- 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
As bad as roads were in the East, a motorist in that region with a good car and enough pioneering spirit could eventually get where he wanted to go. It was entirely different in the West. Motorists there faced conditions only marginally better than those the earliest covered-wagon pioneers had encountered crossing the plains and mountains and deserts generations earlier. Railroad builders had long since conquered the West, but road builders had not even begun the task. In many places a “road” was simply a pair of faint ruts wandering off toward the horizon, crisscrossed by cattle fences. The desert country of the Southwest was almost literally trackless. Mountain tracks in the Rockies or the Sierra Nevada were a challenge even to riders on horseback. It is not any wonder that when Jackson and Crocker set off on their adventure, no one had come close to conquering the continent by automobile.
But set off they did, at 1:00 P.M. on Saturday, May 23, 1903, just five days after Dr. Jackson made his wager. Their enthusiasm and determination were matched by their innocence. They had no clear notion of what route to follow. They would trust crude maps, compass, and directions they hoped would be forthcoming from those they met along the way.
One thing in their favor was their choice of car. The Winton was a sturdy and well-crafted machine. Its twocylinder, water-cooled engine was of the horizontal-opposed variety, mounted amidships beneath the seats on angle-iron frame members. Rated at twenty horsepower, it turned a two-foot flywheel and had chain drive to the rear wheels. The transmission was a novel planetary type with internal clutches, the two forward speeds and reverse operated by a pair of levers sprouting out of the floorboards. Speed control was also novel. Instead of the typical carburetor throttles, the Winton had a small engine-driven air pump that supplied compressed air to regulate the opening of the engine’s intake valves; the less air pressure, as metered by a foot pedal, the farther the valves opened and the faster the engine ran. There were brakes on the rear wheels only, plus an emergency brake that acted on the transmission. The car had a wooden body and laminated wood fenders and was finished in “Winton red,” trimmed with black. The seats were of tufted leather and the steering wheel tilted for easy entry, a feature no doubt appreciated by Dr. Jackson, who was a burly six-footer. There was no windshield or top. The doctor christened the machine the Vermont .
The car’s rear-seat tonneau was removed to make room for the traveling gear. The two men packed carefully: rubber mackintoshes, leather coats, and two valises of clothing; sleeping bags, water containers, provisions, cooking utensils, and fishing rods; an armory comprising a shotgun, a rifle, and two pistols in case road agents were encountered; an axe, spade, and block and tackle; tools, jacks, and tire-repair equipment; and a can holding twelve gallons of gasoline to supplement the Winton’s own ten-gallon fuel tank. They started off with no spare tires, a naive decision they would soon regret.
The travelers eased into their epic journey gently and without fanfare, taking the bay ferry from San Francisco to Oakland, crossing the Coast Range into the Sacramento Valley via Altamont Pass, and turning north. After a day and a half of driving over generally good roads they were in Sacramento, having covered about 125 miles. They lay over there on Monday, May 25, buying an acetylene headlamp and “more perfectly arranging our equipment,” as Dr. Jackson phrased it. They intended to take the direct route eastward, paralleling the Southern Pacific tracks over the Sierra Nevada, but were told that snow blocked the roads. The reports of snow-blocked passes continued as they rolled on through the spring-glowing valley. At Oroville they gave up the attempt to cross into Nevada and determined to continue northward and try their luck in the California Cascades. This would add substantially to the trip, but they saw no other choice. At least they would be avoiding the blistering desert country that had spelled the end of many earlier transcontinental efforts. On the fifth day they reached Anderson and angled northeastward. Leaving the Sacramento Valley the road began to climb, and their troubles began.
The rude track they followed (which approximates modern Route 299) was a hair-raising series of steep inclines, narrow cliffside ledges, and boulder-strewn defiles, with a surface alternating between sticky clay and flinty rock. It took them through forty-three-hundred-foot Hatchet Mountain Pass, north of present-day Lassen Volcanic National Park. When they encountered horse-drawn wagons they often had to give way, backing up until they found a spot wide enough to pass. There were no bridges over the mountain streams and, Jackson reported, “we were obliged to shoot them. ” If they stalled, or if the stream was too deep, they winched the Winton across with block and tackle. This crossing of the Cascades took them three days. On May 30, the eighth day out of San Francisco, they chugged into Alturas, in California’s far northeastern corner.