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Have you ever wondered about the first cross-country road trip? Americans have driven millions of miles back and forth across the country over the years but someone had to be first. That someone was Horatio Nelson Jackson.

I’ll admit, I hadn’t given it much thought myself despite my own epic road trip history. A picture of Horatio’s dog, Bud, wearing driving goggles, caught my attention first. Then the caption about the first-ever cross-country road trip sealed the deal. I had to know more!

Enter Horatio’s Drive: America’s First Road Trip, a documentary produced by Ken Burns. (You can see a few clips on the PBS website.) As luck would have it, the movie was available on Amazon Prime for just a few more days, so I immediately added it to the top of my list.  There’s also a book that I grabbed on my very next visit to the library.

Cover of book Horatio's Drive with road maps, an old model car, and a toy horse
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As the country is beginning its love affair with the automobile, one man tests the possibilities by driving from San Francisco to New York.

It was a fascinating story, full of experiences that I could totally relate to while at the same time it was an adventure I could hardly imagine.  Let’s follow along on his journey, shall we?

Horses vs Autos

As the nineteenth century came to an end, there were only 8,000 cars in the United States compared to 14 million horses.  Doctors were outnumbered by blacksmiths, and most Americans rarely traveled more than twelve miles from home because that was the distance a horse and wagon could cover to take them out and back home again in a single day.  Long-distance travel was done by train.

But… this newfangled automobile enticed Americans with two things they wanted most: freedom and mobility.  Really, it was just a matter of time before the car took over the roads.

road maps with two books on top (horatio's drive and Lincoln highway) along with a toy horse, model car, and toy pioneer wagon
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Given the American love for exploration, it was only a matter of time before we started driving our horse-less carriages across the country. Horatio Nelson Jackson was a pioneer of the open road, completing the first transcontinental journey by car, sometimes creating the path as he went. Parts of his original route are now part of the Lincoln Highway and Interstate 80.

First Attempted Transcontinental Drives

1899 – Louise and John Davis made the first known attempt to drive a car from coast to coast. They left from New York and traveled so slowly that a one-armed bicyclist who started 10 days after them passed them before they made it to Syracuse, at which point they abandoned the attempt.  Louise Davis wrote of their attempt, “The automobile is a treacherous animal for a long trip.”

1901 – Alexander Winton, founder of the Winton Motor Carriage Company, made the second attempt to drive across the country in a car.  He started from the west in order to complete the hardest part of the journey first.  He left from San Francisco. Just 10 days and 530 miles later, his car was hopelessly stuck in a sand drift and he abandoned the attempt.  Afterward Mr. Winton said, “A Winton motor carriage cannot be expected to work a miracle.”

1903 – Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson left San Francisco in May 1903, heading for New York.  Despite many obstacles along the way, he was the first to complete a transcontinental drive across America.

Horatio’s Drive

Allegedly Jackson made a $50 bet that he could drive from San Francisco to New York in less than 90 days.  Whether or not a bet was really made, it did happen rather suddenly. Just 4 days after declaring his intentions, he had found a car and a chauffeur.  They left San Francisco on May 23, 1903, loaded with gear and enthusiasm.  His wife, though supportive of the trip, opted for a much easier train ride home to Vermont.

The Man

Horatio Nelson Jackson was a physician from Vermont who married Bertha Wells, the daughter of the richest man in Vermont.  Dr. Jackson left his practice after a diagnosis of tuberculosis.

The Chauffeur

Sewall Crocker was a 22 year-old former bicycle racer who had been working in a gas engine factory when Dr. Jackson hired him to be the mechanic and co-driver for the journey.

The Car

Jackson chose a cherry red 1903 Winton Company touring car.  It had no windshield and no top.  They removed the backseat to make more room for gear and spare parts.  According to the Winton Company’s numbering system, the car he bought was Number 1684 but he chose to christen it with the name, Vermont.  The gas tank held about 11 gallons which, according to the sales brochure, was enough to run the car about 175 miles over ordinary roads.

The Route

Jackson and Crocker opted to start out following the railroad north into Oregon.  This added several hundred miles to their route but they hoped to avoid the problems that Alexander Winton had faced in the desert sands of Nevada.  Following the railroad would also make it easier to access supplies along the way.

