- 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
Their tire situation was approaching the critical stage. Blowouts were so common as to go unremarked. Changing one of these high-pressure clincher tires was a trial of strength, endurance, and temper: breaking loose the beads from the rim flanges with tire irons, painstakingly patching the tube, reinstalling tube and casing, then long minutes at the hand pump. Their wheel-spinning climbs up the rocky track and slithering descents with brakes locked played particular havoc with the rear tires. Concluding that the wait for new tires from San Francisco would be too long, Jackson decided to push on until they reached a railroad, where replacements could be shipped to them from the East in less time. The nearest line was the branch of the Union Pacific winding through the Snake River country of southern Idaho and crossing into Oregon at Ontario, some 340 miles from Alturas. Wrapping the rear tires with burlap and rope, they headed northward into Oregon.
Census figures of the period placed southeastern Oregon in the population category of “under two per square mile,” and even that was probably an exaggeration. This is Great Basin country, stark, empty, treeless, inhospitable, marked by dry lakes and upthrusting buttes. Even today it is crossed by relatively few highways. The adventurers pushed on slowly through this desolate landscape, nursing their threadbare tires and a broken spring, making lonely bivouacs under the stars. At about the midpoint of their passage they ran out of fuel, for the first and only time on their journey. Democratically, Jackson flipped a coin to see who would walk to the nearest settlement. Crocker lost, and the young chauffeur trudged off on what turned out to be a twenty-nine-mile round trip. He returned the next day in a borrowed wagon with two gallons of gasoline and three of benzine, a fuel the Winton’s engine apparently burned without complaint.
Reaching Ontario, Oregon, they were ferried across the Snake River and set out for Caldwell, Idaho, in what Dr. Jackson described as “an incessant rain of eight hours’ duration … most disagreeable.” This was their first serious encounter with the weather; rain made mud, and mud was to be their almost constant curse and plague from now on. Here they had to resort to block and tackle to extract the Vermont from a mudhole. Navigating by the flickering light of their acetylene headlamp, they pulled into Caldwell at midnight on Saturday, June 13. They had now been on the road three weeks and covered perhaps nine hundred miles. (This mileage can only be an approximation, for the Winton’s “cyclometer” vibrated loose and fell off at about this time. The primitive roads of the period followed every tortuous contour of the terrain, so that their mileage was substantially greater than that indicated by tracing their route on modern highway maps.)
Once they were again linked to civilization via the Union Pacific, Jackson telegraphed the Goodrich people for new tires. He also acquired an additional traveling companion. At Caldwell they were adopted by a bull terrier, fresh from a dogfight staged in their honor. The dog jumped aboard the Vermont as if he belonged there, so he was christened Bud and made an official member of the expedition. He was soon fitted with driving goggles, to which he grew so accustomed that he would not begin the day’s drive without them.
At every stop the Winton was regarded with wonder by the inhabitants, most of whom had never before seen an automobile. Nearly everyone was helpful with advice and directions except at Nampa, a few miles beyond Caldwell, where they were victimized by a spectator described as “a red-haired woman on a white horse.” She sent them off on a wild-goose chase so that her family at home could catch a glimpse of the car, a detour that cost them the better part of a day. Back on the track again, they bounced and clattered ahead in “a zig-zag course following lava beds.”
Near Mountain Home, Idaho, they plunged into a stream bed that was nearly their undoing. The Winton sank to its floorboards in mud and quicksand. After four hours of fruitless labor with the block and tackle they hunted up a farmer to help them. The combination of the farmer’s four-horse team and the Winton’s twenty horses eventually rescued them from what they would remember as the “twenty-four-horsepower mudhole.” Rain was turning the beaten track, once used by the Oregon Trail pioneers, into one continuous mudhole, so they angled northward almost to Sun Valley. From there to Pocatello they navigated by compass through trackless open country that included the improbable landscape of today’s Craters of the Moon National Park.
Thus far the Winton had performed almost flawlessly. Except for the broken spring, the lost cyclometer, and an air-intake pipe that dropped off “somewhere on the road,” the little car chugged along without complaint through the worst conditions imaginable. At Montpelier, in southeastern Idaho, their good fortune finally came to an end when a front-wheel bearing failed. With the aid of a Union Pacific mechanic, Jackson and Crocker were able to fashion a repair using parts from an old mowing machine. The makeshift replacement lasted some eighty miles. A coal-mine machinist at Diamondville, Wyoming, fabricated a new bearing cone for them and they were soon rolling again.