The Great Auto Race Around the World

Taking a look back at what was perhaps the most daring feat in the early 1900’s, the Automobile Race Around the World and the amazing Thomas Flyer, is a very unique trip into history. The Great Race took place at the very start of the automobile industry. Automobile companies were a novelty. The horse was considered by many to be the mode of transportation of choice. This was a time of course before adequate roads were built even in the United States let alone foreign countries, especially Asia and the Middle East, and it was thought by many at the time to be quite a foolhardy and obviously dangerous endeavor. It would be another twenty years before Route 66 came into being. The Great Race however would go on.

great race of 1908 startIn February 1908, six competing cars were lined up in New York City (photo at left) to attempt a race from New York to Paris France for what was billed the “around the world car race”. The six automobiles that entered this race represented four different nations. This race was directly a result of an earlier competition in 1907 which saw an auto race from Peking China to Paris France. The 1907 race inspired daredevils to attempt something larger and more challenging, although a car race from China to France itself seems quite challenging in itself. In case you’re wondering how the idea came about for a China to France race, a Paris newspaper printed an editorial in 1907 suggesting that when the technology (automobile) is available to man, he should press it to it’s limits. In this editorial they pointedly suggested a Peking to Paris race. Apparently the newspaper had a bit of influence and several early car enthusiasts jumped at it.

The Great Race from New York to Paris was sponsored by both the New York Times and the La Matin, the Paris paper which encouraged the 1907 race from China to France. To give you an idea of the scope of this race, the route taken went from New York City through Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Valdez Alaska, then via boat to Japan and Vladivostok Russia and then across Asia and through Berlin to Paris. The original intent was to cross into Asia via the Berings Strait off Nome Alaska but it wasn’t possible at the time. Remember, this was before any suitable network of service stations and repair shops were in existence. In a real way, the dangers were somewhat similar to those of the pioneers in the 1800’s on the Oregon Trail minus Indian attacks. Nations represented with automobiles in this race included the United States, Italy, Germany and France.

map of great raceThere was a lot riding on this race. The Great race along with the successful race from Peking to Paris in 1907, could settle the question of the reliability of automobiles. Let’s remember, there were many who were still using the horse and buggy. In 1908, there were many who considered the horse more reliable than the automobile. For automobile sales to take off and be widely accepted by the public, their reliability had to be proven. These races, in effect, did just that although I’m not sure many customers were purchasing a car with the intention of driving around the world.

The race began on February 12, 1908 from Times Square in New York City. A quarter of a million people gathered to see the race begin.The American entry, the Thomas Flyer, after driving through Albany and then westward through Chicago, was the first to reach San Francisco in a bit over 41 days. Not bad at all when you consider that the 1800’s wagon trains from Missouri to California took six months to arrive there. This race in 1908 ended up covering some 22,000 miles and took 169 days to reach Paris. Only three of the six cars were able to reach Paris. When you think about it, three cars out of six being able to finish this type of auto race in the year 1908 sounds pretty amazing. When the public realized how an automobile could perform under these circumstances and over those distances, they would look at the car entirely different. No longer just an amusement, the automobile became a valuable new means of transportation and the Great Race demonstrated it.

You may also enjoy reading our Trips Into History article about Alberto Santos-Dumont and the Invention of the Airplane

In the end, the Thomas Flyer entry from the United States won the Great Race, driven by George Schuster. As it turned out, the German car actually entered Paris four days before the Thomas Flyer. Although at first the Germans were awarded first place, it was later learned that the German driver took a series of shortcuts off the official route, and the Thomas Flyer was moved up to first place.

1909 thomas flyerThe Thomas Flyer race car was a Model 35. The Thomas Flyer had four cylinders, a 60 horsepower engine and could hit a speed of 60 MPH. That was quite fast in 1908. The photo at left is a 1909 Thomas Flyer. During the first decade of the 1900’s, there were several automobile companies. Some of these also made bicycles and just added automobiles to their product line. The car was manufactured by the E.R. Thomas Motor Company in Buffalo New York. It was a pricey automobile costing about $4,000 in 1908. The Thomas Motor Company also produced motorized bicycles one of which traveled across the U.S. in 1905 at a record time of 48 days.

