In the 1890s, automobiles existed – just barely – but very few Americans had ever seen one. The speedy way to travel was by railroad. Outside large cities, roads were mainly unpaved. Bicycling was becoming a fashionable pursuit, and cycling clubs initiated what they called the Good Roads movement, petitioning municipalities to improve road surfaces to make the pastime easier and more civilized. Some places, including Ulster County, responded quickly. Others, such as Delaware County, were reluctant to spend tax monies on such frivolities.
It took the commercial manufacture of cars, beginning at the turn of the century, to light a fire under laggard communities. Industry leaders (many of whom had started out as bicycle-makers) formed the National Association of Automobile Manufacturers and began brainstorming ways to make car ownership feasible and attractive to middle-class Americans. A drivable road network was a key component of this dream.
Demonstration races and tours organized by these entrepreneurs proved an effective approach to public relations, earning extensive newspaper coverage and whipping up enthusiasm for the so-called “devil wagons.” Among the earliest of these was the Automobile Endurance Run of 1903, in which 34 primitive vehicles (with neither roofs nor windshields) set out in rainy conditions from Weehawken, New Jersey on October 7, bound for Pittsburgh nearly 850 miles away. They drove up the Hudson Valley following what is now Route 9W, turning west at Kingston to climb the Catskills. A Pierce Arrow pilot car led the way, sprinkling confetti to mark the intersections where the drivers needed to make a turn, since there was often no signage.
The most daunting obstacle for these intrepid motorists proved to be the unimproved dirt roads of Delaware County. They did fine as far as their first overnight stop at Pine Hill, with about 20 miles’ worth of luxurious crushed-bluestone macadam having been laid down just the year before on the road then known as the Ulster and Delaware Turnpike, paralleling modern-day Route 28. But the light rains of the first day turned to six inches of torrential downpour on the second. The unpaved Catskill and Susquehanna Turnpike quickly became a sea of mud, ruts and washouts. Some 20 cars reportedly had to be hauled by draft horses to the apex of Palmer Hill, outside Andes.
By the time they reached Unadilla on the third day, ten inches of rain had fallen and the Susquehanna River was in full flood. Only 25 cars ultimately made it to Pittsburgh, the last straggler arriving on October 16. Veterans of the first Endurance Run were known in the decades that followed as the Mud Larks.
Sound like a nightmare? The only woman among the travelers, Edith Riker, termed the experience “glorious,” despite at least one night of camping on the roadside with nothing but a tarp propped up on boards to keep off the rain. It would probably make a terrific movie. Subsequent Endurance Runs, renamed Glidden Tours after a wealthy sponsor, added new routes to New England, the Midwest, Canada and Florida that became an annual tradition for another decade.
Nowadays, memories of the arduous 1903 expedition are being kept alive in the Catskills by Shokan-based artist Robert Selkowitz, who became a classic sportscar enthusiast in his teens. By the late 1970s he was sketching old cars at vintage automobile rallies and making friends with serious collectors and refurbishers. Living in Andes in the 1980s, he got involved with local initiatives to promote tourism and was among the early promoters of the concept of a Catskill Mountain Scenic Byway.
Out of that effort came the idea for an annual classic automobile rally that would roughly follow the route of the original Endurance Run, with incentives for participants and viewers to stick around and explore the surrounding communities.
With Selkowitz at the wheel and encouragement from Ulster County tourism officials, the Catskill Conquest Rally had its first outing in 2017, 20 to 30 drivers each year making the 75-mile journey on paved modern roads. Cars of various vintages participate, the earliest so far being a 1913 Maxwell. Some drivers dress up in period clothing to match their rides.
One year the event featured a talk from Richard Riker, grandson of the aforementioned Edith and her husband Andrew L. Riker, developer of some of America’s earliest commercially produced electric cars and a pioneer in the transition to gas-powered vehicles.
Despite Covid 19, this year’s Catskill Conquest Rally is going forward on Saturday, September 26, with cars assembling from 9 to 10 a.m. at the Maurice D. Hinchey Catskill Visitor Center in Mount Tremper and making their leisurely way to the finish line at the Unadilla House. The usual stops at local festivals along the route won’t be happening, but a thick glossy booklet for rally participants offers plenty of tips for scenic side trips and local attractions, such as a covered bridge tour route. The program book also features reproductions of photos, contemporary news clippings and other historical documents concerning the original Automobile Endurance Run.
Like the event that inspired it, the Catskill Conquest Rally is not a race. And you don’t need access to an antique car to come along. “If you love your car, come and drive it!” says Selkowitz. He’ll likely be at the wheel of the rather mundane 2014 Dodge van that he uses to schlep his easel, canvases, paints and pastels to various viewpoints to paint sprawling Catskills landscapes. If you’d like to come along, download the registration form at www.1903autorun.com/event-registration. And don’t forget your mask!