June/july 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 4
The first transcontinental auto trip began with a casual wager and ended sixty-five bone-jarring days later
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.
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.
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.
Just beyond Granger, Wyoming, they found the road completely washed out by a recent cloudburst. Unable to get across a deep gully in their path, they backtracked along its course for forty miles or more. The terrain, Jackson recalled, was “like the solidified waves of an angry sea.” Repeatedly they had to use their block and tackle or spread bundles of cut sagebrush to get through muddy bogs. At last, in the vicinity of what is now Fontenelle Reservoir, they struck the Green River and began following it downstream. “Having lost our cooking outfit and provisions,” Jackson remarked (without further elaboration on that critical mishap), “and being in an uninhabited region, we were obliged to go thirty-six hours without food. ” After a day and a half’s travel without sighting a single human being, they stumbled upon a sheepherder and his flock, and were treated to a meal of mutton and canned corn that the travelers pronounced “sumptuous.”
From the town of Green River, Wyoming, they headed toward Rawlins, approximately paralleling today’s Interstate 80. This route took them over the Continental Divide, which they crossed without event and in good time. Indeed, when they pulled into Rawlins on June 23—a month after leaving San Francisco—they could take pride in the fact that, despite detours and complications beyond counting, they had traversed Idaho and half of Wyoming in just eleven days. Whatever elation they may have felt promptly evaporated as they drove from their Rawlins hotel to shelter the car in a nearby livery stable. With a great clattering the Winton’s engine stopped dead.
Upon investigation it was found that the stud bolts securing one of the connecting-rod bearings to the crankshaft had sheared off, sending the rod through the crankcase cover. The probable cause was lubrication failure. The Winton had a drip-feed oiling system, with oil lines leading to its vital parts from a one-quart tank on the dashboard. Unable always to obtain the proper lubricating oil, Jackson and Crocker had resorted to whatever weight oil they could find, and the oil lines became clogged as a result. Jackson hurried to the telegraph office to wire the Winton factory in Cleveland for replacement parts. At least he was comforted that the mishap had occurred where it had, for Rawlins was a stop on the Union Pacific. Five days later they had the new parts installed and were on their way.
East of Rawlins they encountered the Medicine Bow Range, which, Jackson wrote, provided the stiff est mountain-climbing test of the entire journey. The Vermont labored along slowly in low gear through Rattlesnake Canyon and over Elk Mountain. At the Medicine Bow River crossing a storekeeper, eyeing the Winton’s nearly empty fuel tank, gouged them $1.05 a gallon for five gallons of gasoline, some three times the going rate. This is the only instance of price extortion that Jackson mentions; what apparently pained him the most about the incident was that the storekeeper was from Vermont. The doctor’s spirits rose as they bowled along from Laramie to Cheyenne on “our first good road since we left Sacramento Valley.” Cheyenne marked the beginning of the end of mountain country, and to celebrate they laid over for two days, resting and recruiting their gear. “Just watch us now,” Jackson wired his wife in Vermont.
It was an unfortunate prediction. Some eighteen miles east of Cheyenne the Winton shuddered to a stop, ominously familiar noises coming from the engine. The other connecting-rod stud bolts had failed. A Union Pacific work crew made them welcome in its trackside camp while they waited five days for new parts from the Winton factory.
The travelers’ hopes of finding easier going in the Great Plains states faded quickly. “Instead of meeting with the good roads promised,” Jackson wrote, “we found them in a horrible condition, owing to the heavy rains. ” Crossing Nebraska was a particular trial. Repeatedly they were trapped in what the locals descriptively called “buffalo wallows.” Sometimes they were able to rig the block and tackle to a rear wheel hub, turning it into a windlass to haul the Vermont out of the bog under its own power. When all else failed, they went in search of a farmer with a team. On one exceptionally muddy day—in retrospect, probably the worst day of the entire journey—they had to resort to the block and tackle seventeen times. They estimated that day’s progress at sixteen miles.
Despairing of making much headway on the old Oregon Trail route along the Platte, they detoured northward in search of higher ground. In this back country one day they encountered an elderly farmer and his wife driving a wagon. Seeing a noisy, muddy apparition bearing down on them, manned by two men and a bull terrier all sinister in driving goggles, the terrified couple scuttled under their wagon until the danger was past. A day short of Omaha, on a good road at last, the front axle snapped. The resourceful Crocker obtained a short length of iron pipe from a farmer, inserted the broken axle ends into it, and secured his jury-rigged repair by hammering in tire irons as wedges. They crept along for twenty miles until they found a blacksmith to weld the axle. On July 12, fifty-one days out of San Francisco, they drove into Omaha. It had taken them twenty days and three major breakdowns to cover the approximately 650 miles from Rawlins, Wyoming. But they sensed that the worst was now over.
Jackson and Crocker were becoming the center of growing attention as news of their adventure spread. “’Beelists’ Stop Here,” one newspaper reported. “From Ocean to Ocean in an Automobile Car,” ran another headline. Crowds collected at every stop, and Bud earned his keep as watchdog to bar souvenir hunters. A young bystander announced that he had ridden sixty-eight miles on horseback just for a glimpse of the machine. “I have seen lots of pictures of ’em,” he said, “but this is the first real live one I ever saw.”
It was probably about this time that Jackson learned that he had professional competition for the transcontinental honors. On June 20 Tom Fetch and Marius Krarup had set out from San Francisco in a factory-backed Packard, and on July 6 a third machine entered the lists, a curved-dash Oldsmobile piloted by L. L. Whitman and Eugene Hammond and sponsored by Ransom Olds. The one-day layover in Omaha was the last such relaxing pause for Jackson and Crocker. From Omaha eastward they were intent on making the best time possible.
