On the afternoon of Washington’s birthday holiday, Monday, February 22, 1909, the oiled road of Santa Rosa Avenue was abuzz with the cheers, whispers, and grumblings of anxious spectators from both near and far. Representatives of the press were furiously scribbling down notes, eager to call newspapers around the country to report something unthinkable. Ed Apperson had crossed the finish line of the Pasadena-Altadena Hill Climb with a time of 1 minute and 24 seconds. And what’s more, he did it by beating Barney Oldfield.
So that begs the question —who was Barney Oldfield?
Barney Oldfield, a famous automobile racer at the turn of the 20th century whose name was synonymous with speed, was the first human to be officially clocked at a mile a minute in June 1903.1 Oldfield was a household name before radio and newsreels were available, when “the wires” and newspapers made celebrities. Though he retired from racing in 1918, Oldfield’s fame carried his name even decades later, with continued mentions in pop culture and the media. For example, his name was invoked in a season four episode of I Love Lucy when Lucy insists that one hour’s worth of driving experience qualified her to drive alone, and Ethel sarcastically responds, “Oh pardon me, Barney Oldfield.” He was similarly acknowledged in episodes of Dennis the Menace and The Partridge Family.
Barney Oldfield coming to Pasadena for the Pasadena-Altadena Hill Climbing Contest was a big deal, and photographer Emil P. Groetzinger was there to shoot it. Groetzinger had moved his family to Pasadena in 1908, opening The Flag Studio in 1909 on Colorado Boulevard. Fortunately, that put him and his camera in the right place at the right time to capture a few amazing images of Barney Oldfield and the 1909 Hill Climb. Thousands of Groetzinger’s negatives and prints make up The Flag Collection, one of several “frozen” collections stored beneath the Fenyes Mansion at Pasadena Museum of History. Freezing photographic negatives prevents further deterioration, thus protecting Pasadena’s visual legacy and enabling PMH to bring its history back to life, now and in the future.
Without Groetzinger and his photographs, I wouldn’t have written this article. Starting with only an approximate date and the image title “Pasadena Altadena Hill Climb, Barney Oldfield, Auto racers on Parade,” I dove deep into the PMH archives to uncover an event only few know about today. Using several of the Museum’s bound volumes of the Pasadena Daily News and Pasadena Evening Star, an important event in Pasadena’s past is now revealed.
The Pasadena-Altadena Hill Climb
From the moment they were created, automobiles captured the collective imaginations of much of the world despite being prohibitively expensive for most people. The public seized on all information relating to automobiles, especially the drama and excitement of races. Auto dealers took notice of their captive audience and created events like auto shows and races for their distinct value as promotional advertising.2
Sponsored and organized by the Automobile Dealers Association of Southern California, the Pasadena-Altadena Hill Climb was considered the most important race of its kind held in the West.3 Each year, the competition consisted of several races of various categories of automobiles. The events were divided by class—touring cars, roadsters, and runabouts—and cost of car. There were weight and passenger requirements for each automobile. Some events required two persons in each car; touring car events required four riders.4
“Auto racing began five minutes after the second car was built”
After its first iteration in 1906, newspapers, manufacturers, and auto enthusiasts all considered the Pasadena-Altadena event the Waterloo of hill climbs.5 It was known as the race that defeated beloved automobiles by its challenging average 11.4% incline6 up Santa Rosa Avenue. Constructed in 1885, Santa Rosa Avenue was originally designed as a private driveway for the Woodbury family for a mansion that was never built.7 Known today as Christmas Tree Lane, Santa Rosa Avenue still sees thousands of visitors motoring up the incline each holiday season to enjoy festive lights decorating the famous deodar-lined street. However, almost 20 years before families began packing into cars to view holiday-lit trees, spectacular automobile races rumbled up the drag.
The Pasadena-Altadena Hill Climb only took place for four years, beginning in 1906 and ending in 1909. The 1906 course began on Los Robles Boulevard near Orange Grove Avenue (now Boulevard), making a sharp right on Woodbury Road, then a quick left to barrel up Santa Rosa Avenue, crossing the Union Pacific Electric Car tracks at the intersection of Santa Rosa Avenue and Mariposa Avenue before reaching the finish line.8 Crowds gathered at this intersection “waiting to see how far and high the racing autos would jump when they hit the tracks. [Oftentimes] brass headlights, fenders, wheels — sometimes the engines— were likely to fly in all directions,”9 according to Dorothy Hassler in her 1962 Westways article.
Women freely took part in the 1906 events. However, it was reported that the turn at Woodbury Road was so perilous that the “women riding in some of them are frightened half out of their wits.”10 Additional accounts determined that “the lives of three women occupying the back seat of one of the racing autos had been endangered when the car came near overturning on one of the ‘hairpin’ curves. The promoters made the noble statement: ‘We do not care to risk women’s lives in the race against time!’”11 And so, women were barred from all subsequent climbs.
