Motoring History Monday: America’s First Coast-to-Coast Automobile Trip

HoratioNelsonJacksonIn honor of the upcoming Memorial Day weekend when many Americans “hit the road” to officially begin summer, today’s article is about the first successful coast-to-coast American road trip.

On May 19, 1903, Horatio Nelson Jackson was in San Francisco on business. His primary residence was in Vermont where he had been a physician.  Following a bout with tuberculosis he spent time in California and in May of 1903, having given up the practice of medicine three years earlier, was returning from Alaska were he had overseen some gold mine investments.

While at the University Club he overheard a group of men talking about the new horseless carriage – in their opinion it would never be able to make a cross-country trip.  Horatio thought otherwise and boastfully wagered $50 claiming he could make the trip in less than three months.  The wager must have seemed impetuous since Horatio did not own an automobile, and likely had very little, if any, experience driving one.

He purchased a slightly-used cherry-red Winton motorcar, paying three thousand dollars.  The car had a two-cylinder, twenty horsepower engine with a chain drive, capable of speeds up to thirty miles per hour.  This was not the first attempt to cross the nation by automobile – two previous attempts, one by Alexander Winton, maker of the Winton motorcar, had failed after becoming bogged down in Nevada.

Horatio named his automobile “The Vermont” in honor of his home state.  He packed the various necessities (after taking out the back seat), including rubber suits, coats, blankets, sleeping bags, canteens, cooking ware, shovel, telescope, spare parts, Kodak camera, rifle and pistols, a block and tackle and cans for oil and gas.  He sent his wife Bertha home by train and Horatio set out without fanfare on the afternoon of May 23 with his co-driver and mechanic Sewall K. Crocker.

The car was ferried across the bay to Oakland and fifteen miles after officially “hitting the road” a tire blew out.  Just out of San Francisco they were forced to use their one and only spare tire.  That would be the first of many, many breakdowns and difficulties experienced over the next two plus months.  The trip would be arduous enough if only for the fact that at that time there were only approximately one hundred and fifty miles of paved road – in the entire country!

They stopped in Sacramento to make minor repairs and purchase some used inner tubes, as well as an acetylene lamp for night driving.  They also reviewed what maps were available (not many at the time).  To avoid previous pitfalls, Horatio decided to take a different route.  He would head north up to Oregon and then cut across to Idaho, avoiding Nevada, Utah and Colorado altogether, an additional one thousand miles.

The two men took two-hour turns at driving and headed north to Oregon.  While bumping along on primitive roads through miles of orchards they failed to realize (with all the road noise) that their cooking utensils had dropped off one by one.  When discovered, there was no way they could afford to turn back and recover them.  That was the least of their problems for they were now lost.  They stopped to ask a young woman the way to Marysville – she directed them to a dead-end road, only to find out she had intentionally sent them down the road so her folks could see the horseless carriage.

All along the way, Horatio wrote letters to Bertha, expressing his optimism that he would complete the journey.  This despite the facts the two adventurers experienced so many setbacks – a true optimist if there ever was one.  They climbed the roads through the Cascade Mountains, a trail never before traveled by automobiles – without the benefit of a particularly reliable braking system.  The two men were forced to stop frequently for repairs – the clutch and tires (which required patching of the inner tubes and hand pumping to inflate).

There were few bridges so creeks were forded by the vehicle.  One creek proved to be too deep and they were forced to use the block and tackle to pull the car out.  On top of that Horatio lost a pair of spectacles (he lost yet another shortly after) and his fountain pen.  By May 29 they had passed Mount Shasta and were headed for Alturas, California in the far northeast corner of the state.  In Alturas they would remain for a day to order a new set of tires, new batteries and a new cyclometer.

Their order was promised by Wells Fargo to be delivered soon, but by June 2 it still had not arrived, and even though perturbed at the delay, he left Alturas anyway.  But not before he gave rides to the curious spectators who drove their carriages from miles around to see his machine.  In exchange for the rides, he asked for a display of western horsemanship, anticipating a real “wild west show.”  He wrote Bertha on May 31:

Well Old Girl,

I am rather provoked over our delay… I have lost 5 days. This is a bad start for our first eleven days out. Just as soon as I can get decent tires we will make a record run. I feel more confident that I can make New York…

We are causing a great sensation along the road – it is the first machine that has ever gone over these mountains. Yesterday the framer drove in for miles to see my machine and there has been a hundred people around the livery stable since our arrival.

Just out of Alturas a spring broke and they limped into Lakeview, Oregon at only ten miles per hour.  Lakeview residents were aware of Horatio’s pending arrival and they gathered along the streets.  Humorously, the residents had been told to be sure and acquire a front row view as the automobile was likely to be coming through at ninety miles an hour!  They stayed just long enough to have a blacksmith repair the front spring.

TheVermontAfter returning to the road, an inner tube burst, forcing them to return to Lakeview and wait for the order from San Francisco to arrive.  On the evening of June 5 the shipment finally arrived and early the next morning they were ready to continue on.  Their goal was to reach Ontario, Oregon in two days, but they faced a three hundred-mile stretch of desert.  Later that day they experienced yet another breakdown, this time towed to a nearby ranch by a cowboy on horseback.

The next few days brought yet another series of breakdowns and mishaps.  After making the repairs, Sewall discovered all their gasoline had leaked away so he had to ride a rented bicycle twenty-five miles to Burns, Oregon to obtain fuel.  The bicycle got a flat tire and he was then forced to walk back with the fuel, which had cost almost twenty dollars.  On June 9, just outside of Vale, Oregon the car ran out of oil.  Horatio walked back to the last town but discovered later that they had actually been only a short distance from Vale.  The next day they arrived in Ontario and picked up their supplies.  Then it was on to Idaho.

