Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Monday, December 12, 2016

One of the Earliest Illegal Motorcar Races Tore Through Pelham in 1905

Clouds of dust billowed from beneath the whizzing wheels of the racing machines.  Boston Post Road was filled with the sounds of whining engines, grinding gears, and whoops of glee from the occupants of three motorcars racing on the unpaved roadway.   

It was the evening of Tuesday, April 4, 1905.  It was a lovely early Spring evening.  Munroe Crane, Jr. and his son and daughter were out for an early evening horseback ride along the road.  As they sauntered along, they could hear in the distance high-pitched whines and the occasional grinds of mechanical gears.  Shortly, the motorcars were nearly upon them, frightening their three horses.  The small party had great difficulty in controlling their horses as the motorcars sped past.

According to a news account, Munroe Crane was "considerably wrought up" and took off galloping after the three motorcars in hot pursuit.  Crane's horse could not keep up the pace and fell well behind the racing cars.  

As Crane continued his pursuit on horseback, the cars sped down Boston Post Road.  As fortune would have it, two bicycle policemen happened to be on the roadway as the cars whizzed past:  Bicycle Policeman Durham of the West Chester station and Bicycle Policeman Gall of the Wakefield station.  The two police officers took off behind the racing cars, pedaling furiously in what certainly must have seemed a futile attempt to apprehend the occupants of the cars.  

The motorcars raced along with the two police officers pedaling bicycles as fast as their legs could pump.  Behind the bicyclists was the exhausted horse carrying Munroe Crane of Pelham Manor galloping along behind.  Today the scene might remind us of a Keystone Cops comedy.  

The cars already had raced as fast as they could for at least three miles.  It began to look as though the horseless carriages simply would race away into the distance leaving the police officers, Munroe Crane and his poor horse to eat their dust.  Once again, however, fortune intervened. 

At the time there was a sharp bend in Boston Post Road to permit a turn onto Pelham Avenue.  There the motorcars had to slow to navigate the turn.  Fortuitously, a police station was nearby and, indeed, was in sight.  

As the three motorcars slowed to navigate the turn, the occupants could see the police bicyclists gaining on them.  With a police station in sight, one of the occupants panicked and leaped from his motorcar.  He took off on a run and slipped into a nearby saloon.  At that moment, Officers Durham and Gall sped past the three motorcars on their bicycles and stopped them, placing the drivers and occupants of the vehicles under arrest.

According to a news report, "[a]fter they had placed the racers under arrest, one of the policemen pedalled along in front as a vanguard, the other in the rear, and thus they escorted the party to the station."  As the procession arrived at the station, Munroe Crane of Pelham galloped up on his exhausted horse.  He was furious and promised to appear in police court the next day to testify against the racers.  

The vehicles, it turned out, had raced along Boston Post Road at the unheard of speed of twenty-five miles an hour!  Charges were pressed against only the drivers of the vehicles.  Bail was set at $200 per driver.  The passengers in each of the three vehicles promptly raised and paid the bail.

What of the man who leaped from one of the three automobiles and escaped?  That is a story in and of itself.  

Because the escapee was a passenger in one of the vehicles and not its driver, the police made no effort to apprehend him.  It turned out that the man was no other than famed American professional boxer and former World Heavyweight Champion James Jackson Jeffries (born Apr. 15, 1875; died Mar. 3, 1953).  

James Jackson Jeffries, an Occupant of One of Three
Motorcars that Raced Through Pelham on Boston
Post Road at the Unheard of Speed of 25 MPH on the
Evening of Tuesday, April 4, 1905.  Source:  Library of
Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Digital ID
cph 3b24372.  NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

It turned out that although Jeffries was a passenger in one of the three motorcars, he actually owned it.  When he leaped out of the car and slipped into a nearby saloon, patrons inside immediately recognized him as the former World Champion who, on June 9, 1899, defeated Bob Fitzsimmons by knockout in Brooklyn, New York to win the Heavyweight Championship of the World.  (In his second successful title defense he set the record for the quickest knockout in a Heavyweight title fight ever, knocking out Tom Sharkey only 55 seconds into the match.)  See "James J. Jeffries" in Wikipedia -- The Free Encyclopedia (visited Dec. 3, 2016).  

