By Leigh Morris
Our Place in History
America’s auto industry was launched on Sept. 21, 1893, when the Duryea brothers’ one-cylinder gasoline engine-powered motorcar ran noisily through the streets of Springfield, Mass.
However, this story begins right here in Central Illinois. Charles Duryea was born up in Canton on Dec. 31, 1861. By the time his brother Frank was born on Oct. 8, 1869, the family had moved to Washburn, 55 miles to the northeast.
Then came another move, one that according to Charles proved to be most fortuitous. The family settled in Stark County, four or so miles east of Wyoming.
Young Charles attended South Side School in Wyoming, where beginning in 1873 he was taught by famed local educator William Sandham. Charles later would assert that he learned more at the South Side School than he had at all the other schools he attended combined.
It was in Wyoming that Charles built his first bicycle, using only a catalog picture as a guide. The brothers enjoyed success as bicycle manufacturers, but their interest soon turned to the automobile. Charles even predicted “the advent of the automobile” in his 1882 college thesis.
Charles began building bicycles in 1888, first in St. Louis and then in Peoria. Frank joined him that year immediately after graduating from high school. The two then moved to Washington, D.C., where their interest turned to automobiles.
Working out of rented quarters in Springfield, Mass, the Charles and Frank built the vehicle and one-cylinder engine, completing it in 1893 for their famous Sept. 21 drive.
However, the car wasn’t a success, prompting Charles to return to building bicycles in Peoria. Frank decided to stick with designing a better motor vehicle. And he did, the 1895 Duryea Motor Wagon.
Fearing that America was lagging behind Europe in the development of the automobile, the Chicago Times-Herald offered a gold medal and $5,000 in prizes for a race between Chicago and Milwaukee. Eventually, the route was changed to a 55-mile course through the streets of Chicago and Evanston. It would be held on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 28, 1895.
Despite a storm that dumped a foot of snow on Nov. 25, America’s first auto race took place as scheduled. Early in the race a mishap involved the Duryea, which struck stepping stones at a street crossing. The steering gear was damaged. In violation of the rules (an infraction that was overlooked), Frank, who was driving the vehicle, secured the assistance of a nearby blacksmith. In just 55 minutes, the vehicle was back in the race.
The Duryea Motor Wagon proved to be quite durable, but nearly lost its lead late in the race. Frank misread a directional sign posted at Clark Street and Lawrence Avenue. As a result, he drove an extra 2 miles before rejoining the race route.
Nonetheless, the Duryea Motor Wagon won that first race. The newspaper awarded the Duryea Motor Wagon Co. $2,000 for “the best performance in the road race, for range of speed and pull, with compactness of design.”
Next: A feud sinks the Duryeas.