Dead Horse Hill is a one-mile beast of an incline on Stafford Street in the gritty post-industrial city of Worcester, Massachusetts. It lies about three miles from City Hall, and as you descend from the top, shows the sprawling city, the second largest in New England. It was here that between 1905 and 1911, hundreds of the world’s best drivers and the fastest cars came to compete.
Worcester’s nickname is the City of Seven Hills, and if you’ve ever ridden a bicycle around it, you’d know why. In fact, George Street is still home to a bicycle hill climb known as the George Street Bike Challenge for Major Taylor, a 500-foot, 16-percent grade quad-buster named for the 1899 world’s champion bicycle racer who used to train there.
Dead Horse Hill is on the outskirts of town, headed toward Leicester, on what was the old Worcester and Stafford (Connecticut) Turnpike. From the base of the hill at 539.5 feet, you can see how it got its name.
Why the hell anyone would cut a road straight up a hill when all you had at your disposal had four legs is detailed in Jewett’s 1879 History of Worcester County: “About the beginning of this century there seems to have been a passion for making straight roads. No matter what be in the way, the road must not turn to the right nor the left. They went over hills because builders had learned that a straight line was the shortest distance between two points. They seemed to forget that a vertical curve might make as long a sweep as a horizontal one.”
“The hill is just one mile in length and varies in grade from 8.3 to 12 percent, so that the machines that cover the distance will prove their worth for New England roads.” — The Automobile, May 10, 1906.
The first Dead Horse Hill Climb commenced in the spring of 1905, sponsored by the Worcester Automobile Club. By the following May, the Boston Evening Transcript published a story that noted “[T]he entry list…includes some of the most famous drivers in this country and some of the best-known cars of both American and foreign make.”
Drivers competing that year included Fred H. Marriott, who held the current world’s record for the both the kilometer and the mile, S.B. Stevens of Rome, New York, the owner of the Darracq that won the Vanderbilt Cup that year, and himself the holder of the Dead Horse Hill record in 1905. The Worcester Gazette reported that more than 7,000 people attended, jostling to see Pierce-Arrows, Stanleys, Stevens-Duryeas, Franklins, Pope-Toledos and Mercedes tear up the steep grade, which was then unpaved.
It was the most exciting thing to hit Worcester until the 1950s, when a twister tore through the center of town. The Worcester Gazette reported “Some women, especially, were more or less terrified when the autos came tearing along, and would seek the shelter of a stone wall or hide behind a tree of large girth. One woman always took shelter behind a parasol which she carried.”
The cars were broken into categories, based on the size of the cars and their anticipated ability to climb the hill quickly. That first year, the perfectly named M. Percival Whittall — whose family, according to the American Carpet and Upholstery Journal of 1910 (not making that up) ran one of the country’s largest carpet manufacturers and had a palatial carpet showroom on Fifth Avenue in New York — won Category One in a Pierce Arrow at two minutes and 15 seconds.
Steam cars smoked that time, though. That first year, a Stanley Steamer described as “a fragile-looking car with bicycle wheels” chuffed skyward driven by Leon F.N. Baldwin — Vermont’s sole Stanley agent — who broke the 2-minute mark.
Apparently the events following the race were just as exciting. “In the evening following the contest,” said the Worcester Gazette, “Main Street was filled with snorting, tooting machines, any one of which, if it had struck a pedestrian, would have wrecked his anatomy.”
Word of the Dead Horse Hill Climb stretched far and wide. A headline in the Los Angeles Herald in July of 1909 screamed in all caps: “GOODRICH TIRES ON WINNER OF DEAD HORSE HILL CLIMB”.
“A most interesting feature for the spectators was the attempts of the powerful motor cycles to eclipse all previous records for this famous hill climb. At the top of these various pitches, these speedy flyers would leave the ground in jumps of amazing length. It was literally true in their case that they only ‘hit the high spots.'” — Worcester Magazine, December-January, 1911
Within four years, a New York Times headline heralded Baldwin’s record-setting Dead Horse Hill run of 54 seconds, a time that stood until 1911, when the event was halted for good.
Today, there’s a placard at the bottom and at the top of Dead Horse Hill, commemorating the events here. Aside from an occasional revival for vintage cars, it’s the only way anybody would know that this one-mile stretch of road was once the site of some of the world’s fiercest competition.