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Seattle to Yakima

Record breaking 4 1/2 hour ride

Ray Smith had quite a day on July 1, 1919. He mounted a brand new 1919 Henderson motorcycle and left the Seattle Times parking lot at 6 a.m. bound for Yakima. He was flagged off by Frank Richardson Pierce, well known for his refereeing of many endurance runs over the past decade. Smith reached his destination in a record breaking four hours and thirty five minutes. Riding 188 miles, he averaged 42.2 mph. The record may never Have been broken again.

Above: Ray Smith aboard his Henderson. Note the absence of
lighting and the protective covering over the manifold.

To verify his arrival, Smith called into Seattle from the Western Union station in Yakima.

Smith was well known in motorcycle circles as a top long range endurance rider. Today he'd be on a list of who's who in the Iron Butt world.

The Route

In 1919, there was no Interstate 90 or bridges to Mercer Island or Bellevue. There were ferry lines from Seattle to Mercer Island and the eastside, but it would have been faster for Smith to ride the entire route and he did. The route headed north to Bothell, then on to Redmond, Fall City, up over Snoqualmie Falls, North Bend, along Denny Creek and over Snoqualmie Pass into Easton, Cle Elum, Ellensberg and down to Yakima.

It would be impossible today to follow the entire route since several miles of it no longer exist, having been replaced by I-90. It is, however, possible to retrace most of it. By doing just that into mapping software, the driving time spits back as 5.5 hours, an hour longer than Smith actually took.

Differences in roads, populations and law enforcement would all play a role in why Smith's record may never be repeated.

Smith's departure from Seattle was north on Westlake Avenue, and would have likely continued east on Fairview, north up Eastlake across the ship canal and north up 11th Avenue (Roosevelt Avenue today), east and then north on Lake City Way into Lake City and so on. We retraced it recently at 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning. It took 20 minutes to get to Lake City. The big hold up was the amount of snail trailing through traffic signals. But in 1919, traffic signals had not been invented and stop-sign-controlled intersections were far fewer. Smith could have easily beat our time.

There would have been fewer controlled intersections overall, since population density was a mere 50% in major cities and far less in outlying areas. This would surely have assisted Smith's time.

But speed limits were typically lower and 42 mph would have been considered high through most towns. However, Smith had assistance from his motorcycle which could outrun most cars of the era, including those of police officers, especially on the gravel hard pack roads he was using. At 6 a.m.in the morning, law enforcement would be fairly inactive.

Road Quality

Smith's record is most impressive when you consider the road quality. On either sides of the cities he passed through, many of the roads were hard pack gravel. Smith must have ridden the bike hard. When he reached Snoqualmie Pass he'd managed to break a spark plug and had to ride on three cylinders to Easton where he located a scrap yard and salvaged a spark plug for two bits. To make up the lost time of 15 minutes, he rode hard again making it to Cle Elum in just 14 minutes. It takes 13 minutes to get there today if you use the interstate!

The trip was done in part to promote the new Henderson models which would soon be arriving at the Excelsior shop at 301 E Pine Street, where Smith coincidentally worked. The Seattle Times editorial of the ride was glowing with a three column expose and photograph. Alongside the article was an ad for the Excelsior motorcycle store encouraging readers to place their orders soon.

Referee Frank Richardson Pierce took advantage of the event as well, penning a feature article for MotorCycling and Bicycling (M&B), a weekly national magazine focused on two-wheel events. Pierce may have also penned the Times article since it reads in his voice, however no writer is listed.

In recounting the event for M&B, Pierce describes how Smith not only suffered the broken spark plug, but dropped the bike in the sandy hills north of Yakima. The bike appeared to be in good shape, but shortly back into the ride the bike was on fire and Smith had to put it out with sand. The fuel line had broken. Using a roll of tape, Smith patched the line and arrived in Yakima at 10:35 a.m.

According to the article, Smith's odyssey back to Seattle included getting into a race in Ellensburg with a few other riders, cleaning their clocks on the 7-mile course, completing it in just eight minutes and four seconds and collecting the winnings.

Tom Mehren/Winter 2011  


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