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Welcome to America Comes Alive!, a site I created to share little-known stories of America's past. These stories are about Americans - people just like you - who have made a difference and changed the course of history. Look around the site and find what inspires you. Kate Kelly

Automobiles: In the Days of Crank and Sputter – August 2009

Auto Sales Stimulus: 1909

“Transcontinental Car Contest Underway” is not a headline that would grab much attention in 2009, but with a dateline of June 23, 1909, it is a very different story. The trip from New York to Seattle across largely unpaved roads in automobiles that traveled at less then 20 miles per hour took 23 days and was filled with unexpected adventures.

In 1909 mining heir Robert Guggenheim, 24, decided to sponsor a cross-country auto race, ostensibly to encourage the building of better roads. (Roads at that time were like driving over washboards, and people still needed horses and sleighs if there was snow.) He wanted to conclude the race in Seattle, so he coordinated his event with that city’s opening of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, a world’s fair to encourage development of the Pacific Northwest (much as the 1908 Democratic Convention in Denver had opened up the Rocky Mountain area to easterners.

Continue reading to learn what car won the transcontinental race.

Fast Facts about Early Cars

In the early 20th century, the newly created automobiles were costly and only the wealthy could afford them. In the first six months of 1906, it was reported that “rich people speeding through the streets in their big cars” killed more Americans than were killed by the enemy during the Spanish American war. As a result of this, most of the public was very much against cars.

– Vermont passed a law that required every motorist to have a person of mature age walk ahead with a red flag. Counties in Pennsylvania and West Virginia banned cars from country roads, and farmers were said to take the matter on themselves by creating log barriers or scattering shards of glass on the roads…and even taking pot shots and motorists. Ditches were also added to roads to thwart people from coming through.

– When the Model T was invented, only 20 percent of roads in the U.S. were paved.

– The custom of traveling on the right side of the road pre-dated the automobile. The first cars had the steering wheel on the right side as well in order to better steer the car and keep it out of roadside ditches. Ford moved the location of the steering wheel, foreseeing the day when oncoming traffic was a bigger concern than navigating ditches!