400 Miles in 23 Hours [1907]

How They Carried the Message
A Four-Hundred-Mile dash of Motorboats in Relays, From Chicago to Alton
Twenty-three Hours Actual Running Time

From Chicago to Alton, a distance of approximately 400 miles, conveying a message from Mayor Busse, of the lake metropolis, to President Roosevelt, raced in relays the motorboats Lizzie S, Irene, Adieu, Meteor and Kitty Sparks II, on a day in September and one in October, and made a record for long-distance travel by motorboats that never has been exceeded, and that doubtless will remain unbroken for some time to come. It was an exciting contest with time, a race with the clock, as spectacular in its way as the wild dash of the horsemen who carried the good news of peace to Ghent many years ago. Slightly more than twenty-three hours were required in actual travel, although a change of schedule at the last moment compelled a stop of nearly ten hours at one point on the road, and extended the elapsed time from start to finish to something more than twenty-three hours. Not many years ago the railroad which bears the names of the two cities could not have made better time with a delivery of mail than was made by these motorboats in actual running time. The event proved, if any proof is necessary, that the motorboat is no longer a plaything. Moreover, it brought into the bright sunlight the possibilities of the water route between the two cities, and generally speaking, from the lakes to the gulf, for ordinary travel and the carriage of freight.

The idea of the relay race originated with the members of the Illinois Valley Yacht Club, of Peoria, Ill., in June last, and the object of it was to promote interest in motorboating and likewise to call attention to the possibilities offered by the Chicago drainage canal, the Illinois and Michigan Canal and the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers for an all-water route between the lakes and the Mississippi. At the outset Commodore E. H. Bradley, of the yacht club, turned over to the racing committee, consisting of R. H. Truitt, L. E. Robey and J. M. Bailey, the work of arranging for the race, and the race committee constituted Commodore Thomas Webb, a yachtsman thoroughly acquainted with the route to be traveled and thoroughly informed as to the possibilities of motorboats, a sub-committee to work out the details. In the preliminary work Commodore Webb divided the distance to be covered into five laps, and then sub-divided each one of these into shorter tours, with a relay station at the end of each. it was planned that over each one of the five laps one of the swiftest motorboats in the Illinois Valley should carry a message, to be written by mayor Busse, of Chicago, to President Roosevelt, who it was then known to be making a tour of the Mississippi River at the time the race was scheduled to take place. In order to guard against the possibility of a breakdown, it was further arranged that each of these primary racers should be trailed over the shorter laps by other boats, each covering a few miles of the distance, cutting in behind the racer as it passed the relay station. it was intended also at the outset that the progress of the racers should be continuous day and night, likewise that the first boat should start from Chicago at midnight on September 30. The interest of Leroy Cook, a member of the Columbia Yacht Club, also a member of the Illinois Valley Yacht Club, was enlisted in the matter, as was also that of a number of men in St. Louis who are interested in motorboats. Mr. Cook easily secured the co-operation of the Illinois Power Boat club, and Commodore Theodore Weise, of that organization, was induced to carry the message across the first stage of the distance. In arranging for the race, Mr. Webb found members of the Illinois Valley Yacht Club in nearly every city on the river, and had no difficulty in securing boats to take up the several stages.


Chicago, Sept. 30.-- Hon. Theodore Roosevelt, President of the United States

Dear Sir, -- This letter will be delivered to you by a representative of the Illinois Valley Yacht Club and associated clubs.

These organizations have undertaken to carry this letter all the way from Chicago to St. Louis by motorboat as a means of directing public attention to the feasibility of an all-water transportation route from the great lakes to the gulf. Appreciating their earnest and unselfish desire to help forward a great enterprise. I respectfully commend their purpose to your notice.

Chicago is enthusiastically for a lakes-to-the-gulf deep water way. In this I believe our city accurately represents the agricultural, industrial and commercial empire of which it is the centre. The desirability, one might say the certainty, of such a water-way was foreseen by Joliet and Marquette nearly 300 years ago. A project that to them of the seventeenth century seemed so easy should not be a difficult one for us of the twentieth century.