A large crowd gathered around Jeffries as soon as he entered the saloon.  According to one account, the crowd "stood around and rubbered at him until his departure."  

The great motorcar race of April 4, 1905 seems unprecedented for its day.  Though it seems amusing today to think of a hot rod race with cars chugging along at a mere 25 miles per hour, that was a shocking speed for ordinary automobiles of that day.  It is even more amusing to think of two bicycle cops pedaling furiously and successfully apprehending racing automobilists who could not even be caught by a man on horseback over a three-mile stretch.  

The new-fangled technology of the "horseless carriage" was beginning to collide with the ancient transportation means of horses and horse-drawn equipment.  Even more interestingly, the region, as noted previously, was beginning to divide into "automobilists" who supported improved roadways and expansion of the uses of motorcars, and "anti-automobilists" who bound together in local organizations to fight such expansion and to restrict the use of motorcars through speed limits and traffic ordinances.  Clearly, Munroe Crane, Jr. joined the ranks of the anti-automobilists that spring day in 1905.  

Though It Is Unknown What Model Cars Were Involved in
the Great Motorcar Race Through Pelham in 1905, This
is an Example of a 1905 Model.  It is a 1905 Buffum Roadster
(with a Rumble Seat) Manufactured by The H. H. Buffum
& Co. of Massachusetts.  NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

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Immediately below is the text of a newspaper article that forms the basis for today's article.  It is followed by a citation and link to its source.

Champion Said to Have Been in One of 3 Autos Going at 25 Miles an Hour.

Bicycle Policemen Durham of the West Chester station and Gall of the Wakefield station rounded up at the West Chester station early last evening a party of a dozen men whom they accused of racing three automobiles on Boston post road.  The policemen said that one of the party had escaped by jumping from the automobile and running into a saloon as he caught sight of the police station, and that the fugitive was Jeffries, the prizefighter.  

The automobiles, the policemen said, raced along the Boston post road for nearly three miles at a speed exceeding twenty-five miles an hour.  The bicyclists had great difficulty in keeping up with them and could not have arrested them had they not been obliged to slow up at the sharp turn into Pelham avenue.  After they had placed the racers under arrest, one of the policemen pedalled along in front as a vanguard, the other in the rear, and thus they escorted the party to the station.

Hardly had the policemen told their story when Munroe Crane, a business man with a place of business at 653 West Thirty-ninth street, who lives in Pelham Manor and is prominent in the politics of that section, came racing up to the station on horseback.  According to his story, he also had witnessed the race.  He was riding with his son and daughter, he said, when the autos raced past him and he and his children had great difficulty in controlling their horses.  Mr. Crane was considerably wrought up over the occurrence and promised to appear against the automobilists in Morrisania police court this morning.

No attention was paid to the man said to be Jeffries by the police after he had made his escape, but the news that the champion was in a saloon drew a large crowd, which stood around and rubbered at him until his departure.  

James Bigelow, one of the men arrested, who said he lived at 340 West End avenue, refused to give the name of the owner of the machine.  It was in this machine that Jeffries was riding, and it was said that the champion was the owner.

The other drivers were George Mitchell of 545 Lenox avenue and James Roach, who said that their employers were J. M. Ohneiss of 133 West 119th street and J. Murphy of 138th street and Amsterdam avenue.  Bail in $200 was furnished for all the drivers by other men in the party.  Only the drivers were placed under arrest."

Source:  SAY JEFFRIES RAN AWAY -- Champion Said to Have Been in One of 3 Autos Going at 25 Miles an Hour, The Sun, Apr. 5, 1905, Vol. LXXII, No. 217, p. 1, col. 2.  

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I have written before about the early years of the automobile in Pelham.  For a few examples, see:  

Thu., Dec. 01, 2016:  Pelham Manor Sided With the Anti-Automobilists in 1902.

Wed., Nov. 09, 2016:  Who Drove the First Automobile in Pelham?

Thu., Nov. 05, 2015:  The Earliest Days of the Automobile in Pelham.  

Thu., Jan. 07, 2010:  Pelham Manor Police Establish Speed Traps on Shore Road in 1910 to Catch Those Traveling Faster than Fifteen Miles Per Hour.

Mon., Jul. 20, 2009:  Early Automobile Accident and Explosion on Shore Road Near Travers Island in 1902.

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