There are a number of stories about what happened in Caldwell, Idaho, but apparently Horatio had wanted a dog to accompany them since leaving Sacramento.  He purchased a pit bull named “Bud”, paying fifteen dollars for him.  After discovering the dusty roads irritated dog as well human eyes, Bud was fitted with his own pair of goggles.  Horatio noted that Bud was the only passenger who didn’t use profanity.

BudThe pair were increasingly becoming celebrities, stopping to take pictures and give interviews for local newspapers.  They would offer rides to residents who called it a “go-like-hell machine.”  In Rawlins, Wyoming they were forced to order parts from Winton after experiencing the most serious breakdown thus far – stud bolts holding the connecting rod to the crankshaft were sheared off, piercing the crankcase cover, causing another unexpected delay while they waited for delivery by train.

HoratioAndSewellOn June 16, Horatio’s coat, which contained most of their money, fell off and was never found.  He wired Bertha to send money to Cheyenne, Wyoming.  By the time they reached Cheyenne, they had become lost and had no food for thirty-six hours.  A sheepherder found and fed them, and when the wheel bearings went out, Sewall convinced a farmer to lend him a pair from a mowing machine.

Unbeknownst to them, on June 20 Tom Fetch and Marius Krarup left San Francisco in a new Packard.  Krarup was a reporter who would file stories along the way.  For Packard it was purely for publicity purposes.  Another team left San Francisco on July 6, Lester Whitman and Eugene Hammond, driving an Oldsmobile runabout and underwritten by the Oldsmobile company.

Horatio’s quest then became a competition of sorts, although he was unaware of it until they stopped in Rawlins, Wyoming to wait for parts.  Horatio, ever the optimist, told his wife he was confident his competitors would not succeed.

They reached Omaha, Nebraska on July 12 (after more breakdowns and delays), the most difficult part of the journey behind them.  One day they had used the block and tackle eighteen times. Heading east they would then have some paved, or at least better, roads to travel on.  They were able to make better time, sometimes “whizzing” through towns, where crowds awaited, at forty miles per hour.


The Winton Motorcar Company began to realize the publicity possibilities of Horatio’s adventure.  Winton offered to sponsor the remainder of the trip, meaning they would be in charge.  Horatio declined and wrote to his wife:

Darling Swipes….

On our arrival here… [I] was much surprised to find a man from the factory with a letter congratulating me and stating that they were willing to place men along the line with supplies at their expense.

I have informed them that we have made the trip so far without their assistance & thought that perhaps [we] two greenhorns could do the rest of it.

Horatio and Sewall traveled quickly across Iowa and into western Illinois, cheered on by crowds along the way.  Four days after leaving Omaha they reached Chicago.  Horatio noted in his journal that he had come to the conclusion that he could run his car over any road horses and wagons used, provided they could get traction.  Chicago rolled out the red carpet but they didn’t linger long despite the accolades – the next day they were on the road again.

On July 20, they were met in Cleveland by Winton officials.  Horatio was elated to have reached the original “birthplace” of his car.  He advised those wanting to take such a trip themselves to estimate the anticipated expenses then multiply them by twenty.  Horatio continued to be confident of completing his journey well ahead of his competitors.  He was right.  As it turns out their routes were ill-chosen and caused them to fall farther behind.

To avoid the Allegheny mountains Horatio decided to head to Buffalo and then across to Albany and down to New York City.  However, one more mishap occurred outside of Buffalo when they encountered an unexpected obstacle.  Horatio, Sewall and Bud were all thrown from the car.  Undeterred, they continued on, and with better roads and conditions, experienced fewer delays.

On July 26 at 4:30 a.m. they arrived in New York – sixty-three days, twelve hours and thirty minutes after leaving San Francisco on May 23.  They had used over eight hundred gallons of gas and Horatio had spent over $8,000 of his own money and lost twenty pounds.  Their feat was celebrated, the story told many times over in newspapers across the country (no doubt embellished at times, given the era of “yellow journalism”).

To Horatio Nelson Jackson, the expense and difficulties were well worth it just to win the bet, which curiously he never collected.  For him it obviously wasn’t about money.  On July 30, Horatio and Bertha, accompanied by Bud, headed home to Vermont.  The trip home took about a week due to, you guessed it, more breakdowns and delays.  His two brothers met them, in their own automobile, to escort them into Burlington, only to have their car break down.  Horatio towed their car into town and upon reaching the threshold of his own garage, one of the few original parts not replaced on their trip – the drive chain – snapped.

Fetch and Krarup finally made it to New York on August 21.   Whitman and Hammond arrived on September 17, and in a bid to claim the first sea-to-sea automobile trip (and gain publicity for their sponsors), continued on to Boston and drove their car out to the edge of the Atlantic.

1903 turned out to be an historic year for transportation, just one hundred years after the Louisiana Purchase and the beginning of Lewis and Clark’s expedition.  The Wright Brothers also famously made their first flight at Kitty Hawk.  But to the everyday ordinary person, the automobile era had arrived and the possibilities would seem limitless with the introduction of new technology as time went on.

Not long after Horatio’s historic trip, no doubt seeing the handwriting on the wall, plans were made to improve the nation’s roads.  In 1908 one family left Pasadena, California and arrived in New York thirty-two days later, the first family trip across the country in an automobile.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Horatio repaired The Vermont and on October 3, 1903 he was cited for exceeding the six mile per hour speed limit of Burlington.  The Vermont was donated to the Smithsonian in 1944.  For more about the life of Horatio Nelson Jackson, check out tomorrow’s Tombstone Tuesday article.

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.


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