Chicago alone and unaided at a cost of nearly $50,000,000 has already cut the channel to connect the great lakes with the rivers leading to the gulf, and has made that channel adequate for all deep waterway purposes. I respectfully suggest that the nation should help make this work and aid to the commerce of the nation by improving the natural waterways thus connected with the great lakes; for Chicago believes in that truth so exactly expressed in a recent government report on the Ithsmian Canal: "Whatever affects the transportation facilities of the Central West touches its economic life at the very centre.

"Before concluding this letter I desire on behalf of all citizens of Chicago to express the hope that you will visit this city before you return to Washington and thus give the people of Chicago an opportunity to express their regard for you personally and their confidence in your appreciation of the part Chicago plays in the nation's progress.

Yours respectively,

A change of plane in Chicago at the very last minute, affecting the first stage, over which Commodore Webb had no control, made it impossible to carry out the original intention of running the boats continuously day and night. The Chicago people decided to start their boat at midday, instead of midnight, in order that it should be the first boat to pass through the new lock on the drainage canal at Joliet. This lock is an important link in the ship canal projected to run between Chicago and the Gulf, and as one object of the race was to call attention to this project, it was quite natural that the Chicago people should prefer to have their boat pass through the lock at daylight, and likewise enjoy the honor of being the first boat to pass the lock. As Commodore Webb had already calculated his distances to a nicety, had posted his racers at the relay stations, and had stationed all the trailers at the ends of the short laps, it was impossible to change the general plans. The only thing possible was to allow the Chicago boat to convey the message to the end of its stage at Ottawa, and let it remain there until the hour arranged for the starting of the second boat. This was don and although it increased the time required for the delivery of the message, of course, it did not affect the record of actual travel.

Commodore Theodore Weise, accompanied by Mr. Cook and C. A. Coey, and automobile enthusiast, called on mayor Busse at 11:20 a.m., on September 30, and the Mayor's message was handed to them by B. J. Mullaney, his secretary. The time allowed for exchange of courtesies was exceedingly scant. The party rushed to the elevator and on reaching the street jumped into Mr. Coaey's touring car, which had been held in readiness. Quick time was made to the Dearborn Street bridge, so quick indeed that speed ordinances were defied. Commodore Wiese's motorboat, Lizzie S, together with Bereda, the trailer for the first lap, were ready and in a moment had started through the canal, bearing the message on the possession of Commodore Wiese.

The start was witnessed by a very large number of people, and a brass band stationed on the bridge speeded the flier on its way. it was impossible to make high speed passing through the canal, as the waterway was not planned for racing purposes. The average speed was only about thirteen miles an hour for the distance of eighty miles between Chicago and Ottawa. The new lock at Joliet was passed without incident. This lock is one of the deep ones of the world, with a drop of 37 feet.

Lizzie S arrived at Ottawa at 8:45 p.m. on September 30, and there the message rested until 6:30 of the morning of October 1. it then passed to the custody of H. H. Heilbron, whose motorboat Irondequoit was to make the second stage of the race. Irondequoit was the only boat taking part in the affair that failed to realize the anticipations of those who planned the race. She was compelled to give up the run when scarcely a mile out of Ottawa, because of a defective vaporizer. The message was then taken by her trailer, Irene, a boat of something less of speed possibilities, and by her was conveyed along the second stage of the distance, eighteen miles to Peru, reaching that point at 7:40 a.m., forty minutes behind the schedule as arranged by Commodore Webb for the Illinois River run.