Crossing the Missouri at Council Bluffs, they headed due east through Iowa to cross the Mississippi at Davenport on a path approximating modern Route 6. In Illinois they paralleled the tracks of the Chicago & Northwestern. Rain, Jackson reported, was “severe and continuous,” the roads “heavy and muddy,” but at least the bottomless buffalo wallows were a thing of the past. On only the fourth day out of Omaha they reached Chicago. It was their fastest passage so far. A night’s rest and they were again on their way, driving uneventfully through Indiana in a day and a half and on to Toledo, Ohio.
On the afternoon of Monday, July 20, at Elyria, Ohio, the travelers were greeted with open arms by the Winton Company’s advertising manager, Charles B. Shanks. There was no one in the auto business more adept at public relations than Shanks, and sensing a publicity bonanza, he had driven out from Cleveland with two carloads of company brass to greet what he fervently hoped would soon be conquering heroes. The Vermont was convoyed to the Hotel Hollenden, Cleveland’s best, where a large crowd was waiting to raise a cheer. That evening the company threw a testimonial banquet in Jackson and Cracker’s honor. An offer was made to have the Vermont checked over by mechanics at the Winton plant, but the doctor, ever the gentleman sportsman, was not going to jeopardize his amateur standing. The Winton, he said, “will finish without a ‘looking over’ at your factory.”
Early the next morning, July 21, the Pathfinders (as Shanks would label them) set off on the final leg of their epic journey. Barring serious accident, they had no doubt they would make it. Jackson’s ebullient mood was evident in the telegram he sent Shanks a day or so later: “Everything is O.K. but rain is fierce. If it continues will ask you to send paddles for the wheels and rudder for the rear of car. May have to take out navigation papers.”
Having had their fill of mountains, they avoided the Alleghenies and chose instead the longer water-level route through central New York to Albany, then down the Hudson to New York City. East of Buffalo overconfidence nearly did them in. Pelting along in the mud at the Winton’s top speed of twenty miles an hour, they ran into a hidden obstacle with such force that both men, as well as Bud, were pitched headlong out of the car. Amazingly, no one was injured, nor was the Winton seriously damaged in this final mishap of a journey filled with mishaps.
Saturday, July 25, found them hurrying southward along the Hudson to Fishkill, where they were met by a welcoming delegation from Manhattan that included Mrs. Jackson; alerted by wire, she had taken the train from Vermont to be there at the finish. After one last exasperating tire repair, they embarked on the final lap. At four in the morning on Sunday, July 26, the faithful Vermont chugged down Fifth Avenue to the Holland House. The next day’s New York Sun reported that “a mud-becoated automobile found a haven of rest in an uptown storage station last night after the longest motor vehicle journey on record.”
The elapsed time for this automotive odyssey was sixty-three days and fifteen hours. The second half of the journey, east from Omaha, had been made in just twelve days. Subtracting layover time for rest and repairs, the Pathfinders were on the road some forty-six days. The distance they covered cannot be calculated with precision, but it was probably between forty-two hundred and forty-five hundred miles, averaging out to ninety-odd miles for each day of travel. Jackson later estimated his total cost for the trip, including the purchase of the car and Crocker’s salary as well as all their expenses, at $8,000—or $7,950, assuming that his drinking companions back at San Francisco’s University Club paid off their sporting wager.
As a transcontinental record the feat lasted barely three weeks, for the Fetch-Krarup factory-backed Packard that had set off on June 20 sliced three days off their mark. (The Whitman-Hammond Merry Oldsmobile also reached New York, but it took it seventy-four days.) In succeeding years the record was lowered repeatedly as auto makers competed for the publicity laurels. By 1910 a Reo had the mark down to a little over ten and a half days.
But in an adventure that would have challenged the inventiveness of Phileas Fogg and Passepartout, Horatio Nelson Jackson and Sewall Crocker were the first, and secure in the record books. Their uncommercial amateurism and cheerful enthusiasm add a special luster to the achievement. They did what no one else had ever done before, and it appears that they had a good time doing it.
Winton’s Charles Shanks certainly had a good time publicizing their journey. His large display ad in Motor World , for example, trumpeted “the recent triumph of our standard, regular model 20-horse power Touring Car” as “without parallel in American automobile history.” Company ads soon bore the slogan “Winton is King, Long Live the King. ” Shanks also pounced joyfully on the charge, apparently first circulated by Packard driver Tom Fetch, that the trip was a hoax, that Jackson and Crocker had put their car aboard a train to bypass the worst terrain and had then used a second car after the first one suffered a fatal breakdown. Shanks filled the automotive press with ads emblazoned in large type, “$25,000 Reward!!!”—$10,000 from the Winton Company and $15,000 put up by Dr. Jackson—for “the slightest evidence” to support such “malicious stories.” No one came forward to claim the reward, and Shanks had himself a second publicity coup.
As for the Pathfinders, they relaxed for several days after their arrival in New York and then climbed aboard the sturdy Winton for the journey home to Vermont. In the doctor’s hometown of Burlington, the town constable stopped them and levied a fine of five dollars and costs for exceeding the local six-mile-an-hour speed limit.
The Vermont rests today in the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of History and Technology, to which it was donated by Dr. Jackson in 1944, eleven years before his death at age eighty-two. It has been faithfully restored and is again resplendent in a finish of “Winton red.” Were it to be put to the challenge once more, running flat out on modern Interstates, it might make it from San Francisco to New York in thirteen days—assuming that anyone wanted to bet on it.