the manufacturers persist in further violation of the laws.” (“Whom the Gods Would Destroy They First Make Mad, The Horseless Age, Volume 20, 1907)
A century later it’s hard to imagine a world without automobiles, but in 1907 Roy F. York, Vice President of the F.B. Stearns Company, felt compelled to respond to the anti-automobilist’s complaints.
“That this contest was an undoubted benefit cannot be denied,” York wrote. “For it has removed the question of hill climbing ability from New York City; its streets and avenues are no longer used for impromptu tests for every demonstration.”
If anything, the auto executive felt the sanctioned climb up Fort George Hill made the streets of New York City less dangerous.
Before the climb, York wrote, “every hill in New York City was being used by various demonstrators, and at almost any time of the day the speed laws were being broken left and right. “ (The Horseless Age, Volume 20, 1907)
“The climb,” York declared, “was to remove the question of hill climbing ability and allow the winner to have undisputed possession of the title. What was the result? Stearns stock cars won almost every event in which the entered, made the lowest time of day, and defeated every domestic and foreign car.” (The Horseless Age, Volume 20, 1907)
It mattered little. York knew America was in love with the automobile. And, for the moment, Stearns was the king of the hill.
1908 Hill Climb
In 1907 the New York Times described the first Fort George Hill climb as a “novel spectacle,” but the following year a full-blown carnival atmosphere surrounded the event.
Attendance totals for the 1908 contest ranged anywhere from fifteen to thirty thousand.
“The hill presented an animated appearance,” wrote an industry reporter. “All the competing cars were parked in the streets at its base, together with several hundred pleasure vehicles, while that many more afforded grandstands at the summit. The hill on both sides of the street was lined with spectators three or four deep…Near the top of the hill, in sight of the finish line, was a natural amphitheater which held several thousand people, and which resembled the bleachers at a league ball game in mid-summer.
Anticipating a thriving business, all the button men had laid in a big supply of dinky little ‘carnival buttons’ and flags. A hasty survey of the crowd failed to reveal a dozen sales. Even the youngster who sweetly called out ‘sowveneer’ hats, and advertised his wares by wearing two—one red, the other green—at diverging angles on his head, was disheartened. One peanut vendor almost had to be restrained from casting himself before the oncoming juggernauts
‘Jees, vat a crowd!’ he exclaimed disconsolately, ‘no vum vants to eat peenits today.’ ” (Motor World, Volume 18, April 16, 1908)
That day eighty-one different vehicles, including those with electric, gas and steam engines crossed the finish line.
The 1908 climb was the largest event of its type ever to be held. In addition to the racecars and industry demos, thousands of car owners showed up with their own vehicles. According to one estimate at least 1,200 automobiles were parked in the vicinity of Fort George. With a selling value of more than $5,000,000 this would have been the largest assemblage of vehicles to date.
The event, which coincided with the tenth anniversary carnival parade of the local automotive trade, displayed just how much the industry had accomplished in the decade past.
“Ten years ago no car had been built that could have made the ascent at any kind of speed,” wrote one reporter. “Five years ago few machines could have taken the hill even on intermediate speed. Yet yesterday automobiles of all types and powers flew up the winding route on “high” at speeds much in excess of all legal limits on level ground under ordinary conditions.” (New York Herald, March 22, 1908)
In 1908 the best-known racers in America, including Maurice Bernan, Barney Oldfield, Manuel Cedrino, Guy Vaughn and Walter White gathered for the race.
“It was an ideal day for the sport,” read one article. “The sun shone brightly; there was not a cloud in the sky and the course was in perfect condition. Although a chill wind blew off the Hudson River, it was not too cold to view the contests with pleasure. The odor of gasoline filled the air, but seemed to suit the spectators better than pure oxygen.” (New York Daily Tribune, April 10, 1908)
After William Watson’s crash into the elevated subway support pillar the previous year it was decided that the flying start would have to be eliminated for the sake of safety.
“All the cars got off to a standing start,” the description continued. “First there was a splutter and splatter, which grew stronger as the power increased. Then came the starter’s cry, ‘Go!’ Before it died out there was a crackle and crash like a rapid-fire gun in action, followed immediately by a roar and rumble. Before the spectator could recover from the shock the car was racing up the hill, with smoke in its wake.” (New York Daily Tribune, April 10, 1908)
“The fastest flight of the day was made by Walter C. White, of Cleveland,” noted an industry scribe, “when in the free-for-all he flew up the slope in his odd looking White steamer in 32 1/5 seconds, an average of 40.2 miles an hour. “ (The Motor World, Volume 18, April 16, 1908)
White piloted a steam-powered automobile called the White Steamer.
White was a regular on the racing circuit and the odds-on favorite to win that day.
He was the crowd favorite as well.