R. H. Truitt, of Chillicothe, then took up the burden with his speed boat Adieu. He was determined to carry out that portion of the schedule allotted to him in spite of the handicap, and therefore he started at a tremendous pace, with the intention of making up the forty minutes loss by the mishap of Irondequoit and the consequent transfer of responsibilities to Irene. For fifty miles he raveled at the highest speed possible for his boat. Then heavy seas were encountered in the reaches of Peoria Lake, and Mr. Truitt was compelled to slow down in some degree. The seas were sufficiently heavy nearly to fill his boat, and several time she barely escaped being swamped. Moreover, he was compelled to stop for some minutes on one occasion to bail out Adieu, and also to take on an extra supply of gasolene. Nevertheless he was able to reach Peoria at 11:04 a.m., having made the 73 miles, in spite of all embarrassments, in 3 hours and 24 minutes.

The began the fastest lap of the race, as well as the longest. Walter Brown Wilde, of the Illinois Valley Yacht Club, was ready with his fast boat Meteor, that is, he was nearly ready as had been possible when various embarrassing conditions were taken into consideration. His motor had not been working well for several days, and in spite of all the efforts of Mr. Wilde and his volunteer assistants, it refused to perform to his satisfaction. As a last precaution, Mr. Wilde had taken out her reversing clutch, in order to increase her speed. This had the effect of compelling rather better behavior on the part of the motor, but it very nearly got Mr. Wilde into trouble at the end of his stage of the race. Meteor got under way at about 10 a.m., with Walter B. McLaughlin at the wheel, Mr. Wilde at the engine and A. T. Griffith as deck hand and general utility man. A short run up the river was made, then the boat returned to Main Street bridge to wait for Adieu.

That boat was sighted at three minutes before 11, and Meteor swung out into the stream with a long turn, first up the river and then down, with speed slackened slightly to allow Adieu to come alongside. The Mayor's message, encased in a leather despatch bag, was passed from one boat to the other while both were under way, and the 109-mile run to La Grange was begun at 11:04. The seas were heavy, the engine had not been warmed up, and therefore comparatively slow time was made until after the bridges had been passed. Below the Kickapoo bend in the river the engine was speeded up, and barring a stop of two minutes and a half for gasolene at Havana, and another for a half-minute to change the spark plug, the high speed was maintained throughout the distance to la Grange. Cupid was the first trailer, which started a moment after Meteor, was lost to view in a very few minutes after passing Kickapoo bend, and was never sighted again. Glideolea, the trailer from Pekin to Copperas Creek, did not make her appearance, and it was afterward learned that her engine became disabled just before the hour of starting. Just above Copperas Creek dam, George E. Zerwekh's Pup swung into the river just ahead of Meteor, and started the trail to Havana. Both boats shot over the dam at full speed, and immediately below Meteor easily rushed past Pup. Along the Havana flats there was a heavy sea, and it was necessary to slow down slightly as a measure of safety. It was at Havana that the extra supply of gasolene was taken on board, and here, F. S. McFadden's boat, Mac, cut in on the trail. Below Havana conditions were favorable for high speed, and Meteor was let out to the last inch. Some attempt was made to consult charts, but it wasn't of very much use. In the first place, the speed was too high to permit it, and in the second the spray flew over the boat so constantly as to put the charts out of commission almost as soon as they were opened. So the helmsman was compelled to depend on his knowledge of the river and the intuition that comes to a racer when making a supreme effort.

When Meteor reached La Grange, Kitty Sparks II was not in sight, and Wilde was at first of a mind to continue the run down the river, but when he was within 300 yards of the breast of the dam the superintendent of the lock frantically signaled him to swing in, and fortunately he was able to do so, even though his boat was deprived of her reverse clutch. Kitty Sparks II, with C. F. Sparks in command, was immediately below the lock, and to her the message to the President was quickly transferred. When the crew of the Meteor saw the four-foot drop on the down-river side of the dam, and realized the tumble of water below, they were just as well pleased that their run came to an end above the dam, rather than below.

Meteor reached the lock at 3:41 p.m., having covered the 109 miles in an elapsed time of 4 hours 37 minutes, the actual running time having been three minutes less. The average speed of the whole distance was more than 23 miles an hour, and Mr. Wilde believes that at times his boat attained a speed of 28 miles an hour. Three minutes were required to transfer the message around the lock gates at La Grange, and to get Kitty Sparks II under way. This boat covered the 104 miles between La Grange and Alton in 5 hours 35 minutes, and reached the end of the journey at 9:19 p.m.. Inasmuch as a considerable portion of this run was made after sunset, it is really a remarkable one, although the average speed is considerably less than that made by Meteor.

