Let’s Take a Road Trip
June 18, 1903: 1st Transcontinetal Auto Trip Begins
In the spring of 1903, on a whim and a fifty-dollar bet, Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson set off from San Francisco in a 20-horsepower Winton touring car hoping to become the first person to cross the United States in the new-fangled “horseless carriage.”
While in San Francisco’s University Club as a guest on May 18, 1903, Jackson agreed to a $50 wager ($1,183.35 in 2008 dollars) to prove that a four-wheeled machine could be driven across the country. He accepted even though he did not own a car, had practically no experience driving, and had no maps to follow.
With no mechanical experience, Jackson convinced a young mechanic and chauffeur, Sewall K. Crocker, to serve as his travel companion, mechanic, and backup driver. Crocker suggested that Doctor Jackson buy a Winton car. He bought a slightly used, two-cylinder, 20 hp Winton, which he named the Vermont, after his home state. He bade his wife goodbye, and left San Francisco carrying coats, rubber protective suits, sleeping bags, blankets, canteens, a water bag, an axe, a shovel, a telescope, tools, spare parts, a block and tackle, cans for extra gasoline and oil, a Kodak camera, a rifle, a shotgun, and pistols.
At the time there were only 150 miles of paved roads in the entire country, all of them within city limits. There were no gas stations and virtually no road maps as we know them today. Most people doubted that the automobile had much of a future. Jackson’s trip would prove them wrong.
The car was transported by ferry from San Francisco to Oakland. But only fifteen miles into the journey, the car blew a tire. Jackson and Crocker replaced it with the only spare they had, in fact, the only right-sized spare tire they could find in all of San Francisco.
The second night of their journey, they replaced the side lanterns (having discovered on the first night that they were too dim) with a large spotlight mounted on the front of the Vermont.
Going northwards out of Sacramento, the noise of the car covered the fact that the duo’s cooking gear was falling off. They were also given a 108-mile misdirection by a woman so that she could send them to the spot where her family could see an automobile.
The rough trek towards Oregon required them to haul the car across deep streams with the block and tackle. Somewhere along this route, Jackson lost his glasses and stuff continued to fall off. They were forced to pay a $4 ($85.21 in 2005 dollars) toll by an entrepreneur in order to cross his property on a “bad, rocky, mountain road” as Jackson described it. When their tires blew out they were required to wind rope around the wheels. Jackson did manage to find a telegraph office and wired back to San Francisco for replacement tires to be transported to them along the journey.
The car broke down near an Oregon ranch and they had to be towed to the ranch by a cowboy. Crocker made repairs, but a fuel leak caused them to lose all of their available gasoline, and Jackson rented a bicycle to travel 25 miles to Burns, Oregon for fuel. After suffering a flat tire on the bicycle, he returned with four gallons of fuel (which Jackson complained cost him “nearly twenty dollars”), and they returned to Burns to fill up.
Outside of Vale, Oregon, the Vermont ran out of oil. Jackson walked back to the last town to get oil, only to discover eventually that they had been stopped only a short distance outside of Vale. The next day they arrived in Ontario, Oregon, where supplies waited for them.
Somewhere near Caldwell, Idaho, Jackson and Crocker obtained a dog, a Pit Bull named Bud. As it turns out, Jackson had wanted a dog companion since Sacramento.
Newspapers at the time gave a variety of stories of how Bud was acquired, including that he was stolen; in a letter to his wife, Nelson said a man sold him the dog for $15 ($383 in 2010 dollars). It turned out that the dusty alkali flats the travelers encountered would bother Bud’s eyes so much (the Vermont had neither a roof nor windshield) that Jackson eventually fitted him with a pair of goggles. At one point, Bud drank bad water and became ill, but survived.
Traveling with his co-driver Sewall K. Crocker and Bud, Jackson had the adventure of his life. He encountered pioneers in wagon trains, cowboys who used their lariats to tow him out of sand drifts, ranch wives who traded home cooked meals for a brief ride on the “Go-Like-Hell Machine,” and people who deliberately sent him miles out of his way just so their relatives could get their first glimpse of an automobile.
His car splashed through streams, got stuck in buffalo wallows, bounced over railroad trestles to cross major rivers, and frightened horses on the dusty trails. As he moved eastward, his quest slowly became a national sensation, with huge crowds (tipped off by the telegraph of his approach) lining the streets of towns as he whizzed through at 20 miles per hour. “It Startled the Natives,” one headline proclaimed; another announced “A Real Live Auto.”
Somewhere in Idaho, Jackson’s coat, containing most of the travelers’ money, fell off and was not found. At their next stop, Jackson had to wire his wife to send them money to Cheyenne, Wyoming. Near the end of June all three of them got lost in Wyoming, and went without food for 36 hours before finding a sheepherder who gave them a meal of roast lamb and boiled corn. Before reaching Cheyenne, however, the car’s wheel bearings gave out, and Crocker had to talk a farmer into letting them have the wheel bearings of his mowing machine.
The travelers eventually reached Omaha, Nebraska on July 12. From there on, they were able to use a few paved roads, and their trip was much easier. The only mishap happened just east of Buffalo, New York, when the Vermont ran into a hidden obstacle in the road and Jackson, Croker, and Bud were thrown from the car.
Partway through his improbable journey, Jackson learned that his spur-of-the-moment trip had turned into something of a race. First the Packard company, and then the Oldsmobile company dispatched their own autos from California in the hopes of passing him and gaining the publicity of being first across the nation.
Sixty-three days, twelve hours, and thirty minutes after commencing their journey in San Francisco Jackson arrived triumphantly into New York City and claimed the honor for himself. The first automobile to successfully transit the North American continent. Their trip expended over 800 gallons of gasoline.
After leaving New York City Jackson joined his wife and drove home to Vermont. Upon reaching the threshold of Jackson’s garage, the Vermont’s drive chain snapped, one of the few original parts never replaced during the entire journey.
On the centennial of Jackson’s achievement, Ken Burns and Florentine Films made a documentary film that follows his historic — and hilarious — journey. Horatio’s Drive: America’s First Road Trip is a one-episode, two-hour film broadcast on PBS. Tom Hanks is the voice of Horatio Nelson Jackson.
From the film: Horatio Arrives in New York