It’s Memorial Day Weekend, the official start of the summer travel season, when Americans take time off and head for the open road. The ease of travel by car is something most of us take for granted, thanks to the Interstate Highway System, as well as the many gas stations, hotels and restaurants ready to cater to vacation hungry consumers.
But travelling by car wasn’t always easy. In fact, travelling across country wasn’t even talked about, let alone attempted, until this week in 1903. It’s the first epic road trip, one recounted in the Ken Burn’s documentary “Horatio’s Drive.”
The bar bet that made history
It’s 1903 at The University Club in San Francisco, where wealthy men are discussing the future of the automobile, which has only been in existence for little more than a decade. Dismissed by most members of the club as an unreliable fad, 31-year-old Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson, a guest from Burlington, Vermont, doesn’t agree. A debate breaks out as Jackson says that it’s more than a plaything for the rich. In fact, he thought that he could drive across the United States from coast to coast. Putting his money where his mouth is, he wagers $50.
The terms of the bet are that Jackson will drive in a car from Oakland, California to New York City in less than three months. Four days later, he is ready.
Beginning of a great adventure
Certainly the odds are against Jackson. Others had tried and failed, most notably Alexander Winton, manufacturer of cars by the same name. But Jackson has no experience with cars, and knows little about their mechanics. He does no advance planning.
And he had to buy a car. So he pays $3,000 for a used 20-horsepower, 2-cylinder Winton touring car with a top speed of 30 mph. The car has no top or windshield and its steering wheel is on the right. Jackson removes the back seat and piles the requisite gear needed, such as sleeping bags and extra tire inner tubes.
He names the car the Vermont, bringing along 22-year-old mechanic Sewall Crocker as his co-driver, who recommended the purchase.
What they met on the road
At the time, most Americans rarely ventured more than a few miles from their home. They knew where they were going, so signs weren’t necessary. There are no federal roads, and maps are poor or non-existent — particularly in the West. There aren’t even gas stations – gasoline is sold at hardware stores or general stores. Worst of all, at least from a tire standpoint, of the 2.3 million miles of road in the United States, fewer than 150 miles are paved.
The roads would prove so bumpy, they would lose gear as they traveled. Other times, they would have to drive through streams due to the lack of bridges, or follow railroad beds when possible.
And there are mechanical issues; early automobiles are extremely unreliable. The clutch frequently needs repair, oil lines clog, tires puncture, springs and axles break. But Crocker proves adept at fixing the issues, although frequent use of blacksmiths is required.
Others try for transcontinental glory
On June 20, as Jackson and Crocker are lost in Wyoming, Packard plant foreman Tom Fetch and journalist Marius C. Krarup set out in a 12-horsepower Model F Runabout in a drive from San Francisco to New York. The result of three months of planning by the by Packard Motor Car Co., their route follows the transcontinental railroad, with each day’s journey planned in advance. Supplies are placed at strategic points, and their luggage is shipped ahead daily by train.
Jackson and Crocker learn of Fetch and Krarup’s expedition while stopped in Rawlins, Wyoming.
The race is on.
Initially, Fetch and Krarup are catching up to Jackson and Crocker. To make matters worse, Oldsmobile enters the cross-country race on July 6, sending a pair of auto mechanics and drivers from San Francisco in a Curved Dash Olds. Now there are three cars driving across the country, all set on being the first to reach New York City from California. All three teams become national news.
By this point, the Winton company finally offers to help, but Jackson and Crocker refuse. Jackson has made this far without their help, and will continue without it.
Luckily, his competitors got bogged down with problems of their own, their progress stalled despite the help of America’s biggest automakers.
The finish line
On July 26, Jackson and Crocker roll into Manhattan 63 days, 12 hours and 30 minutes after leaving Oakland, California, well within the deadline of his bet. They are the first to drive across the country in an automobile. He wins his bet, but never bothers to collect his $50.
It has cost Jackson $8,000, but he has proven his point. A new age has dawned.
Fetch and Krarup reach Manhattan two weeks later, finishing second. The Oldsmobile places third, reaching Manhattan on Sept. 17.
So, as you drive this Memorial Day weekend, remember Jackson, Crocker and America’s first road trip. Whatever problems you might face, they scarcely compare to the hardships motorists once commonly encountered.