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THE GREAT RACE OF 1878

Author Photo
By Richard Backus

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1874 patent drawings for Cowles' two-cylinder, four-wheel-steer, four-wheel-drive steam traction engine.
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Steam traction engine.
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The Oshkosh in front of John Morse’s shop on Ceape Street in
Oshkosh, Wis. Although not proven, it’s generally believed this
photo was taken at the time of the race. Unfortunately, no photos
of the Oshkosh’s rival, the Green Bay, are known.

A few of the players in this drama are identified in the photo,
including Alexander Gallinger (seated at the wheel), Anson Farrand
(bearded man standing on the wagon tongue), and Frank Schomer
(standing on tongue to Farrand’s right)

Notice the fake smoke coming from the stack. The Oshkosh Public
Museum has two versions of this photo: one with smoke added in, and
another without.

The steam traction engine was, for all practical purposes, still
in its infancy in 1878. That year, the J.I. Case Threshing Machine
Co., Racine, Wis., manufactured its first steam traction engine, a
rudimentary, horse-steered machine. Indeed, six more years would
pass before Case introduced a self-steering traction engine. Yet,
that same year a seemingly unknown event occurred in Case’s
home state, an event that Case whether directly or indirectly
inspired: America’s first road race. Not only was it the first
road race before automobiles, it was a race between two steam
traction engines.

INSPIRATION

In 1871, John Wesley Carhart, a physics professor at Wisconsin
State University, designed and built a steam-powered buggy. Powered
by a two-cylinder steam engine, Carhart’s buggy was the first
self-propelled vehicle to come from the Badger State, and according
to at least one source, Carhart’s vehicle (nicknamed
‘Spark’) was the result of collaboration between Carhart
and J.I. Case. If true, Case assumed-ly supplied the engine for
Carhart’s machine.

Inspired by Carhart’s machine, the Wisconsin legislature
passed an 1875 act authorizing the payment of a $10,000 bounty to
‘any citizen of Wisconsin, who shall invent, and after five
years continued trial and use, shall produce a machine propelled by
steam or other motive agent, which shall be a cheap and practical
substitute for the use of horses, and other animals on the highway
and farm.’

The act was amended in 1876 and again in 1877, with the final
version removing the ‘five years continued trial and use’
requirement. In place of this ambiguous clause, requirements for a
successful trial were spelled out. Specifically, the act required
contestants to complete a 200-mile route at ‘not less than five
miles per hour working time,’ and it required that any machine
competing be able to function in both forward and reverse.
Competing machines would be put through a series of trials
(including plowing and pulling loaded wagons), with appointed state
representatives in attendance to verify performance. The act called
for trials to commence in July 1878 and to end 10 days
thereafter.

GENTLEMEN, STEAM YOUR ENGINES

On July 16, 1878, the contesting engines lined up in Green Bay,
Wis., for the start of the highly anticipated race. A 200-mile
course had been laid out, running south from Green Bay to Appleton,
Oshkosh, Waupon, Watertown, Fort Atkinson and Janesville, then
turning north and ending in Madison.

Six machines originally registered for the race, but only two
actually competed: the Oshkosh and the Green Bay (the machines were
referred to by their town of origin). A third machine, the Madison,
supposedly made for Green Bay but got stuck in mud along the way. A
fourth, the Milwaukee, simply failed to work, and a fifth, the Fond
du Lac, was never completed. The origin of the supposed sixth entry
is unknown.

The 1878 race started in Green Bay, ran south to Janesville then
north to Madison. The Oshkosh covered 201 miles in 33 hours 27
minutes.

OSHKOSH

Contemporary reports give some description of the two machines,
but a complete mechanical account has been lost to time. The
Oshkosh, described at the time by the Post-Crescent of
Appleton as ‘queer looking,’ was a 12 HP, two-cylinder unit
with a vertical boiler, similar in appearance and design to the
Champion traction engines built a decade or so later by D. June
& Co. The July 15, 1878, Daily State Gazette (Green
Bay) provided further details, noting the Oshkosh had engine
cylinders of 6-inch bore and 8-inch stroke. Weight was a claimed
5,000 pounds.

Further description comes from an Aug. 14, 1921, account of the
race by The Milwaukee Journal, which said the
Oshkosh’s vertical boiler had ‘150 1-3/4-inch tubes with a
box heater rounding at the bottom. Two engine cylinders, with link
motion, were attached on top of the heaters. The propelling device
was a sprocket pinion on the crankshaft. The driving chain was
similar to that used on motor trucks today. The wheels were of
wood.’