The Thomas Flyer was eventually purchased by William F. Harrah who restored the car to the exact way it looked when entering Paris in 1908. Today, the original Thomas Flyer which won the Great Around the World Auto Race, is on exhibit at the National Automobile Museum in Reno Nevada along with the Harrah auto collection.

It’s interesting to note that most car enthusiasts believe that today’s cross country marathon auto race events all go back to the great race of 1908 for their inspiration. There are competitions for vintage cars and classic cars scheduled throughout the country. Also muscle cars, sports cars and trucks have their own events. The Great Race of 1908 set the tone.

Many people might still remember the 1965 movie, The Great Race, starring Tony Curtiss along with Peter Falk as his sidekick. Tony Curtiss plays “The Great Leslie”. He of course is dressed in white and the villain (competing racer) is dressed in black. This slapstick comedy movie was based on the 1908 event with the storyline being a New York to Paris race. In this particular Hollywood made race, Peter Falk sabotage’s three other cars and his own by mistake. The film unfortunately was not a smash hit and many events of course were pure fiction, but nevertheless, it does take you back to the daring days of great invention and around the world auto racing.

(Photos are in public domain).

The Mountain Men and the Fur Trappers Rendezvous

When looking for unique vacation ideas, a real trip into history is found at the several fur trapper rendezvous events held each year in the United States.For those wanting to learn more about the very early west and the fur trapping industry that led the westward advance, the fur rendezvous celebrations are an excellent place to start.

Before the military forts, before the roads and trails and before the settler, there was the mountain man of the American West.

green river valley wyomingOur western road trip takes us to the amazing Museum of the Mountain Man located in Pinedale Wyoming. The Museum of the Mountain Man is situated in an area that was historically important to the entire Rocky Mountain fur trading system. Pinedale Wyoming can be considered ground zero. During the early 1800’s, six separate rendezvous’ were held in the scenic Green River Valley (public domain photo above) which is near today’s Pinedale Wyoming. The museum might not be in a better locale than Pinedale.The Museum of the Mountain Man offers visitors a visual and interpretative experience. You will learn all about the fur traders, famous trappers of the era and a look at just how important the industry of collecting fur pelts was to the expansion of the American West.

Pinedale Wyoming and the Green River Valley lie in western Wyoming, about 100 miles south of Yellowstone National Park and about 60 south of the Teton National Forest. The Museum of the Mountain Man, operated by the Sublette County Historical Society, Inc, and is located at 700 E. Hennick in Pinedale. The museum is a gathering place of knowledge, artifacts and ongoing events that all tell the story of the rugged mountain men of the American West. It’s a very good addition to your family vacation planner.

Historians generally agree that Lewis and Clark, during their historic 1804-1806 exploration of the northwest, were not the first white men to traverse the region. It’s thought that before their arrival, fur trappers from Canada to the north came down to explore some of the very same sections of the route which Lewis and Clark took. Canadian fur traders and the mountain men searching for beaver were really the major explorers of the American northwest. One of the highlights of the Lewis and Clark journey of course were the detailed diaries that were written. It is from these diaries that we can know in quite detail what the journey was like and the dangers encountered. The Lewis and Clark diaries are a historical textbook that students use to this day.

jim bridger photoPerhaps the two most noted, and there were more, mountain men of the 1800’s were Jim Bridger (pictured left) and Kit Carson (pictured below right). Today, both men are memorialized by historic national sites. There is Fort Bridger in western Wyoming not far from Pinedale and there is the Kit Carson Home and Museum in Taos New Mexico. It was the early fur trappers and mountain men from the east who were the first to make contact with the Native Indian peoples of the northwest after the Spaniards had interfaced with the southern tribes.

