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81 hours to Portland

You’re a millionaire who loves cars, had just set an auto speed record between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and now you’re racing against a train through the Rogue Valley and on to Portland. What could go wrong?

Fernando Nelson, born Feb. 4, 1860, in New York City, liked to boast he had built more houses in San Francisco than any other individual or corporation in the city. How many of those houses withstood the city’s great earthquake of 1906 is unknown; however, most historians concede that he and his sons had built well over 4,000 homes, many of them mansions. His own home, featuring seven garages, still stands in the city by the bay.

Fernando was the first president of the San Francisco Motor Club and, in 1908, was out to capture one motoring record after another.

Not content with his near-perfect race to Los Angeles and back a month earlier, Fernando set his sights on Oregon.

A Southern Pacific train leaving San Francisco’s North Bay could travel the 780 miles to Portland in 37 hours. Ever the optimist, Fernando was sure his 30 horsepower, steam-driven, White automobile could beat that time by at least an hour.

At 3 a.m., May 26, 1908, Fernando, his son Frank, and four other men who would do the actual driving left the Vallejo, California, starting line. More than hour later, they realized they had taken the wrong road and were back in Vallejo. At 4:20 a.m. they were off again, this time on the right road, but their troubles had just begun.

The roads to Redding were average at best and the travelers faced heavy winds. Ironically it was a horseshoe lying in the road that punctured a tire and caused a 12-minute delay for repairs.

The guide who was supposed to meet them in Redding wasn’t there, so they set off without him. Near Mount Shasta, they made another wrong turn onto a logging road and found themselves 60 miles off course, but somehow they made up the time.

Recent rains, lingering snow and muddy roads in the Siskiyous slowed them to a near crawl. By the time they reached Medford at 7:40 the following morning, they were already eight hours behind schedule.

“The worst stretch of road we encountered,” Fernando said, “was a toll road two miles in length on the Oregon side.” It had taken them nearly two hours to reach Ashland from the Siskiyou summit.

Worn out from lack of sleep and covered in dust and mud, they had a quick breakfast and were off again within an hour. Guiding them on their way to Roseburg was Medford garage owner and auto dealer Bill Hodson.

Not far from the Wolf Creek Inn, one of the car’s wheels broke. Fernando telegraphed Portland for a replacement wheel; however, it would take a day before it arrived. The race was obviously over, but Fernando was committed to completing the journey.

Two days later, after repairs were made, they were in Eugene, taking a leisurely lunch and filling up with a new supply of gas. They set off again, already 41 hours behind the original schedule.

At 1 o’clock, May 30, the White steamer drove into Portland, five days after its start.

“I would not have missed the experience for anything in the world,” Fernando told reporters. “I still maintain it is possible to beat the railway time with an automobile. I am satisfied to let the time of 81 hours and 31 minutes stand for the record.”

Before he returned home, Fernando ordered his automobile decorated with the “finest Portland roses” and be entered in the upcoming Rose Festival parade.

He never tried the race again.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.