The creative talent behind the Oshkosh lay in the minds of at
least six men: Martin T. Battis, Anson Farrand, Alexander
Gallinger, John F. Morse, John Owens and Frank Schomer. The six
were residents of Oshkosh, and their professional occupations
perhaps provide a clue to their interest in a successful
steam-powered machine. Battis and Morse ran their own boiler shops
(the Union Steam Boiler Works and the Union Iron Works,
respectively); Farrand was the steam engineer for the Oshkosh fire
department; Gallinger ran a successful lumber operation; Schomer
contracted wood sawing; and Gallinger and Schomer were also
partners in an enterprise selling McCormick reapers and mowers.
Owens’ occupation is unknown.

The exact details surrounding the Oshkosh’s construction –
and the roles the men played individually – are unclear, but all
six men are mentioned in contemporary accounts of the race. In
later interviews, Gallinger credited Morse as the Oshkosh’s
builder, but another source credited Alexander Burns’ Oshkosh
Boiler Works, and yet another source credited Martin T. Battis’
Union Steam Boiler Works. Possibly confusing the matter even
further, Burns’ shop was located across the street from
Morse’s boiler shop. Additionally, while citing Morse’s
involvement in the Oshkosh, Gallinger took credit for the
machine’s inspiration.

Gallinger evidently possessed a strong streak of mechanical
ingenuity. An Aug. 21, 1931, article in The Milwaukee
Journal
credited Gallinger with the invention of the
mechanical differential. In that article, Gallinger claimed he
invented his differential specifically for the Oshkosh, and he took
credit for the Oshkosh’s inspiration, as well. Gallinger, who
was 84 years old at the time, told the Journal: ‘In
the summer of 1876 I built an engine for threshing, and the next
spring John Morse, who had a foundry here, and I determined to
build another and make a claim for the award.’

In another undated interview reprinted in the December 1955
issue of Engineers & Engines, Gallinger again took
credit for the Oshkosh, saying: ‘I had built a machine for
threshing the year before and in early ’77 I and a couple of
the other boys here in Oshkosh decided to build another, put her on
wheels, and win that prize money. It took us 60 days to get her
ready. We took her up to Green Bay where we’d decided to start
and where the one other competing machine had been made.’

GREEN BAY

The Green Bay is credited to one person, inventor Edward P.
Cowles of Wequiock, Wis. (a small town just northeast of Green
Bay), who in 1874 was awarded patent no. 154,846 for his traction
engine design. Cowles’ engine was at least in concept quite
advanced, featuring four-wheel drive, four-wheel steering and a
three-speed transmission. Cowles’ two-cylinder machine was said
to weigh in excess of 14,000 pounds. The machine’s horsepower
output is unknown.

While there’s no verification the engine Cowles used in the
race was the same machine spelled out in his patent, contemporary
descriptions of his entry suggest it was. The July 21, 1878,
edition of Green Bay’s Daily State Gazette referenced
a report from Oshkosh’s Daily Northwestern, in which
that paper reportedly said of Cowles’ machine:

‘The machine is the most clumsily built and contrived
concern it would be possible to imagine. Without the slightest
prejudice whatever it is pronounced a perfect curiosity by the best
mechanics that look at it. It exhibits the most curious specimens
of ingenuity, the ingenuity of puzzling movements and complications
rather than simplicity and mechanical economy. All four wheels are
on a sort of ball and socket joints and each turns in and out
independently of the axle. The boiler is horizontal and the general
outline, with cab and all, is much like a miniature railroad
locomotive. Instead of propelling with an endless chain the motion
is reduced from the cylinders by a succession of gears. It is
massive and homely in the extreme, if any comparison is allowed
with the Oshkosh machine.’

From the start, Cowles’ Green Bay suffered one mechanical
failure after another. An injector failure kept the Cowles machine
from even making it out of Green Bay on the first day, and it ended
up traveling by rail to Oshkosh. And while mechanical failures
plagued the Green Bay, the Oshkosh generally performed flawlessly.
In fact, any problems experienced by the Oshkosh appear to have
been self-inflicted.

Reporting on a hauling and speed match between the contesting
engines held in Watertown (a little more than halfway to the final
destination of Madison), the July 21, 1878, edition of the
Daily State Gazette, again quoting the Daily
Northwestern
, wrote: ‘Both machines were going along
finely … when the Oshkosh turned out of the road and undertook to
pass the Green Bay machine. In doing so a wheel on the loaded wagon
dropped into a hole which broke the log chain which attached the
lumber wagon to the road wagon. A toggle was made and the next
start, which was something of a jerk, broke a pin somewhere about
the machine which necessitated sending to the shop for a new
one.’

