Flashback Friday: The Gliddenites are Coming! Nebraska and the 1909 Glidden Tour

Contestants checking in at Kearney. The location is probably East Twenty-fifth Street (present U.S. 30). The Number 9 and 108 cars in front went on to win trophies. Courtesy of the Notional Automotive History Collection, Detroit Public Library

In July 1909, Nebraskans witnessed firsthand the most popular and spectacular Glidden Tour. More properly called the Annual Reliability Touring Contest of the American Automobile Association (AAA), Glidden Tours were not automobile races; they were reliability runs meant to challenge the driving skills of early automobilists and the reliability of their machines. The events were popularly known as Glidden Tours because of the sponsorship of telecommunications pioneer Charles Jasper Glidden, who came up with the idea and donated a large silver trophy for the winner. Glidden, a former associate of Alexander Graham Bell, amassed a large fortune from his New England telephone syndicate. In 1902 he retired and began touring the world by automobile. Together with his wife, Lucy, and mechanic, Charles Thomas, Glidden racked up over 46,000 miles in 39 countries by 1907. A total of eight tours were held, from 1905 to 1913 (a 1912 tour was planned but cancelled). The fifth tour, in 1909, was the first to travel west of the Mississippi River.

Capturing the nation’s attention, it was the most grueling tour ever, a 2,637-mile adventure beginning at Detroit and passing through Chicago, Madison, Minneapolis, Omaha, Denver, and Colorado Springs, finally ending at Kansas City nineteen days later. Thirty cars competed for trophies in three classes: the Glidden trophy, for full-size touring cars; the Hower trophy, for runabouts; and the Detroit trophy, for toy tonneau cars. Drivers were penalized, using an elaborate point system, for any repair made to their car and for failure to arrive at the daily destination within the allotted amount of time. The driver who completed the contest with the lowest score was declared the winner. It was a grueling and treacherous challenge. Only two drivers finished with perfect scores. Six others withdrew along the way and one was disqualified. Glidden Tour contestants spent two days in Nebraska, traveling a 400-mile route that closely paralleled the transcontinental Union Pacific Railroad. The same route was traveled a year earlier by the New York-to-Paris “Great Race” and would later become the Lincoln Highway. Contestants spent the night of July 21 in Council Bluffs and departed the next morning for Kearney, passing through Omaha, Fremont, Columbus, and Grand Island. After an overnight stay in Kearney, July 23 was spent in western Nebraska, passing through Lexington, Gothenburg, North Platte, and Ogallala. Contestants rested for the night in Julesburg, Colorado, before continuing on to Denver the following morning. This article focuses on the tour’s experience during those two days in Nebraska. Specifically, it examines the reactions of local Nebraskans to the event and to the publicity that it brought to their state, and also the impressions made on tour participants and the journalists that accompanied them. Secondary literature on the Glidden Tours is scarce. There are no books, and less than a handful of articles, all of which come from automobile enthusiast literature. Primary sources for this research come from period newspapers, both large and small, and automobile trade magazines such as Motor Age, The Automobile, and Horseless Age.   The entire essay written by John T. Bauer appears in the Fall 2012 issue

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