It was the intention to deliver the message to the President at St. Louis. This plan was changed on the advice of the officials at St. Louis who had charge of the water demonstration at that city, because of the fact that an enormous number of vessels had been assembled for the naval parade, and the difficulty of delivering the message would have been increased. It was therefore considered advisable to intercept the President's party at Alton on the morning of October 2. Mr. Sparks got under way at 5 o'clock on that day and proceeded upstream a few minutes to a point opposite the Illini Yacht Club. There he met the fleet escorting the President at 6:15 a.m., and, swinging around, ran alongside of the President's boat, Mississippi, and passed up the message at the end of a pike-pole, while boat boats were under way.

The summary gives the times of arrival and departure from the various relay stations, and the elapsed and actual times of the various runs.



Lizzie S

Illinois Power B. C.






E. H. Heilbron






R. H. Truitt






W. B. Wilde

Peoria-La Grange




Kitty Sparks II

C. F. Sparks

La Grange-Alton





Total elapsed time - 33h. 44m. Exclusive of all stops - 23h. 18m.

Adieu, Meteor and Kitty Sparks II covered the length of the Illinois River, 286 miles, at an average speed of 22.04 miles per hour.

Adieu, the boat that conveyed the message over the third stage of the race, was designed by her owner, R. H. Truitt, of Chillicothe, Ill., and in enrolled in the Illinois Valley Yacht Club. She is 30 feet long and is equipped with a 34-h., three-cylinder Trebert motor. She was built by Chas. W. Harris, of Pekin, Ill. She is a new boat, launched only a short time previous to the race, and had been run only sufficiently to tune her up.

Meteor, the boat making the fastest and longest run, is of a high-speed model, 36 feet long, and is fitted with a 60-h. Trebert motor. She also is enrolled in the fleet of the Illinois valley Yacht Club.

Kitty Sparks II, which covered the last stage of the race, and whose owner had the honor of actually delivering the message to the President, was built, both hull and engine, by the C. F. Sparks Machine Company, of Alton, Ill. She is 26 feet long, 4 feet extreme beam. The hull is built of Spanish cedar. The planking is 5-16 of an inch in thickness, and is copper fastened to frames of rock elm. The engine is covered with a spray hood, and there is a cockpit aft, large enough to accommodate four people. The deck fittings, which were specially designed for the boat, are of polished brass. The boat is equipped with a four-cylinder Sparks engine, 4 1/2-inch bore, 5-inch stroke, rated at 20-h. It is estimated that in this race, driving a 2-bladed, 18-inch propeller with 899 r.p.m., the engine developed about 22-h. Everything about the boat is arranged for easy handling by one man, the steering wheel, reverse lever and engine control all being close at the hand of the operator. For this race the boat was stripped of everything possible. Under ordinary conditions she is fitted with a sliding canopy top, supported by four removable brass stanchions.

Glideolea, the boat that was assigned to trail Meteor from Pekin to Copperas, is owned by Harry Hassom, of the Illinois Valley Yacht Club. She is 22-feet in length and is fitted with ab 8-h. engine.


On board U.S.S. Mississippi, Oct. 3, 1907.--My Dear Mr. Mayor.--I have received your letter conveyed to me by motor boat from Chicago to St. Louis. I heartily agree with all you say, but until the committee appointed especially to consider the project has reported I cannot speak as to details. But I believe in an all-water transportation route from the great lakes to the gulf, a route which shall practically give us a sea coast right to the heart of our country. I believe that this is a national work and that the national government should recognize this fact.


(Transcribed from The Motor Boat, Oct. 25, 1907, pp. 1-5. )

[Thanks to Greg Calkins for help in preparing this page. —LF]

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