"It’s not the inn at the end of the day, but the road." – Spanish proverb
There were only 150 miles of paved roads in all 48 of the United States of America in the year 1903. Most people had never seen what was then called a “horseless buggy”. And yet – on a $50 bet – a young Vermont doctor drove his topless 20-horsepower Winton from San Francisco to New York.
This was the very first cross-country road trip. The doctor, Horatio Nelson Jackson, was the first of millions of Americans who would cross the country by automobile in every direction in the 100 years to follow. Everything has changed since Horatio’s day : the roads, the automobiles, the urban landscape. But the spirit of getting behind the wheel and driving beyond known territory, the sense of approaching who-knows-what is still engrained in the national temperment.
Horatio’s trip was made on a dare. Visiting San Francisco, he was a guest at that city’s University Club when the subject turned to a new machine which had only recently been seen on the streets of most major cities. The consensus of opinion was that the automobile was an unreliable novelty, a passing fancy which would never replace the horse as a serious means of transportation. Horatio disagreed.
His confidence in the “horseless carriage” was such that he had stopped in San Francisco on a trip from Alaska to the East Coast for the express purpose of purchasing two automobiles. He also intended to learn how to drive them before shipping them to Vermont by rail. Before the evening was over, he had accepted a bet to drive to New York in less than three months. Four days later he was on his way.
The story of his drive, virtually untold in the past century, has been presented in book form by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns, producers of a PBS documentary of the same name. The book, a small “coffee table” volume, contains nearly a hundred of Horatio’s photographs plus 50 other photographs and illustrations. There is a preface and an afterword by Duncan, but the bulk of the text is Horatio’s story, often in his own words as written in letters mailed enroute to his wife.
Mrs. Jackson ("my darling Swipes”), daughter of one of the richest men in Vermont, was in San Francisco when her husband decided to make the cross-country trip. She choose to return home by passenger train instead of accompanying Horatio. In her place he hired a young professional bicycle racer cum mechanic, Sewall K. Crocker. Crocker was to accompany Horatio as a mechanic, alternate driver, companion, and block and tackle operator whenever it was necessary to extract the Winton from deep mud. Two weeks into the trip, they adopted a white bulldog, Bud, who finished the journey with them, traveling with his eyes protected from alkali dust by “motoring goggles”.
They were intentionally misdirected down lonely roads so that isolated farmers living at the other end could see an automobile, they traveled with “rear tires wrapped in rawhide and rope”, were overcharged for gasoline and towing services, slept in barns and attics, waited days at railroad stations for replacement parts to arrive from the factory.
Adding urgency to the dash across the nation was the knowledge that two other men had left San Francisco shortly after them to make the same trip in a vehicle specially built by the Packard Company for transcontinental travel. The other team was better equipped, with a factory specialist accompanying them to insure mechanical stability. Although the other men left San Francisco a bit less than a month after Horatio and Crocker, they made excellent time from the beginning. The Packard was soon closing the gap with the Winton. Two weeks after the Packard left San Francisco, another two-man team, also underwritten by an automobile manufacturer, left San Francisco for New York in a 1903 Oldsmobile runabout. There were now three cars in what had become more of a race than a dare.
”Horatio’s Drive” is a charming story from the standpoint of his enthusiasm and energy in meeting whatever unknown challenge the trip presented on any given day. He was traveling in an open car with no top and no windshield, very different from crossing the American desert in the comfort of a railroad car. He was covering ground far faster and farther than anyone had ever managed to do by horse and carriage. He was venturing into unknown, unmapped territory, often losing his way, at the mercy of directions haphazardly given by any stranger encountered at a crossroads.
The photographs he took, supplemented by others from that era, display the vast diversity of the countryside encountered along the route. There are pictures of mud wallows where the Winton is being pulled out by a team of farm horses. Photos taken in cities along the way show the astonishment and enthusiasm displayed by towns folks upon seeing an automobile for the first time. More photos of sage brush and burst tires and hand-painted road signs along major highways illustrate the fortitude needed by early motorists.
This book documents an important step in the development of the American culture. It is a history of who the American people were and what they were to become. It is the beginning of America’s long romance with the automobile.
Horatio’s Drive/by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns – published by Alfred A. Knopf 2003