On Sept. 14, 1901, Buffalonians were expected to crowd the finish line of America's first true automotive endurance race, a grueling 420-mile run from New York City that would focus yet more international attention on the Pan-American Exposition.
Early that morning, as drivers rested up in Rochester for the final leg, President William McKinley died in the John G. Milburn House of complications from a bullet wound suffered eight days before in the Temple of Music.
The endurance contest was stopped in its tracks, and a road race from Erie, Pa., to Buffalo that also had been scheduled as part of the Pan-Am festivities was canceled.
But those pioneering automobile manufacturers and drivers were resilient. Twelve days after McKinley's death, they left the starting line of what car buff James T. Sandoro believes was North America's first motor race, on the grounds of the old Fort Erie, Ont., Race Track.
"I've researched it and researched it, and haven't come up with any earlier race," said Sandoro, president of the Buffalo Transportation/Pierce Arrow Museum.
The Fort Erie race, which was sponsored by the Buffalo Auto Club and the Auto Club of America, will be commemorated by a special exhibition in the museum, at Seneca Street and Michigan Avenue, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. Admission will be $5.
The centerpiece will be the motor of a 1900 Packard that took part in the Sept. 26 to 28, 1901, race. Owned and raced that week by John Satterfield, president of the Buffalo Auto Club, the high-wheeled Packard later was shipped to Los Angeles for an auto show, but was destroyed with the other cars in a fire that burned the building to the ground.
Only the motor was salvaged. Its Warren, Ohio, owner lent it to the Buffalo museum for the "Pan-Am Motor Race Exhibition."
It may be difficult to imagine the excitement generated by the aborted endurance race, which showcased the latest advances in the fledgling auto industry, but a 1901 communique from the National Association of Automobile Manufacturers gives a hint:
"Every effort should be made by the manufacturers to make as strong a showing as possible at the Pan-American Exposition, devoting all their energies to this exhibition rather than to any other show this year."
And there is this, from the yellowed pages of Automobile Topics, a biweekly industry newsletter of the day:
"The place where the chauffeurs will be at their best will be the long, level stretch of road from Buffalo to Rochester, a distance of some 68 miles." What is now Route 5 between the cities, the writer added, "is one of the finest stretches of road in the country, and motorists in the western part of the States frequently make use of it for speeding tests. It is macadam road and very level with few grades."
European drivers such as the famed Alexander Fournier, who was among 40 contestants to reach Rochester out of 80 who had left New York City, preferred America's relatively level straightaways "because they could really open a car up, with less chance of being killed" than on Europe's difficult terrain, Sandoro added.
The Fort Erie race, which drew most of the drivers who had participated in the endurance run, tried to regenerate the enthusiasm for automobiles and the Pan-Am that had died with McKinley.
But the event "was not well attended as had been expected, owing to the death of President McKinley, which cast a gloom over the enterprise and kept many people away," Automotive Topics reported.
Still, the event "gave Buffalo worldwide publicity," Sandoro said.
For the record, inventor Alexander Winton, driving one of his own cars, finished first among gas-powered autos at Fort Erie, which also drew Buffalo automotive pioneers E.R. Thomas and George M. Pierce and the Packard brothers. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org