Despite threats of rain, 33 entries battled up the steep incline the first year of the climb.12 Journalists declared “perfect condition” and “perfect weather”13 by the time the Thomas Flyer, a touring car, made the three-mile climb in the remarkable time of 4 minutes and 58 seconds, winning a cut glass punch bowl valued at $150.14
By the next year, there were 75 entries and every indication that all previous records would be shattered.15 Changes to the course made it almost a mile shorter, moving the start to Highland and Santa Rosa,16 just one block south of Woodbury, turning the race into a 1.5-mile straightaway, thus removing the dangerous hairpin turns. Other safety elements were added, including a bridge built over the trolley tracks, and a 200-yard run added beyond the finish line—so the cars could slow down.17 The winning car, a Packard, came in with a time of 2 minutes and 14 seconds.18
As the hill climb matured, it secured bigger names in the driver’s seat and more spectators. Well-known auto racer, Bert Dingley, drove in the 1908 tournament.19 Because a massive crowd was expected, later estimated at 15,000,20the Pacific Electric ran trolleys every 10 minutes to carry all the onlookers to the area.21 One observer exclaimed that the display of cars in the climb “is a better show than any automobile exhibition he had ever seen.”22
In addition to bigger names and more spectators, speeds and dangers also increased. Drivers became more competitive, stoking rivalries by hurling “acrimonious retorts” at each other.23 That year future 1909 winner, Ed Apperson won in his Apperson Jackrabbit in only 1 minute and 36 seconds.24
The 1909 hill climb, the race that brought us here, was perhaps the greatest of the four hill climbs, but also the last. The addition of famous racer Barney Oldfield to the program brought out huge crowds, one reporter noting: “The crowd was something enormous, the largest crowd on record and estimated at anything upwards of 5,000 people. When the races were not on, the course was literally packed.”25
Favored to win, Oldfield reportedly bet $1000 that he’d beat the Apperson Jackrabbit.26 However, he did not win that bet, as the Jackrabbit won the Unlimited Free-for-All in 1 minute and 24 seconds.27
One might credit Ed Apperson’s win to a faulty wheel. Earlier in the week during trials, when he was forced to replace it, he “hit upon the idea of installing 30” wheels in the front and 34” wheels in the rear,”28 and installing a higher-grade axle.29 He decided it would give him better performance and drive, thereby allowing him to take the bridge over the trolley tracks without cutting his speed.30 His gamble was likely what led him to victory that day since the Stearns automobile driven by Oldfield finished in 1 minute and 29 ½ seconds, just four and half seconds behind Apperson.31
Apperson’s record speed at the 1909 climb could have perhaps been even faster had he not had to dodge a bystander who had come onto the road. It was noted that “those who saw Apperson turn wide are still trying to figure how he held the road afterward.”32
Who was Ed Apperson? Winning driver Edgar Apperson was clearly no slouch in the driver seat. Originally from Kokomo, Indiana, Edgar and his brother Elmer were mechanics who helped create the Haynes-Apperson automobile, a machine some historians consider to be the country’s first truly functional car.33 After seeing a gasoline-powered marine engine at the 1893 World’s Fair, Elwood Haynes, the Haynes in Haynes-Apperson, purchased a one-horsepower engine and brought his design and the engine to the Apperson brothers to build a horseless carriage.34 In Chicago, on Thanksgiving day 1895, they entered their machine, named the “Pioneer,” in the “America’s first auto race,” also known as the “Race of the Century.”35 While they didn’t win that race, they continued to make and race Haynes-Apperson automobiles, until 1901 when the Apperson brothers peeled off to start their own company.36
On their own, the Apperson Brothers Automobile Company sought to build and race larger and faster vehicles. Beginning by making only 2-3 cars a week by 1907 they had new investors, upped production, and added the Apperson Jackrabbit to their offerings.37 The Apperson Jackrabbit, advertised as “the nearest thing to a racing car available from a dealer,”38 was among the fastest cars on the market at the time. So, while the spectacle of Oldfield’s loss at the 1909 hill climb was shocking to many journalists of the day, a look at the Jackrabbit’s earlier racing victories in other races showed that Barney Oldfield and Edgar Apperson were more evenly matched than meets-the-eye.
While there were never any deaths or severe injuries reported at the Pasadena-Altadena Hill Climb, each year had plenty of minor accidents and near misses.