The mountain men and fur trappers accomplished many things. They traded with the Indians although in some instances not entirely fairly. Regardless, the Indians seemed to prefer the fur traders over the military that would follow. Secondly, the fur traders established some new trails through the mountains in addition to those the Indians had made. Thirdly, the fur traders became invaluable assets as scouts when the military did arrive. Both Jim Bridger and Kit Carson served as scouts for the army. Bridger was involved in military expeditions in the northern plains during the Lakota Sioux troubles and Kit Carson, who at one time was an army officer himself was involved with Fremont in California as well as with Navajo campaigns in what is now New Mexico. The military value of these two men laid in the fact that they knew the trails, the streams and Indian habits and culture better than any military officer at the time. Another sometime attribute of the early fur traders were their diplomatic and political benefits The early traders in effect forged friendly alliances with the native tribes. Many of these adventurers were young single men and as a result they often times married into various Native American tribes.

kit carson photoThe western fur trading era began to die away in the late 1830’s, but during it’s heyday, the “rendezvous” was quite an event. The ‘rendezvous” was what the word implies. It was a large gathering of mountain, fur trappers and fur traders who congregated to sell their fur peltsI 

Prior to the rendezvous days, a typical fur trapper would haul his pelts all the way back to perhaps St. Louis Missouri. At first, the trappers themselves transported these furs from the Rocky Mountains all the way back to St. Louis, Missouri, There they would be traded for supplies for the coming trapping season. Around 1825, the traders decided that there was a better and more economical way to bring their goods to market. They created the “Rendezvous” where they would congregate in the west for the exchanges. .This wasn’t a hard sell since most of these men much preferred staying in the wilderness than traveling to the big city. These annual summer gatherings were quite successful during their day.

The legend lives on today with several “Rendezvous” gatherings taking place around North America each year. one of the largest and longest fur trappers festival takes place each year in late February in Anchorage Alaska. The Rendezvous in Anchorage began in 1935 and is still going strong. This festival is one of the biggest events each year in Alaska and leads right up to the world famous Iditarod Sled Dog Race.

You will also want to check out the The Rocky Mountain National Rendezvous. This is another annual event and celebration of life on the pre-1840 American Western frontier. It’s a lot nostalgia, a reenactment and a whole lot of history, based on the old fur-trade rendezvous held in the Rocky Mountains prior to 1840. The 2012 dates are July 13-21 at the Roitz Ranch in Mountain View, Wyoming. Mountain View is about 6 miles south of Interstate 80 and a couple of miles from Fort Bridger in the western part of Wyoming.

The Green River Rendezvous, near Pinedale Wyoming, is held every July. The 2012 dates are July 12-15. The Green River Rendezvous is a western trip back to the time of the mountain men. During Rendezvous, the nearby town of Pinedale is alive with activities and events surrounding the Mountain Man theme. It’s a terrific addition to your western road trip summer vacation.

(Photos and images are public domain)

The Explosion of the Steamboat Pennsylvania and the Missing Engineer

The history of steamboats is fascinating. Steamboats helped America expand westward. It was able to travel where there were no roads. It carried people and needed supplies to hard to reach places. During the mid 1800’s, this remarkable invention in transportation had only one problem, and it was a big problem. It’s boilers could and would explode. The boilers that powered the steam boat engine were a huge concern. The explosion of the steamboat Pennsylvania on June 13, 1858 is very representative of the dangers river travelers faced during the period. Steam boat history is filled with stories like it.

steamboats in memphisDuring this era steam boilers the size required to run a steamboat were a relatively new creation. Pressure instruments were not what they are today and the strength needed in the materials used in boiler construction was a bit sketchy. This required that the boilers be physically monitored. Simply put, if too much pressure were allowed to build up, the boiler might explode. And explode they did and with great numbers of people lost. In the case of steamboats, boilers naturally were placed down within the infrastructure of the boat. Explosions therefore had a catastrophic effect occurring deep inside a wooden vessel. Steamboats would literally blow apart in a ball of fire and hot steam. In many cases, those who didn’t die during the explosion itself often drowned after jumping or being thrown into the water. The huge loss of life was even more significant when you consider how much smaller the general population was in the mid 1800’s.

Steamboat mishap statistics during the mid 1800’s tells quite a story. During the years 1838 and 1870 a total of 2,200 people were killed.and hundreds injured. The largest explosion ever recorded was that of the SS Sultana just north of Memphis Tennessee in April 1865 with an estimated 1,800+ loss of life. The Sultana was grossly overloaded with returning Union soldiers from the recently ended American Civil War, most of whom spent the past few years in Confederate POW camps including the infamous Andersonville Prison. The Sultana was supposed to be their ticket home after the war. In addition to these statistics concerning steamboats, there were 111 deaths attributed to industrial boiler explosions during the period. A picture of the Sultana in early 1865 just prior to the explosion is shown below right.

