Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Car Show

            The new book I am working on with J.B. Fisher will chronicle the impact of car culture on Portland in a variety of ways.  In this blog post I introduce some of the issues we will explore in the book, focusing on the beginnings of car culture and driving in Portland.
By the time of the Great War automobiles had made a permanent mark on Portland. The 1909 Portland Auto Show was a turning point for "car culture."
            The “horseless carriage” was an exciting rumor in Portland before the first automobile appeared in town.  Starting around 1895 stories began to appear in local newspapers about automobile races in France and automobiles appearing on the streets of New York City.  In 1896 a rumor that a “horseless carriage” had been seen in town threw the reporters of the Oregonian into a frenzy of activity as they tried to track it down, before their source admitted it was a hoax.  The first actual automobile arrived in town three years later.  In the spring of 1899 a consortium of “automobile men” got together in New York City and organized automobile companies in seventeen states, including the Oregon Automobile Company (OAC).  A representative of the OAC arrived in Portland in November with the city’s first automobile.  He drove around town for a few weeks drawing crowds whenever he stopped.  He regaled the excited spectators with the wonders of the horseless carriage and suddenly everyone wanted one of their own.
            The steam-powered, gasoline-burning vehicle was not only loud and dangerous, but expensive.  It cost forty cents a day, not counting repairs, to maintain the car and about two cents per mile to operate it, about three times the expense of a team of horses.  Few people in Portland could afford an automobile and those that could were skeptical about the models that were available.  In 1901 Fred T. Merrill added a line of automobiles for sale at his downtown bicycle shop and soon they were a regular feature of Portland traffic.  Although still a toy for the rich, cars soon beat out the bicycle in popularity and by 1905 there were enough driving enthusiasts – known as autoists – to form the Portland Automobile Club (PAC).
Sol Blumauer, first president of the Portland Auto Club, driving the second automobile sold in Portland at the end of one of the PAC's regular auto races at Irvington Park.  The money raised by the races was used to spread oil on dirt roads to improve driving conditions.
            The first president of the PAC was Sol Blumauer, the second Jewish child born in Oregon (his brother Louis was the first) and the second car buyer in Portland.  Blumauer, the scion of one of Portland’s largest pharmacies –- Blumauer and Frank – and a prominent whiskey distiller – his company produced the popular Old Kentucky Home brand – was a tireless booster and a strong advocate for the construction of paved roads.  The newly formed club began to make regular “group runs” to destinations outside of Portland. The Baseline Road, now SE Stark Street, was the most auto-friendly road in the region and many of the club's trips used it.  Politically the club threw their support behind the state law that set a speed limit of 25 mph outside of city limits, but they protested that the limit of eight mph inside city limits was not practical.  They also began a loud campaign calling for paved roads to Mt. Hood and Astoria. The PAC began holding regular auto races at Irvington Park in order to raise money for their street oiling campaign.  Oil was spread on the dirt of Linnton Road and Section Line Road (now Division Street) in order to keep the dust down and make the roads usable for automobiles.
            The PAC had other influential members who gave them political clout.   Robert Inman, president of Inman-Poulson Lumber, was the club’s first vice president.  As an ex-State legislator and State senator he had numerous political connections and the economic importance of his business gave him considerable influence.  Fred T. Merrill, the northwest Bicycle King, was an enthusiastic autoist as well.  In 1901 he added Oldsmobile, Toledo Steam and Waverly Electric cars to the stock at his downtown bicycle store becoming the city’s first auto dealer.  As a member of the City Council Merrill led the fight to increase the speed limit to 12 mph inside Portland city limits; a bill that passed in 1904.  P.A. Combs, a partner in Portland’s first Auto Supply Dealership (Archer, Combs & Winters), became a leader in the Portland Auto Dealers’ Association (PADA), organizer of the 1909 Auto Show and the first autoist to drive from Portland to Astoria in 1910.  The one hundred and five mile journey took four days.    Combs later went into partnership with Portland inventor J.A. Friddle to produce the Beaver Six automobile.  In 1912 they formed the Beaver State Motor Co, producing the Beaver Six and the 1916 Oregon model.
