1903 automobile endurance run to be reenacted in Catskills


Automobiles were something else 114 years ago, when the 1903 Automobile Endurance Run being commemorated by the Catskill Conquest Pilot Rally Saturday, September 23, took place over several early October days, marked by heavy rains and floods along the run’s 800 mile path from Weehawken, NJ to Pittsburgh, PA.

Auto designs were in many styles, and often customized by their wealthy owners (who still only numbered in the thousands). Windshields were unheard of, as were roofs. Beyond a 20 mile stretch of crushed bluestone macadam in Ulster County, which drew the Endurance Run’s planners to the Catskills, most roads were nothing but two ruts… which meant that American cars tended to ride higher than those in Europe; they had to make it over what lay between those ruts.

According to Robert Selkowitz, the Shokan-based artist who dreamed up the Catskill Conquest Pilot Rally and is bringing it to glorious life complete with website, popular Facebook page, a Powerpoint presentation, flyers and events, and a beautifully-illustrated 40-page route guide, Saturday’s rally — which starts at 9 a.m. at Woodstock Harley Davidson on Route 28 on its eastern side and the historic Unadilla House, near the banks of the Susquehanna River, in the west — each with breakfast for entrants and host registration (as well as a car show and Friday night screening of the classic film, The Great Race, in Unadilla) — has come together.


“We will travel a 90 mile section of the original 800 mile route following State Route 28 over the Catskill Mountains Scenic Byway to Pine Hill, where the 36 cars from 17 different makes had their first overnight stop on October 7, 1903,” Selkowitz, the rally’s director said. “We continue through Margaretville, where the Cauliflower Festival will welcome entrants, and on through Andes, Delhi (where an exhibit will be on display at the Delaware County Historical Association showing the original route taken in 1903), Franklin and Unadilla. At Unadilla we cross the Susquehanna River and end our route at Unadilla House.”

As of press time, the Catskill Conquest Pilot Rally had 15 automobiles pre-registered, from a 1913 Maxwell and a few Model Ts some Buicks from the 1930s and a 2015 Tesla, though Selkowitz has posted on Facebook that entrants are still coming in.

During the rally being commemorated, Selkowitz noted, mud loosened by downpours mired Packards, Pierce-Arrows, Franklins and steam-powered Locomobiles and White Steamers once they’d gotten past the Esopus Valley’s 20 mile stretch of Bluestone macadam through parts of Olive and Shandaken, which had been contracted and built a dozen years before construction started on the Ashokan Reservoir. Everyone had overnighted in a field at Pine Hill and among the endeavor’s 125 passengers was one woman, Edith Riker, who rode alongside her husband Andrew L. Riker in their Locomobile and became something of a celebrity as newspapermen interviewed her. Mrs. Riker gained instant fame at the time for her characterization of the Run as leaving her “de-light-ed” even though “Mr. Riker does love to drive fast and I don’t care. He won’t jeopardize his own life, and I am as safe as Mr. Riker, anyway. It is glorious, I think, to fly through the country night or day at railroad speed over all sorts of roads.”

All who made that trip in October of 1903 would later call themselves “Mud Larks.”

“Drivers carried bags of confetti that they threw out along the way so people could see how to go,” Selkowitz added. “We have signs now. It’s a great ride.”

Will he, the Catskill Conquest Pilot Rally’s originator and director, be driving along this Saturday? Selkowitz said if he did it would likely be in his 2014 Dodge Grand Caravan…unless he found himself invited to ride in some of the participants’ cars.

We asked about Selkowitz’s earliest memories of driving in the area to Mt. Tremper, Andes, Woodstock, Rosendale and then Olive, back before he moved here full time.

He spoke about heading east from Cornell University in Ithaca to Bard College during the autumn of 1970 in a 1964 Triumph TR4 that he’d bought for $400, and later was stolen. But also about getting stuck in traffic near White Lake when headed, earlier, for the epochal Woodstock Festival of summer, 1969.

“I came back in 1972,” he continued. “I moved up in 1975.”

Selkowitz was enthused about this weekend, including reports that the weather should be perfect for such a drive through the Catskills.

“I’m planning ahead through 2023,” he added.

Selkowitz said everything took root a few years back while he was helping a local committee research, plan, and eventually pass a Catskills Mountain Scenic Byway along Route 28 from Olive to Delhi.

In his research, Selkowitz came upon photos and accounts of that first endurance run, then realized there was possible funding for the creation of an event to commemorate that historic moment when automobiling and road construction hit its stride in our area. Such an  event, he figured, could serve as a perfect means of drawing attention to the new byway. But the idea of the byway found itself met with some controversy and backlash (Hurley never signed on, for instance, citing home rule reasons).

“My idea didn’t get support from the Town of Olive because people were saying it would be too big,” Selkowitz recalled of those early plans from several years back. “That set me off on this quest…It turned into an Historical Worm Hole, but so interesting, and I’ve done more than a hundred drawings of old cars from the 1900s to the 1960s as I got into the old car hobby subcultures trying to promote the story.”

Several grants, many sponsorships, and a lot of legwork later, the artist finally gave himself an okay for this weekend’s event about a year ago. Along the way, he made sure to envision growth for the LLC he set up, by setting dates for future, longer rallies aimed at eventually re-running the entire 800 mile route first undertaken in 1903. And by figuring out that the sort of enthusiasts who would take their vintage automobiles on such a trek had money they’d want to spend in ways that ensured their prized cars could handle the ride well while giving themselves decent places to stay in along the still-scenic route through the Catskills and Alleghanies.

For more on the Catskill Conquest Pilot Rally commemorating the 1903 Automobile Endurance Run this Saturday, September 23, visit www.1903autorun.com, call (845) 657-6982, or look the event up on Facebook.

There is one comment

  1. Jay Simpson

    My grandfather, Jay H Simpson, had a small role in attracting this automobile run to pass through the Catskills. For eight years he was Highway Commissioner of the Town of Shandaken and re-built the road from Phoenicia to Pine Hill that was the successor to the Ulster and Delaware Turnpike (Plank Road) that had failed in 1816. After the failure of the turnpike, the local townships became responsible for the construction and maintenance of their highways. Some did a better job than others. The New York Tribune in its September 8, 1902 issue remarked in the article “On the way to Chicago”, “From Phoenicia to Pine Hill there is a stretch of eight miles of state road that is as fine a bit of improved road as is to be found anywhere. The supervisor in charge of this road is Jay Simpson of Phoenicia, and himself an ardent enthusiast.

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