The tragic explosion of the SS Pennsylvania was not only a disaster for the nation but was a personal disaster for the ex-steamboat pilot Mark Twain. It so happened that Mark Twain, who was quite fond of steamboats, was working as a steersman on the SS Pennsylvania up until a few days before the explosion. He had personal differences with the boat’s master and resigned, but not before getting his brother a job on the vessel. Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain’s) brother was killed during the riverboat disaster. Understandably, Clemens was haunted with this reminder the rest of his life.

st louis steamboatsConcerning the boiler explosion itself, it seems that the SS Pennsylvania engineer tasked with keeping an eye on the boilers steam pressure was aft, away from his post, speaking with female passengers. According to the New York newspapers at the time, an eyewitness gave court testimony to the fact that the engineer was not at his post in the engine room just prior to the explosion and was seen with the women. All four of the boilers exploded while the SS Pennsylvania was about 75 miles below Memphis Tennessee on the Mississippi River and about 300 yards from shore. It was estimated that the entire structure of the boat was in flames only about a minute after the explosion. The SS Pennsylvania left New-Orleans on the ninth of the month with one hundred and twenty-five cabin passengers and one hundred and fifty-eight crew. With stops on the way up the river at Baton Rouge, Natchez and Vicksburg, there were a total of about 450 people in all.
Out of this number, 182 were rescued by a another boat, and about 70 others escaped. These numbers included the wounded and burned. About 200 were estimated lost and missing.
The wreck of the SS Pennsylvania floated about two miles down river and burned all the way to the water line.

steamboat sultanaThe SS Pennsylvania explosion unfortunately was one of many during the 1800’s. The federal government was pressured to do something to safeguard the traveling public and as a result passed several maritime bills. The bills tried to set certain requirements and training standards and to some degree they helped but certainly didn’t rectify the problem. Compounding the problem of faulty equipment and poor monitoring was the habit of steamboats trying to make speed records on their runs and in some cases racing. This just overtaxed the boilers and was the cause of more than one disaster. The boilers could be unpredictable as in the case of the Saluda explosion just off the docks at Lexington Missouri on April 9, 1852. The Missouri River was swollen from spring rains and snow melt and the captain was determined to make it upriver around a sandbar. He had been held back by the current previously and this time was determined to make it. He called for maximum boiler pressure while leaving the dock.The resulting explosion which occurred right after the paddle wheel started to turn threw bodies all through the town of Lexington and even killed some standing on the dock.The body of the captain, last seen standing on the roof of the boat, was eventually found on the far side of a dock warehouse. The explosion was so violent that just about all of the passengers, and some bystanders, died. Out of 250+ people on board, most of them Mormons traveling to Salt Lake City, only about 40 to 50 survived. It ranked as one of the worst steamboat disasters.

Over the decades, progress was made it both safety and boiler construction. The string of federal regulations put in place continued into the 1900’s. As dangerous as steamboat travel could be, people needed the transportation especially before road improvements and before the transcontinental railroad. Probably, the area most improved by federal regulations had to do with training. This helped some in the type of people made responsible for boiler monitoring. Boiler construction materials and pressure instruments also improved over the years. What essentially was an unregulated industry became more and more regulated.

There are some interesting historic sites regarding  steam boat history.

The Arabia Steamboat Museum is an excellent place to learn more about the early days of steamboats. The museum is located at 400 Grand Blvd in Kansas City Missouri. The side wheeler steamboat Arabia hit a snag in September of 1856 on the Missouri River. The boat sank and was eventually found in 1988 by researchers. The Arabia Steamboat Museum now displays a wide collection of artifacts taken from the old vessel. They have a very impressive collection. Well worth the visit when you travel to Kansas City MO.