During the trials for the 1906 race, the occupants of a REO touring car narrowly escaped death. The three men were returning to the starting line when the auto faulted, striking the curb, hurling the men, as reported by the Pasadena Daily News, “a considerable distance through the air. The machine… completed three somersaults and was badly wrecked.”39 Luckily, none were hurt. Then on the day of the race, a Thomas touring car, skidding at the sharp turn at Woodbury, tore the tire off one of its wheels.40 Oftentimes, vehicles unable to make the turn were forced off the road to bumble through an adjoining field before rejoining the race.41
Managing the ever-growing crowds of spectators was a struggle. Onlookers routinely crowded into the street after each event. According to The Pasadena Star, tragedy nearly struck in the 10th event of the 1908 climb when “after the four leaders had dashed by the crowd rushed on the course not knowing of the Stoddard-Dayton following. Only the heroic actions of the Pasadena policemen who literally hurled the people back from the course, saved a terrible accident.”42 That same year, a driver in the motorcycle event was thrown to the ground after hitting a bicycle as he neared the finish; fortunately, he was not seriously injured.43
Despite the popularity and buzz of the 1909 competition, it was the final year for the Pasadena-Altadena Hill Climb. The perilous nature of the event was likely its undoing. The 1910 competition did not occur as normally scheduled on Washington’s Birthday. Even so, drivers were still prepped to race in March.44 However, by late March, it was postponed further,45 after which all searches for the fate of the hill climb are fruitless. One fellow blogger notes that the hill climb was canceled due to its danger,46 but no official statements from newspapers or the dealers’ association can be found. Nevertheless, we can continue to uncover fascinating moments in the history of Pasadena and its community with further exploration of The Flag Collection.
You can discover more about The Flag Collection and explore the online exhibition here.
by Lauren Martinez Tiede
1. “Barney Oldfield, Ex-Racer, Is Dead: Pioneer Auto Driver Was First to Travel A Mile A Minute,” New York Times, October 5, 1946, 17, http://ezproxy.lapl.org/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/barney-oldfield-ex-racer-is-dead/docview/107669087/se-2?accountid=6749.
2. “Hill-Climbing Contest is to be a Thriller.” Pasadena Star, February 20, 1909.
3. “Big Hill Climbing Contest Is Run.” Pasadena Evening Star, February 22, 1906.
4. “Entries Close for the Altadena Hill Climb.” Pasadena Daily News, February 18, 1907.
5. Reo Touring car, advertisement, 1907, EPH-PAS-40-11, Ephemera Collection, Pasadena Museum of History, Pasadena, CA.
6. Dorothy K. Hassler, “The Great Pasadena-Altadena Hill Climb,” Westways, January 1962, 31.
7. Liesel Reinhart, “Memory Lane: Santa Rosa Avenue,” Echo (Altadena, CA), Winter 2006, 4.
8. Hassler, 31.
10. “Big Hill Climbing Contest Run.”
11. Hassler, 31.
12. “Big Hill Climbing Contest Run.”
14. Hassler, 31.
15. “Entries Close for the Altadena Hill Climb.” Pasadena Daily News, February 18, 1907.
16. “Hill Climb is Ready for ‘Go.’” Pasadena Daily News, February 21, 1907.
17. “Entries Close.”
18. Mary Landau, “A Little History on The Lane,” Timberline News (Altadena, CA), October 2017, 3, http://www.dev.christmastreelane.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Fall-2017-newsletter-publisher-Final.pdf.
19. “Noted Racer to Drive Car Here.” Pasadena Daily News, February 27, 1908.
20. Landau, 3.
21. “Noted Racer.”
22. “Such an Auto Exhibit is Rarely Seen.” Pasadena Daily News, February 28, 1908.
23. “Big Crowd Sees Fast Sport at Hill Climb.” Pasadena Daily News, February 29, 1908.
24. Hassler, 31.
25. “Apperson is Winner of Climb.” Pasadena Star, February 22, 1909.
26. Hassler, 31.
27. “Apperson is Winner.”
28. Hassler, 31.
31. “Apperson is Winner.”
32. “Wonderful Speed Made in the Big Hill Climb,” San Francisco Call, February 25, 1909, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85066387/1909-02-25/ed-1/seq-7/
33. Jim Donnelly, “Edgar and Elmer Apperson,” Hemmings Classic Car, December 2012, https://www.hemmings.com/stories/article/edgar-and-elmer-apperson.
34. W.C. Madden, Haynes-Apperson and America’s First Practical Automobile, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2003), 6.
36. Madden, 27.
37. Madden, 44.
39. “Spilled from Automobile.” Pasadena Daily News, February 22, 1906.
40. “Big Hill Climbing Contest.”
42. “Record Crowd at Hill Climb Bets on Fast Machines.” Pasadena Star, February 29, 1908.
44. “Apperson Gets Hanshue,” Los Angeles Herald, March 6, 1910, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85042462/1910-03-06/ed-1/seq-36/
45. “Ty Cobb is Fond of Auto Business,” Washington (D.C.) Times, March 27, 1910, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84026749/1910-03-27/ed-1/seq-17/
46. LAhistory, “Feb 22, 1906: The first Pasadena-Altadena Hill Climb was held by the Licensed Motor Car Dealers Association of Los Angeles,” Tumblr (blog), 2013, https://lahistory.tumblr.com/post/18088814744/feb-22-1906-the-first-pasadena-altadena-hill