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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 Jackson Nelson.
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 which I grabbed on my very next visit to the library.
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 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.
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 and just 10 days and 530 miles later his car was hopelessly stuck in a sand drift and he abandoned the attempt. Afterwards 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Following the railroad right-of-way seemed the best way to go as they headed out.
After removing the backseat to make room for more gear, they packed the following items to begin the long journey:
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 the 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…
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Hi! I’m Sheila - a wife, mom to 3, and favorite human of a slightly-neurotic dog. I’m laid-back, sometimes scattered, a little curious, love to laugh, and always up for a fun road trip. Be amazed! Be inspired! Let's share the joy of discovery together.
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