President Blumauer of the PAC was a well known whiskey distiller who distilled the popular whiskey Old Kentucky Home.  Many of the officers of the PAC were influential businessmen with strong political connections.
            The number of automobiles grew slowly until there were about 550 in Portland at the beginning of 1909.  The 1909 model year was important because the cars released that year included the latest technological features, such as pneumatic tires and the first self-starters were available on some models, eliminating the dangerous process of cranking an engine to life.  The cost of cars came down significantly that year as well.  From the economical White Steamer, $750, and the Ford 5 Passenger Touring Car, $950, to the top-end Renault which sold for a whopping $7,000 the purchase of an automobile was accessible to a wider number of people than ever before.  The first Portland Auto Show, held at the Armory in March 1909, proved that Portland was ready for the automobile.  More than 3,000 vehicles were sold during the six days of the show.
            The Portland Auto Show was meticulously planned and nearly as influential on the development of the city as the 1905 Lewis & Clark Centennial Exposition.  The space for dealers to show cars was so popular that the organizers of the event had to limit rentals to local dealers only, a policy that encouraged several automakers, such as Auburn, to open new Portland dealerships so they could get in on the opportunity.  When the show opened on March 7 there were one hundred and two different models of automobile on display from manufacturers such as Cadillac, Pierce-Arrow, Buick, Oldsmobile, Maxwell, Packard, Studebaker and many others.  The Armory was decorated with special lighting, a huge number of flowers and a bandstand, with a rotating line-up of bands, provided music for the event.  The show was attended by thousands of visitors and many of them bought cars.
            One tradition of Auto Shows started very early, Auto Girls.  Attractive young women, sometimes dressed in skimpy (for the time) outfits were used to call attention to specific cars, but they were also available for “joy rides” with prospective car buyers, or any visitors who had money with them.  Many of the visitors who enjoyed the company of auto girls, left with considerably lighter pockets.  Andrew Johnson, who visited Portland from Rockford, Illinois was relieved of $190 while on an automobile ride with Gladys Frazier and T.L. Dennis.  Gladys, who “professed a sudden devotion for him,” put her arms around his neck, kissed and called him pet names, while her partner rifled his pockets and relieved him of his cash.  “Rolling” drunks and other visitors was a time-honored Portland tradition, but the automobile added a new twist to the crime.
            P.A. Combs, who organized the auto show with support from the Portland Auto Dealers Association (PADA) and the Portland Auto Club (PAC), and other auto dealers were very happy with the event.  Each of the one hundred and two car models sold between twenty and thirty units and more than 3,000 drivers took to the roads of Portland in their new cars.  That summer saw one of the worst periods of auto safety that Portland has ever experienced. Sixteen major auto accidents occurred between June and September as inexperienced drivers took to the roads in flimsy, fast-moving vehicles with no safety features.  During that time there were seven fatalities, most of them pedestrians run down on public streets.  Pedestrians became so fearful at the sound of an automobile approaching that one of them, 74-year old Mrs. Mary Wrightman, dropped dead from fear when she heard a car coming behind her. 
The summer of 1909 showed the city how important it was to enforce the traffic laws. The next year the motorcycle "speed squad" was created by the Police Bureau and in 1913 the first traffic signal appeared on Portland streets.
            It was clear that automobiles presented a new danger on the streets.  Several traffic laws, including speed limits and right lane driving, had already been passed at both the state and local level, but no provisions had been made to enforce the laws.  With support from the PAC the Police Bureau created the first “speed squad” consisting of three officers on motorcycles whose main duty was enforcing traffic laws.  Cars were here to stay and Portland would never be the same.
           We are just starting on the process of creating this new book so it will be a while before you will be able to read it.  In the meantime stay tuned to this blog and the Slabtown Chronicle as J.B. and I will be sharing some of our findings here before the book is completed.  If you find this work interesting or valuable please consider supporting the blogs here.  Remember history isn't free. Support your local historian.