Proper roads were so few and far between at this point, that there were no maps.  There were also no signs because most people out driving were locals who knew all the turns already.  A few companies had started to put out guidebooks with detailed instructions on how to get from one town to the next. 

Of course, these guidebooks were only published in the more-populated East at the time, which didn’t help them as they started out from San Francisco. Following the railroad right-of-way seemed the best way to go as they headed out.

open book displaying a map of the united states showing a route from California to New York. On the facing page, a day by day itinerary of the cross-country journey
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A map of Horatio’s route and his 63-day itinerary

The Gear

After removing the backseat to make room for more gear, they packed the following items to begin the long journey:

  • sleeping bags
  • cooking gear
  • rubber mackintoshes for themselves and the car (remember – no roof, no windshield!)
  • coats and sweaters and two small suitcases for their clothes
  • a set of tools including two jacks, a spade, and a fireman’s ax
  • a block and tackle with 150 feet of hemp rope
  • fishing gear
  • shotgun, rifle, pistols, and ammunition
  • a small Kodak camera to record his trip (this just warms my little memory-keeping heart!)
  • additional tanks to hold extra oil and gasoline for emergencies

Unfortunately, a lot of their gear bounced out the back as they drove without them realizing it and several things were lost, including two pairs of Jackson’s eyeglasses.

Many days of the journey, especially in the beginning, were spent parked in a town awaiting replacement parts to arrive via stagecoach or train so they they could continue on.  An article in the Lake County Examiner reported, “If they meet with as many accidents and are delayed as long as they were in Alturas and Lakeview, it will be winter before they see the Atlantic.”

black and white photo of a wrecked antique auto with text overlay that reads "The worst of it is over" Dr. Horatio Jackson Nelson
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How many times have you said that only to discover that the worst of it is not, in fact, over. Ah… memories!

The Dog

In Caldwell, Idaho, they met a man who offered them a dog as a mascot.  Bud was a young, light-colored bulldog who immediately added life to the journey.  He was outfitted with his own driving goggles as protection from the dust and settled right in for the journey.

Open book on top of road map. Picture is sepia tone image of a 1903 car under a railroad trestle. Facing page has text and photo of car under repair with dog standing nearby
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The theme of the trip… so many breakdowns and repairs!

Classic American Road Trip

There is nothing more quintessentially American than to set out on the open road in search of adventure.  This first successful cross-country road trip sealed the American love affair with the ultimate symbol of freedom – the automobile. 

Over a hundred years after Jackson’s trip, I can still relate to some of his experiences.  Breakdowns, enormous storms over the plains, wrong turns, breathtaking scenery, questionable roads, even that last drive through the night to finally reach his final destination – these are all things we have also experienced in our many epic summer road trips.

dirt road leading off into a mountainous landscape with text overlay that reads: Quote by William Least Heat-Moon: "There's nothing that we can do that is more American than getting in a car and striking out across the country. I think as a nation we can think of few things that draw us more strongly than a piece of roadway heading we know not where. This is the way we grow up, this is the way we enter our history: get in a car and find the country."
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Quote by William Least Heat-Moon:
“There’s nothing that we can do that is more American than getting in a car and striking out across the country.”
Yep. Rings true to me.
Open book on top of road map. Picture is sepia tone image of a 1903 car with driver and dog watching a train pass through wide open desert landscape
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Expansive views and no roads… it was a difficult trip but just imagine the amazing scenery they saw along the way.

A Series of Misadventures

Jackson and Crocker face obstacle after obstacle on their trip.  There are no maps, no roads, no repair shops.  They are repeatedly forced to use shovels and the block and tackle to push and drag the car through sand and mud.  While crossing the Rocky Mountains, they were moving boulders by hand out of their path.  Many days of travel are lost as they sit waiting for repair parts to arrive via train or stagecoach.  It’s not until they reach Iowa that they finally begin to travel at a decent unimpeded speed, averaging nearly 150 miles per day.

black and white photo of antique auto disabled in a ditch with a crowd of people around it, text box reads "Misadventure had become routine"
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Every road trip is guaranteed to have at least one misadventure!