Another very good museum is the Howard Steamboat Museum located in Jeffersonville Indiana. According to the Howard Steamboat Museum, their mission is to preserve the Howard family story, their mansion and the history of their shipyards and to foster an appreciation of the development of river steamboats and commerce along inland rivers. The Howard Shipyard was started in 1834. The museum address is 1101 E. Market Street, Jeffersonville Indiana.

(Photos in public domain)



Crossing the Atlantic With Marconi’s Wireless / A Trip Into History

I have always found the story of Guglielmo Marconi’s success in transmitting the first wireless communication across the Atlantic Ocean very fascinating. You could say that Marconi’s first successful radio experiment activated a bell over a short distance. The experiment most remember Guglielmo Marconi for today was his transmission of a telegraph radio signal over thousands of miles between the United States and England. It was a first. It was also an event which many at the time thought impossible. It was an experiment which was built upon experiments already conducted by others. Whatever parts of other peoples works Marconi did or did not employ in his experiments, the act of transmitting a wireless signal over thousands of miles from one continent to another had never before been accomplished.

When you learn of the story you will learn how tremendous of a project this was.This was the era before transistors and semiconductors. Radio equipment in Marconi’s day was quite cumbersome.While Marconi was born and raised in Italy, much if not all of his fame was achieved while on English soil. He went to England in 1896 along with his mother. Marconi felt that the chances of advancing his wireless technology were better in England than in his native Italy. In fact, Marconi, in an effort to gain funding for his wireless projects, reached out to the English ministry of Post and Telegraphs. We do know that they did not reply to his request and it has been inferred in various historical pieces that they felt Marconi was off his rocker. They understood the telegraph system but apparently couldn’t grasp the wireless part of it. This however would change soon.

Like any inventor, the way to create public awareness and support was through actual demonstrations. Marconi, who could speak both Italian and English, set up a series of demonstrations for the British government which did begin to offer assistance. In early 1897, Marconi had transmitted Morse code close to four miles. In May of that same year he was successful in transmitting the first signals over open sea, also at a distance of close to four miles. This was between South Wales and Flat Holm Island. That was quickly followed by an experiment that sent a wireless signal about ten miles. The British were impressed.

Marconi’s “Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company” was started in 1897 after he was granted a British patent for wireless. It was renamed Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company in 1900. His radio experiments continued with the aim of commercialization.

Marconi was getting noticed and was invited to give several lectures concerning wireless telegraphy. During 1897 he also put on several demonstrations back in his home country of Italy. At this point he was starting to get noticed internationally. This of course was key because to continue what Marconi had in mind required funding. The surest chance of obtaining funding was to be written about by the media.

At about the year 1900, Marconi turned his attentions to finding a way to transmit wireless signals across the Atlantic Ocean. At the time, telegraphy was being sent via the undersea cables which had been laid initially in 1858 and was made permanent and much more successful in about 1868. The laying of this cable is an entire story in itself. There were many setbacks initially having to do with cable snapping off as well as rough weather conditions. The undersea cable ran from western Ireland to eastern Newfoundland. This first transatlantic cable was quite some thing. Prior to this, communication between Europe and America could only happen by ship. The transatlantic cable sped up communication to within minutes and this had a big impact, especially in regards to financial market data. Exchange rates and prices were communicated daily. The effect the transatlantic cable had on communications between North America and Europe was very similar to what the first transcontinental telegraph did for communication between Washington DC and San Francisco California.

In order for Marconi to realize his vision, much had to be worked out regarding the technology. Signal strength and the antenna apparatus was key. There were many doubters. The prevailing theory from many scientists of the era was that it was impossible since it was believed that radio signals traveled the same as light, in straight lines and this would limit the distance to the curvature of the earth. As far as Marconi was concerned, he knew that wasn’t true since he had exceeded that distance in prior experiments. His theory was that the curvature of the earth could be exceeded with sufficient power. Based on his theory, one should be able to span the Atlantic Ocean if a station of proper size could be built.

Based on this belief, Marconi went ahead and built a powerful new station in Cornwall England. His ideal receiving site would be Newfoundland.The station in Poldhu Cornwall would also be used for his ship to shore communications and continuing experiments. Actually, Marconi’s first customers were the marine industry since prior to radio ships could only communicate by line of sight. If you have the opportunity to read the book “Thunderstruck” by author Eric Larsen, there’s an interesting story of how Marconi’s ship to shore service helped capture a wanted murderer trying to escape England.

