Racing Through Lowell, 110 Years Ago
LOWELL -- In the early years of the last century, cars raced down Pawtucket Boulevard from Varnum Avenue to the Tyngsboro Bridge -- legally.
That stretch was half of the “Merrimack Valley Course,” which took a hard right at the foot of the bridge, looping back along Sherburne Avenue and Varnum back to the river for a total of 10.6 miles.
The course was an auto racing mecca, and 110 years ago it drew an eclectic mix of goggled drivers, seat-of-their-pants mechanics, race-car groupies and thrill-seeking local citizens for a series of September races that made the national news.
The 1909 series attracted some 100,000 spectators, according to newspaper reports at the time, although most of them lined the race route and thus weren’t required to buy tickets, which didn’t thrill organizers.
They raced in what was called the Champ Car Series, maneuvering an open-wheel, two-person jalopy-like vehicle that could reach speeds of 55 miles per hour.
There were four events: The Lowell Trophy Race (30 laps), the Vesper Club Trophy Race (20 laps), the Yorick Club Trophy Race (15 laps) and the Merrimack Valley Trophy Race (12 laps).
One of the drivers and car owners taking part was Louis-Joseph Chevrolet, then 30, a Swiss-born auto-racing fanatic who won that year’s 159-mile Yorick Club race by averaging 54.1 mph.
Louis, as he was known, went on to found the Chevrolet Motor Car Company two years later, in 1911. He drove for many years for the Fiat and Buick racing teams and was a close friend and investment partner of William Durant, later a founder of General Motors.
Chevrolet, who was born on Christmas Day in 1878, drove in the Indianapolis 500 four times, his best finish a seventh in 1919.
George Robertson, considered the series’ best driver, took the main event in 1909, the 318-mile Lowell Trophy Race.
But a pre-race tragedy cast a pall on the proceedings.
During a morning practice session a few days before the first race, a 20-year-old spectator named Arthur Otis wandered onto the track in a thick fog and was hit and killed by a car driven by Joe Matson, a Massachusetts native who competed in the Champ Car Series.
Otis was dragged several feet and died a few hours later in the hospital with a fractured skull. Matson was arrested and charged with manslaughter, a charge that was later apparently dropped, al-though records are unclear.
The course also came under scrutiny. The turn at the bridge from Pawtucket onto Sherburne was considered by the race sponsor, AAA, to be too dangerous. Dubbed the “Hairpin Curve” it underwent a hurried widening to soften the angle.
Also, a section of track behind what is now Greater Lowell Tech, known as “The Dip”, was also leveled off somewhat before the September races.
Postcards from past
In 1982, Keith Loder, a native of North Woburn who “hung around” Lowell in his formative years, was given a selection of old postcards and photographs from around the time of the 1909 races.
The provenance goes like this: Loder owned an antique shop on Littleton Road in Westford. The man who owned the shop before him, Richard Leighton, used to play rag-time piano in nursing homes and the like, and got to know a local woman named Barbara Connell.
Connell gave Leighton the pictures and postcards for his shop, and Leighton passed them on to the new owner because Loder was “a motorhead” and loved auto racing.
“I glanced at them and put them on my bookshelf and they sat there until a few months ago when I moved out of my house,” said Loder, 73, who resides at the Apple Valley Nursing Home in Ayer.
(Among his family’s possessions is a Groton School umbrella with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s initials engraved on the handle in a fancy scroll. FDR graduated from Groton in 1900).
Loder called this reporter and caught our interest with his knowledge of Lowell’s history -- good and bad. He was looking for the identities of some of the men in his photos, including Louis Chevrolet. Many of his postcards can be found on eBay, but the photos appear unique.
Fun just beginning
A few days after the auto-racing crowd left town, a marathon was held on the Merrimack Valley Course, consisting of about 2 1/2 circuits. It was won by Hans Holmer of Quebec, one of the world’s top long-distance runners.
It was tabbed as the first open professional marathon race in the United States as the winner received $250.
But the biggest crowd-pleaser on that day was a hot-air balloon piloted by a Lowell native, Charles Jasper Glidden, and carrying Lowell’s mayor at the time, George H. Brown.
Glidden is a story his own self, an entrepreneur who was an American pioneer of the telephone (he worked with Alexander Graham Bell) and the automobile, among other forward-thinking inventions of the late 19th century.
He was one of the leaders of the American Automobile Association (AAA), which sponsored the races.
In 1902 Glidden and his wife, Lucy, embarked on a journey by car (a British Napier) that took him around the world twice: Some 46,000 miles over six years through 39 countries, many of which had never seen an automobile before. He had special wheels that allowed him to ride on railroad tracks and, of course, was transported by ship when necessary.
A year after that trek was over, there Glidden was back in his hometown, floating with the grinning, fedora-waving mayor in a hot-air balloon to the wonderment of thousands of folks who had, in the previous few days, witnessed a marathon and four automobile races. Lowell was a happening town.
Thanks to the Lowell Historical Society for some of the information contained in this article.