“There was no need to consult programs when White finally did shoot up the hill in a cloud of steam,” wrote the Motor World reporter. “His half smile is almost historic, and besides he wore the same Norfolk jacket, corduroy ‘knickers’ and leather cap that have made him conspicuous in every event of importance for the last three years. White has other clothes but this is the outfit he always dons when he has victory in mind. Thus far they have proved a pretty good mascot.
About 200 White rooters stormed the highest and biggest rock half way up, and from their lofty citadel kept the crowd informed that White was going to shove Father Time into the Atlantic Ocean, Hoboken or some other place. The White Company had distributed several thousand aluminum ‘noisy snapper jacks’ and the crowd worked overtime to get a putty-put-put-putty-put-put sound from them. When the several thousand went off at once, the Battle of Port Arthur must have been a Quaker first day meeting in comparison.” (Motor World, Volume 18, April 16, 1908)
1909 Hill Climb
April 26, 1909 was an ideal day for a hill climb. A bright sun warmed the fifteen thousand spectators who had bundled up to protect themselves from a strong northwest wind.
While a variety of vehicles would be represented in a total of nine separate events, all interest lay in the free-for-all, which, as in previous years, was open to all types of cars; steam and electric included.
Robert Bruce, who sat behind the wheel of a 120 horsepower Benz, would capture the coveted silver cup.
“The big Benz car,” wrote a Times reporter, “with a rattle as of musketry coming from its exhausts, sped up the incline like a huge skyrocket in the fast time of :28 4/5” seconds. (New York Times, April 27, 1909)
The crowd went berserk as racers like H. Walter Webb shot up the course in his 120 horse power Panhard, but off-track a much more subtle drama played out.
Shortly before the races began at 1:30 that afternoon, veteran hill climber Joan Newton Cuneo was told by the referee that the official rules barred women from competing in the event.
Cuneo was furious. She had paid the ten-dollar entrance fee and her appearance had been widely publicized. The fact that she was a woman had not been concealed from anyone. In fact, she was a well-known figure on the circuit,
“Almost in tears,” the New York Times reported, “Mrs. Cuneo demanded to know the reason why her entry had been accepted and then barred from the contests… Her entry had been accepted by the Carnival Committee and Mrs. Cuneo had come to New York from Springfield, Conn., to participate in the hill climbing.” (New York Times, April 27, 1909)
Standing beside her Knox Giant, Cuneo couldn’t believe what she was being told.
“I have been permitted to compete in contests heretofore, and it seems strange that I should be barred on this occasion,” she told referee Robert Lee Morrell. “My entry fee was accepted and I have my car prepared for the exhibition I was to give. In addition to that I have come from Springfield to take part in the contests.” (New York Times, April 27, 1909)
“The officials told Mrs. Cuneo that they regretted the necessity of refusing to let her drive, but that the rule which unfortunately covered her case must be enforced,” the Times continued. “Mrs. Cuneo looked wistfully on as the other drivers in the hill climb drove their cars up the ascent. She was attired in a jaunty, loose fitting khaki suit, with auto cap and gauntlet gloves.”
“Revenge is sweet, especially to women,” Cuneo shot back, threatening to put the “kibosh” against the straightaway speed trials set to be held on Hillside Avenue, Jamaica, Long Island the following day. (The Motor World, 1909, Volume 10)
Her threat of a legal injunction never materialized.
1909 would prove the last official hill climb held on Fort George.
The automotive industry had come into its own in the years since Frank Leland had darted up the hill to capture the silver cup. The industry no longer needed a public proving ground to gain acceptance.
Automobiles were here to stay.
As for Leland, his record time in the Fort George Hill Climb would never be broken. Though in all fairness, competitors in later years were not allowed the flying start afforded to the racers of 1907.
British driver William Watson, who famously crashed his Simplex Car Number Six into the elevated subway pillar in 1907, would go on to become a respected automobile dealer after test driving a Rolls Royce Silver Ghost. Watson would own and run a high-end showroom and workshop in Liverpool through the 1950’s. When Watson died at the age of 87 in 1961 his company was the largest automobile distributor in the northwest of England.
Steam engine pioneer Walter White, whose customers had included Presidents William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, began producing gasoline-powered vehicles in 1911. By 1919 White and his brothers, Windsor and Rollin, shifted all of their energies to the production of trucks and other commercial vehicles. White died in 1929 after sustaining injuries in an automobile accident.
In 1911 Joan Newton Cuneo, who had been barred from the Fort George Hill Climb, broke the women’s world speed record of 111.5 miles per hour from behind the wheel of a Pope Hummer on the Long Island Motor Parkway. She died in 1934 at the age of 58.
As for the course itself, little has changed since this 1907 description:
“The distance the cars had to travel was 1,900 feet and the slope was sharp enough to make anyone walking up the hill from the starting line pant by the time he had reached the top of the hill…” (New York Press, August 4, 1907)
Take a walk up the hill. It’ll take your breath away.