The stations built for both transmitting and receiving were quite large. The picture at right show the antenna array at the Poldhu site in Cornwall. As you can see in the photo at right, Marconi chose a point at the very end of the land. he transmitter built here usually operated at a power of about 13 kW and a wavelength estimated at 170 meters. The four masts built had a height of 215 feet. This station continued to operate to the year 1933.

The construction on Newfoundland for a suitable receiving station was the other side to Marconi’s equation. At first he constructed the four tower array on Cape Cod. During this time his antennae in Cornwall was blown down by gale force winds. There was pressure from investors to see results so Marconi decided to build a temporary receiving station on Newfoundland. As it turned out, the cape Cod array also was blown down so Newfoundland became the site to concentrate on. Up to this point, Marconi had been successful in transmitting wireless for about 225 miles, so even though the Newfoundland station was a shorter distance than Cape Cod, it did represent a 2,100 mile challenge. The site on Newfoundland, shown in the photo below, picked for the experiments was known as Signal Hill, a point near the mouth of the harbor of St. Johns. The receiving equipment, was installed in a room in a former hospital building.

Marconi used what was called a “coherer” as the receiving apparatus in Newfoundland. A coherer is simply a tube with two electrodes. Metal filings were placed between the electrodes and when a radio signal was received the resistance between the electrodes would be reduced and a signal were pass between the two. Developed by an inventor in France by the name of Branly, the coherer was the first receiving device used to detect a spark gap transmitter signal. It was actually a relatively simple piece of equipment. It was the device that enabled the very first radio signal receiving.

The history books give a bit of confusing information as to the precise time and date Marconi was to receive the first transatlantic signal at his receiving station in Newfoundland. The popular version places it on the 12th hour of the 12th day of the 12th month in 1901. It’s been written that Thomas Edison thought Marconi may have heard static instead of signals. Some contended that in daylight it was not practical for the signals to travel such a distance. With that in mind, there are questions as to what exact frequency Marconi was using. Some say 100 Khz and others say 800 Khz. There is also the question as to how accurate frequencies could be measured in this early era. The photo below is a model of a Marconi wireless station, courtesy of the National Park Service.

The 1901 event has been debated even to today. Most radio scientists concluded that if a signal was indeed received at Signal Hill Newfoundland in 1901, it would most likely would have had to be a short wave signal. The debate centered on exactly what type of signal was used and how the receiver and antennae were tuned. Regardless of the controversy surrounding the 1901 attempt, what is most important is that a transatlantic signal and a complete message was, without a doubt, transmitted by Guglielmo Marconi from Glace Bay Nova Scotia to Poldhu in 1902. The experiment took place in Nova Scotia in 1902 rather than in Newfoundland due to the Anglo-American Cable Company ordering the Signal Hill site to be closed down. This just demonstrates the commercial competitiveness of the whole wireless endeavor at that time.

Today, it is possible to travel to these same historic sites to learn more about Guglielmo Marconi and his amazing transatlantic radio experiments. These are excellent trips into history.

The Marconi National Historic Site of Canada, in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, is the site of Guglielmo Marconi’s first transatlantic wireless station and the first wireless message sent from North America to Europe. The site features the remnants of Marconi’s transmission towers, along with a museum chronicling Marconi’s achievements.

In 2001, the Marconi Centre was opened in Poldhu Cornwall. The Marconi Centre features a video presentation showing the significance of Poldhu and Marconi’s work. There are also much additional information on wall panels. The Centre is owned by the National Trust and run by the Poldhu Amateur Radio Club. Admission is free.

