The Car That Crashed Into History

Peter Salwen

Peter Salwen is the author of Upper West Side Story: a History and Guide. This essay, adapted from that book, appeared in a slightly different form in the "City" section of The New York Times for Sunday, May 26, 1996.

This year, the U.S. auto industry has been enjoying its hundredth birthday. No surprise, then, that we're also coming up on the hundredth anniversary of the country s first documented auto accident. And like so many other dubious distinctions, this one belongs to New York City, where an out-of-town driver ran into a New York bicyclist on May 30, 1996.

You have to understand that the bicycle was hugely popular in the 1890s. On weekends, Riverside Drive and upper Broadway literally swarmed with wheels. Bicycle races and pageants were among the gaudiest displays of that gaudy era, and the main cycling organization, the League of American Wheelmen, had enough political clout to get miles of streets paved with new noiseless asphalt.

But the coming of the motor car would soon change that. Within a few years Broadway north from Columbus Circle, one of the cyclists favorite routes, would be lined with showrooms for Pierce-Arrows, Hupmobiles, and Stanley Steamers. It wouldn't be long before the wheelmen, after having worked so hard to get the streets nicely paved for cycling, would be literally driven off them by the motor car.

The process began during what seems to have been the country's very first "horseless-carriage race," which was held in New York City on Memorial Day -- or Decoration Day, as they called it then -- May 30, 1896.

Here's how the accident, which happened on upper Broadway, was reported in the New-York Daily Tribune:

The wagon [automobile] operated by Henry Wells, of Springfield, Mass., wobbled furiously, going in a zig-zag fashion, until it seemed that the driver had lost control of it. Evylyn Thomas, of No. 459 West Ninetieth-st., was approaching on her bicycle, when suddenly the wheel and horseless carriage met, and there was a crash. A crowd gathered, and the woman was picked up unconscious, her leg fractured. An ambulance took her to the Manhattan Hospital, where last night it was reported that she would recover soon. Wells was taken to the West One-hundred-and-twenty-fifth-st. station, and held pending the result of the injuries to Miss Thomas. The wagon went on in charge of another operator.

A touching account, and, if you think about it, eerily prophetic: the driver is in jail, the victim unconscious -- while the horseless carriage, with god knows who at the wheel, rolls merrily on its way.

All contents Copyright 1989, 1996
by Peter Salwen and The New York Times.
All rights reserved.

Related links:

Peter Salwen's New York City History Page
Upper West Side Story: A History and Guide
The Society for New York City History
Peter Salwen's Home Page
Peter Salwen's Mark Twain Page

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