1908 Motorcycle Endurance Run in the Catskills tested riders and machines

Photos from Motorcycle Illustrated, july 1, 1908.

If Rip Van Winkle had postponed his awakening until Monday morning next (June 29, 1908), he would have had the need to give his eyes an extra rub. For very early that day, 6 o’clock, to be exact, there will be seen in the domain in which he so long slumbered, a sight such as he never dreamed of – the sight of 65 men on motor bicycles traversing the ups and downs of the lore-laden Catskill Mountains.” The Bicycling World and Motorcycle Review

The Hudson Valley and the Catskill Mountains are part of the American imagination, a cauldron for artistic identity and a proving ground for the emergence of personal mechanical mobility. There was Fulton’s steamboat, the early railroads and the earliest tests for automobiles in 1903. And here documented, a 1908 motorcycle endurance run over now familiar roads, but what were once incredibly challenging terrain.

This Run was the latest in a series of increasingly larger endurance trials for motorcycles.

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The route started in Catskill and then ascended through Leeds and Cairo to Windham, generally the route of State Route 23. Then it turned south through Hensonville to Hunter, Tannersville and Haines Falls before descending to Palenville along what is now State Route 23A.

From Palenville, the route went to Saugerties, Kingston, Highland and Newburgh, Tuxedo, Suffern, Spring Valley, Nyack, ferried across the Hudson River to Tarrytown and down to New York City. In all, it covered 174.5 miles from Catskill to the city. On the second day the cyclists did a circle around Long Island.

“As everyone knows, the upper part of this route is through mountainous country, and the run over this stretch is the most strenuous test of motorcycles which has ever been made… The Palenville mountain was indeed a dangerous ride. Be it known that to even walk down this mountain is a dangerous enough task. So one may easily fancy what it was to cycle down. But right here the coaster brakes came into play, and it is a great testimony to their efficiency that not a single coaster brake was put out of commission in this terrific test.” — Motorcycle Illustrated, vol III, no. 7, July 1,1908.

The starters included 17 different makes from ten states. The greatest group were the 16 Indian motorcycles, made in Springfield, Massachusetts. Walter Davidson brought three Harley-Davidsons from Milwaukee, and he drove his to a perfect score in the finish. The Harleys had 3 ½ horsepower and leather belt drive. Power ranged from three to seven horsepower; 48 entries were single cylinder, 17 two cylinder, 32 had chain drive, 27 had belt drive, 3 had chain-belt and 3 had bevel gear drive. Some of the other makes were Minerva, Curtis, Simplex, N.S.U., Merkel, Auto-Bi, Wagner, Thor, Excelsior, R.S., F.N., Reliance, Bradley.

The motorcycles also had pedals and chains and the coaster brake was what we grew up with on single speed bikes, push back on the pedal and you hit the brake. There were no front brakes.

I came to this story of this 1908 Run through meeting Bill Nugent at his Woodstock Harley-Davidson dealership on Route 28. I had stopped to ask permission to use his extensive parking area for tow vehicles and trailers of entrants in the Pilot Rally commemorating the 1903 Automobile Endurance Run up Route 28 which I am presenting in September. He was pleased to offer that permission and then grew very interested in my vision for an Automobile Heritage Trail based on the historic 1903 route through 14 New York counties. He had the same vision for a Motorcycle Heritage Trail based on the 1908 Endurance Run. He wanted to stage a rally from Catskill along the route down to Newburgh where it would terminate at the Motorcyclepedia Museum where 500 motorcycles are on display.

Nugent, born in Brooklyn and having moved upstate in 1997, bought the Harley dealership in 2012. He feels that these historic Endurance Runs have ‘high intrinsic value’ for tourism in the Hudson Valley and Catskill Mountains. Thinking about the struggles to make those rides more than 100 years ago enriches the experience of cruising the modern roads today. He had Walter Davidson’s great grandson John Davidson here last year and they made a short video together and rode part of the route. He hopes that with Governor Cuomo’s interest in Catskill Challenge touring there should be some interest in these efforts in Albany. With the 1908 Motorcycle Endurance Run staged in late June and the 1903 Automobile Endurance Run in late September, we have the local historical precedents to create significant tourism events for our region book-ending the busy Summer season.

Nugent became intrigued by antique bikes and has a few from his collection at the dealership. In 2010 he drove a V-twin 9 hp 1913 Sears motorcycle from Myrtle Beach to Santa Monica Pier in the Cannonball Run. He had a top speed of 32 mph along the southern Route 66.

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