The Homestretch

Finally, the end is in sight!  On July 21, they set out from Cleveland, Ohio, to finish the last leg of the journey.  Roads are better here and they continue to make good time, often driving into the night just to log more miles and get themselves that much closer to home.

At 4:30 a.m. on July 26, 1903, Jackson and Crocker crossed the Harlem River into Manhattan to their final destination of the Holland House Hotel.

Dr. H. Nelson Jackson and Sewall K. Crocker (and Bud!) completed the first transcontinental automobile trip, from San Francisco to New York, in 63 days, 12 hours and 30 minutes.

Jackson estimated the cost of his 6,000 mile road trip as $8,000 which had been spent on the car, Crocker’s salary, food and lodging, never-ending new tires and repair parts, 800 gallons of gas, and the $15 spent to buy Bud.

Listen to Horatio’s Story

Josh and Chuck from Stuff You Should Know recently talked about Horatio and his road trip on the podcast. You can listen here:

The rest is history

1903 was a big year for the United States- President Teddy Roosevelt sent a wireless radio message across the Atlantic to the King of England, a cable was laid across the Pacific Ocean, completing the circuit and allowing Roosevelt to send the first telegraph around the world, and the Wright brothers made the world’s first airplane flight.

Jackson and Crocker’s trip inspired an organized movement to improve the nation’s roads and make them better for cars.  The automobile was about to transform American life.

front cover of book titled The Lincoln Highway displayed with paper road maps and an old model car
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A lot of Horatio’s route eventually became part of the Lincoln Highway.

The first family road trip was in 1908.  Jacob Murdock and his family drove from Pasadena to New York City in just 32 days.  Mr. Murdock did all the driving and even drove for more than twelve hours on a few days, just to cover more distance (just like me on my road trips!).

The Lincoln Highway was the first transcontinental motor route, created in 1913.  In 1916, a car covered its entire length in just 5 days – so much faster than that first trip across the country!

Lincoln Highway historic marker sign that states the black and orange cabins were built in 1929 and restored in 2009
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As a frequent traveler, I think it is so cool to be able to see what sort of accommodations there were for the first road trip adventurers.
an old rusty pickup truck sits among trees outside an old motel from the early 1900s
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As roads were built and cars improved, people began driving across the country more often. This motel in Wyoming was used by travelers on the Lincoln Highway.
interior of an early 1900s travel lodge cabin with a wood stove, card table, and bed.
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Much less fancy than modern-day hotels, these black and orange travel cabins were a welcome pit stop along the Lincoln Highway.

The possibilities of the open road… What natural wonder will we see today?  What part of history will come to life when we see it with our own eyes?  Even before we had cars, Americans have been drawn out to explore unknown horizons.  I find it fascinating how similar my own road trip experiences were in some ways to the very first cross-country journey.  A positive attitude, a sense of adventure, a journal to write in, and a camera to record the scenery are the essentials for every road trip.

There will be breakdowns and tears and stories to last you through the years, so get out there and start exploring!

Just around the bend is another place you’ve never seen before…
dirt path leading into a mountainous landscape with a text overlay that reads: Quote from Ken Burns, documentary film maker: "Through it all we could not help but drink up the powerful tonic, the powerful medicine, which moving across this extraordinary country always is. We felt often as if we were moving through time as well as through the landscape, and came to understand as no armchair surveyor can, the immense size and almost stupefying distance that is the American West, both today and yesterday, when Horatio Jackson Nelson made his bold, and now to us almost unbelievable, run."
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Immense size and almost stupefying distance. Yep, that pretty much sums it up in my experience as well. That powerful tonic keeps me going back year after year.

Sharing is Caring

Pin it so that others can experience the first American cross-country road trip and compare it to some of their own adventures!

rusty antique car with flat tire stuck in sand - text overlay reads America's first cross-country road trip
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Have you ever wondered about the first American cross-country road trip? Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson along with his driving partner, Sewall Crocker, and his dog, Bud, drove a cherry red 1903 Winton from San Francisco to New York in 63 days covering many miles that eventually became part of the Lincoln Highway. This journey is featured in a PBS documentary by Ken Burns. How does your latest road trip compare?

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