Historian revs up a lecture about the 1908 New York-to-Paris auto race

Route passed through Echo Canyon

‘Echo Canyon Mud Bath’

  • When: 4 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 4
  • Where: Historic Echo Church, 60 Temple Ln., Echo
  • Cost: Free
  • Web:
The Thomas Flyer, built by the Thomas Motor Company and driven by George Schuster, was the winner of the 1908 New York-to-Paris race that passed through Echo Canyon and northern Utah. Historian Robert L. Rampton will detail the race during a lecture titled “Echo Canyon Mud Bath” on Saturday at the Historic Echo Church.
Courtesy of Robert L. Rampton

Blake Edwards’ 1965 epic and star-studded comedy “The Great Race” was based on an actual New York-to-Paris auto race that took place in 1908. 

In fact, part of that race rolled down Echo Canyon and made rounds in Morgan, Ogden and the north end of the Great Salt Lake.

“Out of the six that started the race, four cars made it to Utah,” said Robert L. Rampton, historian and automobile enthusiast. “One was driven by an American, and there was an Italian car,” he said. “The other two were from France and Germany.”

Rampton will recount these racers’ experience in Utah during his lecture titled “Echo Canyon Mud Bath: The Great 1908 New York-to-Paris Auto Race Comes to Utah,” at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 4, at the Historic Echo Church, 60 Temple Ln.

The church, which is closed for the season, will reopen at 3 p.m. that day to accommodate the lecture.

Rampton will touch on each of the race car teams and the  crazy experiences they each went through while in Utah.

“When they left Evanston, they ran into a lot of snow, because this race started in February in New York,” he said. “By the time they got to Utah, the upper part of Echo Canyon was pretty much buried by snow.”

To get through the snow, the American car — a Thomas Flyer, built by the Thomas Motor Company and driven by George Schuster — petitioned the Union Pacific Railroad to schedule the vehicle as a train, according to Rampton.

“They did that so they could roll down the railroad tracks,” he said.

Schuster, who was in the lead, stopped at the Echo Railroad Depot so Schuster and his team could send off telegrams, Rampton said.

“By the time the car got back onto a road, the road was a mud-soaked nightmare,” he said. “It was dark and raining. That’s why I call my lecture the ‘Echo Canyon Mud Bath,’ because that’s what it was.”

The racers met some pilot cars when they got to Morgan, Rampton said.

“It was snowing at that time, and those cars helped the racers get into Ogden,” he said. “They stayed there for a couple of days for car maintenance and then headed out.”

During his lecture, Rampton makes sure to mention the Utah mechanics that helped repair the cars.

“I do that, because they usually get left out of the history books that are about the race,” he said.

Schuster eventually won the race in July 1908 after covering more than 22,000 miles over three continents in 169 days, Rampton said.

“It’s amazing to think these machines that were just a step above farm equipment could do something like that,” he said.

Rampton’s interest in the 1908 race ignited when he was a sixth-grade student at Bountiful Elementary School.

“Back in the olden days, your teacher would pass out this newsprint catalog where you could order paperback books from Scholastic Book Services,” he said. “One day there was a book that I thought would be interesting, because it had stories about race car drivers.”

The book also featured a story about the New York-to-Paris race.

“I read that story, and thought that was the coolest thing I had ever heard about,” Rampton said.

Rampton dipped into his pockets and found he had the 35 cents required to order the book, which also helped him with another assignment.

“As luck would have it, my teacher told us that we needed to write a theme about something we were interested in, and I wrote a story about the winner of the race,” he said. “I still have that book, and I will probably bring it to the Echo lecture.”

Rampton’s interest in history and race cars developed over the years, and came to a head while studying for an art degree at Brigham Young University.

“The Harold B. Lee Library, there, has some wonderful collections of old newspapers on microfilm, so when I wasn’t failing all my classes, I would spend a lot of time in the library with my head in a microfilm viewer,” he said. “I would pull up the New York Times and old newspapers from across the country and read accounts of the race, how it started and other things.”

When the internet came along, Rampton rolled with it, and accelerated his research about the race.

“I have binders upon binders, and books about it,” he said. “I’ve also explored parts of the route that went from Cheyenne to Evanston, and I’ve been along the route in Utah including through Echo Canyon and around the north end of the Great Salt Lake, which is now basically a jeep trail.”

In 2008, Rampton traveled to Washington, D.C. when his first grandchild was born.

“While I was there, I went to the Library of Congress to plum its photo archives,” he said. “I obtained research credentials and I spent a number of days there.”

During that time, Rampton discovered a large collection of race photographs that were misfiled.

“The file hadn’t been accessed since 1958, and it had 125 original photos that were taken during the race,” he said.

Another memorable research highlight for Rampton was seeing the actual Thomas Flyer at the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada.

“The collection had given me permission to photograph it extensively,” he said. “I’m in the process of writing a book about it. So, you can see, this has been a lifelong pursuit of mine. And I’m looking forward to sharing it. I just hope I don’t bore anyone to death.”


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