- Historic Sites
“Ocean To Ocean In An Automobile Car”
The first transcontinental auto trip began with a casual wager and ended sixty-five bone-jarring days later
June/july 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 4
It is an opening scene cherished by Jules Verne devotees: October 2, 1872, London’s exclusive Reform Club, the daily whist game in the reading room, then the famous wager—around the world within eighty days for a stake of twenty thousand pounds sterling.
Two hours later Phileas Fogg, “gentleman of honour,” and the faithful Passepartout are on the boat train to Dover. Precisely eighty days and many pages later, after an adventurous transit by train, by steamship, by elephant, by snow sledge, Fogg strides into the Reform to claim the bet and the triumph.
Now a similar but less famous opening scene: May 18, 1903, San Francisco’s exclusive University Club, the daily gathering at the club bar, then the wager—across the continent to New York within ninety days for a stake of fifty dollars. The Phileas Fogg in this latter tale is also a “gentleman of honour,” Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson, the Passepartout the equally faithful Sewall K. Crocker. But the means of locomotion is to be quite different. Dr. Jackson is betting he can make history’s first coast-to-coast journey by automobile, and do so without the contrivances of the fiction writer.
The thirty-one-year-old Dr. Jackson had no more notion of crossing the American continent by automobile when he walked up to the University Club bar that May day than Phileas Fogg had of circling the globe when he sat down at the Reform’s whist table. His fellow clubmen, Jackson later wrote, “were discussing the difficulties to be met with in taking a car across the continent, and arrived at the conclusion that it could not be done.” This led him, he said, “to seriously consider the question.” He had no experience whatever in long-distance auto trials; indeed he had only learned to drive a few months before.
To be sure, Dr. Jackson was already planning a transcontinental journey, but by rail, the sensible and comfortable way. Taking leave of his profitable Vermont medical practice, he had spent the winter of 1902–3 with his wife on the West Coast. It was in this pleasant clime that he first took up the new sport of “automobiling,” hiring twenty-two-year-old Sewall Crocker, a chauffeur-mechanic from Tacoma, Washington, to teach him the ropes. The Jacksons’ plans for their return to Vermont were well under way when the doctor dropped by the University Club on May 18.
It was, in short, a spur-of-the moment decision, but a gentleman’s bet is a gentleman’s word, and the doctor immediately set to work. His first step was to engage chauffeur Crocker to play Passepartout on the journey. Crocker asserted that one of the new 1903 Winton twenty-horsepower tourers, a product of the Winton Motor Carriage Company of Cleveland, would be the best car for the challenge. “Very well,” the doctor told him, “you go get the car and I will arrange matters otherwise.”
Getting the car was more complicated than they expected. The Winton Company’s San Francisco agent had none in stock, and all deliveries expected from the Cleveland factory were spoken for. They finally located a Winton owner, a Wells Fargo banker, who was willing to part with his car for a “premium” in addition to the twenty-five hundred dollars he had paid for it. They settled on a premium of five hundred dollars and the deal was made. (Like Phileas Fogg, the doctor financed his adventure from a generous purse.) Jackson and Crocker began assembling the equipment and supplies they thought they would need. Mrs. Jackson was put aboard an eastbound train with her husband’s cheerful promise that he would see her again within three months—or so he hoped.
His uncertainty was understandable. The makers of horseless carriages (as most Americans still called them) had taken great strides in the few years since 1896 when Frank and Charles Duryea made the first sale of an American-built car; 1903 would see production top the eleven thousand mark, four thousand of them Ransom Olds’s little curved-dash “Merry Oldsmobiles,” to swell the number of automobiles in use nationwide to almost thirty-three thousand. But no one had yet managed to drive one of these machines from one coast to the other, although dozens of attempts had been made. In most cases it was not the fault of the cars themselves. The killing problem was driving conditions.
A turn-of-the-century commentator had condemned America’s roads as “inferior to those of any civilized country,” and nothing had changed by 1903 to soften that indictment. From one end of the country to the other there was not a single foot of paved highway outside the cities (and fewer than 150 paved miles inside). Of the nation’s 2,300,000 total road miles, only about 150,000 were “improved,” that is, treated (usually) with a surface dressing of gravel, and nearly all these were in the main travel corridors of the East. The rest—more than 93 per cent of the total—were plain dirt. This meant a road network that in summer was inches deep in dust, that in winter was riven with frozen ruts and frost heaves, that in rainy weather in any season promptly turned to mud ranging in consistency from slippery paste to deep, gluey gumbo. When Roy D. Chapin made a much-heralded auto journey from Detroit to New York in 1901, he had crossed New York State on the towpath of the Erie Canal to prevent his Merry Oldsmobile from sinking out of sight in the mud.