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Goes to Paris

One of the highlights of Buffalo Bills Wild West was when the troupe performed in Paris France. After their fascinating success touring the United States, the group sailed to Europe and played a number of cities on the continent.Their original performances in England during 1887 paved the way for a much larger tour which included a six month engagement in France. The world was ready and eager to see these old west shows.

wild west show indiansThe tour in England had coincided with Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee celebration and the Buffalo Bill Cody planned his French tour to take place during the Exposition Universelle in Paris during 1889. The Paris Exposition commemorated the one hundred year anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille, a somewhat similar event to the one hundred year anniversary of the United States. William Cody Buffalo Bill gained the reputation of being an excellent showman. This was not only for his performances in the arena but equally so for his skill in building publicity. Cody’s worldwide reputation along with an advertising blitz created an overwhelming response from the French. The opening performance alone drew some 10,000 spectators including Sadi Carnot, the French President. The French newspapers were filled every day with accounts of the Wild West and its performers. The Indians, just as in England, had attracted huge attention. As if their presence in France wasn’t enough, the French press put out large stories of Cody’s Indians climbing the famed Eiffel Tower.The public domain photo below shows the Eiffel Tower under construction in July 1888.

eiffel tower constructionThe French engineer Gustave Eiffel won a contest to build a gigantic tower as the spectacular centerpiece of the 1889 Exposition Universelle and Cody’s Indians surely would have been the first Native Americans to ascend this symbolic tower. The very act of touching the Indians became a popular pastime for young French couple in particular who thought such contact would assure fertility. French children were so thrilled by the Wild West and it’s authentic American Indians that they set up their own wild west encampment in the Bois de Boulogne. Everything in the Wild West show was intriguing to the Parisians of the time including the wild west buffalo itself.

All throughout the summer of 1889, as Buffalo Bill performed during the Exposition Universelle, it almost appeared that the Wild West was the main event in Paris rather than the Exposition itself. One side note to the Wild West’s tour of France involved Buffalo Cody trying to present a special gift to the French president. The gift was a nine foot tall lamp with a preserved bison head at the top. The lamp shade was scarlet red. While the gesture was surely meant as a compliment, the French president declined the offer. It’s not clear what happened to the intended gift after that.

annie oakley posterBuffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, featuring among others, the famous sharpshooter Annie Oakley and a full contingent of Native Americans, thrilled Parisians at the same time that Thomas Edison, come to promote his new talking phonograph in Europe. Clearly the excitement of the American frontier coupled with advances in science and engineering, such as Eiffels Tower and Edison’s inventions made the Exposition Universelle a showcase of the old and new.

Another historical side note regarding the Wild West’s performances in Paris involved that of Annie Oakley.Two years prior in 1887, Oakley had quit the show amid poor relations with the show’s other female sharpshooter, Lillian Smith, almost ten years younger than Oakley. By 1889 Smith had also quit the Wild West and Buffalo Bill was successful in persuading Annie Oakley to rejoin his group for their upcoming tour of Europe.

After the Wild West performed in Paris they moved through southern France and then onto Spain for sold out performances there. The Buffalo Bill show and all it’s advance publicity headed south.

buffalo bill wild west posterThe story of American old west frontier history has proved to be a lasting attraction. Today, in the 21st century, visitors to the Disneyland Paris show can see a sort of reenactment of what Buffalo Bill Cody brought to France over one hundred years ago. Now, twice daily, a man by the name of Trent Vance (Vance plays Buffalo Bill Cody) heads up a cast of up to 70 cowboys, Indians, bison, longhorn cattle, horses and a donkey in a 90-minute dinner performance portrayed just like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows. The show includes chuckwagon scenes, a buffalo chase, rodeo games and a stagecoach attack along with other frontier acts. Named appropriately, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, there are two performances nightly and includes dinner. Disney’s knowledge of Buffalo Bill Cody goes all the way back to Walt Disney himself, who saw Buffalo Bill in a parade that came through Disney’s boyhood hometown of Marceline, Missouri.

Aside from attending the new Wild West at Disneyland in Paris, many artifacts and records can be seen at two Buffalo Bill Cody museums in the United States. One is the Buffal Bill Historical Center in Cody Wyoming just east of Yellowstone National Park. The other is at the Buffalo Bill Museum in Golden Colorado. The Buffalo Bill Museum’s Golden Colorado exhibits include memorabilia from Buffalo Bill’s life and Wild West shows, Native American artifacts, a large collection of antique firearms and other Old West artifacts. Golden Colorado is also the grave site of William Cody.