Of the Green Bay’s performance, the Northwestern
wrote: ‘The trials of speed at the Fairground this afternoon
resulted in a total failure for the Green Bay machine. She was
totally unable to make a mile without stopping either for want of
steam or from heated journals … the general opinion is expressed
that the Green Bay machine cannot reach Madison in the required
time should she start out.’ Pointing out the Green Bay’s
shortcomings with a certain pride, the Daily Northwestern
was clearly rooting for the Oshkosh and playing to the hometown
crowd.

However, the paper was willing to give Cowles’ machine some
measure of respect, stating: ‘In regard to the hauling test, it
is due Mr. Cowles to say that some who witnessed that test and
described more accurately its details affirm that his machine
gained more of a victory in hauling than appears from the
foregoing. They claim the Cowles machine pulled a heavier load, and
with greater ease; also that the Oshkosh machine on a soft road can
only start a heavy load with a jerk while Cowles’ machine
starts off easily and smoothly.’ In hindsight, had that
statement been made a few days later after trials in Fort Atkinson,
it would have had an entirely different meaning.

According to Gallinger’s interview reported in the May 1955
issue of Engineers & Engines, the Oshkosh crew
wasn’t above resorting to some sleight of hand if it worked in
their favor. Gallinger related: ‘A bunch of farmers at Fort
Atkinson put us through our paces. They had nine wagons lined up
which they wanted us to pull up a grade. There were men in the
wagons. I looked at the grade and knew I’d never make it. The
pull was on an inch rope. I started the machine real fast to bust
the rope. I busted it. Tied on again and busted it again. Once
more. Then I told those men they’d better walk up since the
rope wouldn’t take it and then started real slow so the rope
wouldn’t part, and made it all right with the empty wagons.
Those men figured they walked because of a weak rope not because of
a weak engine.’

This photo of an Oshkosh ‘Hog’ was published in the
March/April 1955 issue of the Iron-Men Album. This is thought to
show a later version of the engine used in the race.

TO THE VICTOR GO THE SPOILS – MAYBE

At 11 p.m. on Saturday, July 23, 1878, the Oshkosh arrived in
Madison. The official rules required a working speed of no less
than 5 mph, giving the Oshkosh 40 hours to complete the 200-mile
route. The Oshkosh travelled 201 miles, and its official time of 33
hours, 27 minutes gave it an average running speed of 6 mph. The
Oshkosh finished alone and ahead of schedule. It seemed to be a
clear victory … Or was it?

Race commissioners met after the race to discuss awarding the
prize but failed to reach a consensus. According to the diary of
one commissioner, George Marshall, the governor did not want to
award the $10,000 to the Oshkosh. In his 1931 interview with the
Milwaukee Journal, Gallinger said commissioners wanted the
Oshkosh crew to split the prize money with the Green Bay crew, but
the Oshkosh crew refused.

An Aug. 1, 1878, editorial in the Appleton Post lashed
out at commissioners, calling for the Oshkosh crew to receive their
due reward. The refusal to award the money apparently hinged on the
machine’s supposed impractical nature, but, the Post opined,
‘If any one of the latter has met the conditions imposed, he is
entitled to the award whether his invention becomes of practical
service or not.’

A Cowles pole road locomotive appeared in CM. Giddings’
Development of the Traction Engine in America. According to
Giddings, Cowles introduced this design about 1880.

The matter was ultimately deferred to the next legislative
session, which voted to give the Oshkosh crew $5,000. However,
$1,000 of that went to the Green Bay crew. ‘It galled us like
thunder,’ Gallinger exclaimed in 1931.

EPILOGUE

Interestingly, little became of either machine after the event.
Gallinger returned to the lumber business, but Morse at least
through 1879 manufactured and marketed perhaps six more Oshkosh
engines. According to a pamphlet for ‘Steam Road Wagons’
circulated by Morse, these later engines (a few sources identify
them as the Oshkosh ‘Hog’) were available in 12, 14 and 16
HP versions. They were effectively identical to the 1878
machine.

According to CM. Giddings’ Development of the Traction
Engine in America,
Cowles continued to develop his design. In
the early 1880s, Adams & Price of Nashville, Tenn., and later
Spangberg & Pendleton of Warren, Ohio, manufactured pole road
locomotives (so named for the ‘poles’ or trees that were
used as tracks) based on Cowles’ patents.

Special thanks to Jack Alexander for supplying clues,
and to Scott Cross and the Oshkosh Public Museum for their help in
supplying newspaper clippings and photos. Contact the Oshkosh
Public Museum at: 1331 Algoma Blvd., Oshkosh, WI 54901 2799; (920)
424-4731.

In partnership with the Wisconsin Historical Society,
Wisconsin Public Television has produced an excellent video
chronicling the race. It can be viewed by going to the Wisconsin
Stories Web site at: www.wisconsinstories.org

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