THE GREAT RACE OF 1878

Early Steam Traction Engines Vied for Supremacy in America's First Road Race


| May/June 2004



The Oshkosh in front of John Morse's shop

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.