Only the best could rise to the top.
Thousands of Northeast Ohio automobile enthusiasts converged on Richfield Township in June 1908 to witness “the first hill climb ever held in Summit County.”
Richfield was decked out in flags and banners as hundreds of vehicles rolled into town June 13 for the fourth annual Cleveland Automobile Club contest. The previous year, the event had been held near Chardon.
Men in three-piece suits and women in long dresses alighted from autos parked alongside West Streetsboro Road (also known today as state Route 303) just west of the village of Richfield. Refreshments were served from a roadside stand.
“No admission fees will be charged,” the Beacon Journal noted. “Let everybody go and watch the cars shoot up the hill.”
The narrow, dirt road had been groomed for the event but the surface was still rutted and rough. The center of attention was Porter Hill, also known as Hinckley Hill, a vertigo-inducing half-mile slope with a grade of nearly 20 percent. The road was a straight shot so spectators had a good view from any point along the course.
Prominent Akron men attending the Richfield event included F.A. Seiberling, Irvin Manton, Fred C. Work, W.E. Wright, Robert Iredell, George Allen, C.B. Raymond, Frank Waters, E.H. Roth, Tom Palmer, Charles Akers, George Hopkins and Crannell Morgan.
Andy Auble, president of Akron Auto Garage on East Buchtel Avenue, brought his famous Oldsmobile “Mudlark,” which served as the “official car” of the contest and was used mostly for advertising purposes. Two years earlier, the car had endured a 1,000-mile trip from New York City to Florida to promote the durability of B.F. Goodrich tires.
“Every car from our shop is gone and the most of them went to the hill climb,” worker Enoch Jones explained.
Beginning at 10 a.m., more than a dozen events were held in various classes depending on weight, type and cost of vehicle, including stock cars, touring cars, runabouts and electrics. Among the models to be featured were Ford, Oldsmobile, Pierce, Chadwick, Knox, Stoddard-Dayton, Baker, Stearns, Corbin, Columbus, Jackson and Overland.
Engines revved, gears shifted and tires dug into dirt. One by one, the cars took off.
Now for the big secret: The first hill climb ever held in Summit County was actually held just over the line in Medina County. Cars started in Richfield but crossed the iron bridge over the East Branch of the Rocky River and ascended Porter Hill on Center Road on the eastern edge of Hinckley.
Some autos lurched up the slope, taking nearly two minutes to reach the crest. Others made it in less than a minute. Some fell short of the top and others had to back up the hill because of gravity-fed fuel lines.
An electric timer recorded the race results, which were relayed via telephone communication between the start and finish lines. Megaphones were used to announce the times to spectators.
A crowd favorite was Cleveland’s Kathryn R. Otis, who had been driving for only a month but looked like a veteran racer as she conquered the hill in 54 seconds in a Stearns four-cylinder roadster. The audience cheered as the only woman to enter the climb was named amateur champion of Cuyahoga County.
“If a woman has the strength to look after a house with or without servants, bring up a family and educate them, she surely can drive an automobile,” Otis later proclaimed.
Other results included A.O. Miller, 46 seconds in a Stoddard-Dayton; W.F. Plastine, 1:15 in a Columbus; L.E. Manley, 1:28 in a Ford; and C.D. Paxson, 1:52 in a Jackson.
In the final race, William Haupt drove a six-cylinder Chadwick up the hill in 42 seconds, edging Bert Miller’s Stoddard-Dayton by three seconds to capture the grand trophy. Haupt asked for permission to put on a final exhibition, and the mighty Chadwick treated the crowd to a show.
"With a rush and a roar it started the climb, going into the air time after time,” Motor Age magazine reported in 1908. “The least little hump threw the car up, but Haupt’s clever manipulation of the throttle kept it going with little loss of momentum. Swaying from side to side, bounding over the rough surface of the road, the great car tore up the hill as no machine had even attempted before.
“When it shot over the hump at the top of the grade all four wheels were in the air for fully 15 feet. Quickly picking up as it settled for the final spurt to the line an eighth of a mile ahead, Haupt gave it every bit of throttle and spark it would stand. Conservative estimates placed the speed of the car at fully 65 miles an hour at least when the wheels touched the tape, and the electric timer flashed the signal down the hill to the starters.”
The crowd roared. Haupt had made it to the top in an astonishing 36 seconds, ending the hill climb with a bang.
Following the contest, some of the racers and spectators traveled to the West Richfield Inn, later known as the Taverne of Richfield, to toast the day’s champs.
The Cleveland Automobile Club returned to Richfield the following year for the Porter Hill climb June 5, 1909, but the novelty apparently had worn off because the event received scarce mention in local newspapers.
The club called off the climb in 1910.
Traveling along Route 303 today in Richfield, it’s charming to imagine the paved highway as a dirt road lined with vintage automobiles and well-dressed spectators.
Modern drivers will attest that Hinckley Hill can still be an adventure to climb.
It’s too bad that trophies no longer are awarded for conquering it.
Mark J. Price can be reached at 330-996-3850 or email@example.com.