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1903: Physician Horatio Nelson Jackson (at wheel) and his driving partner Sewall K. Crocker became the first men to drive an automobile across the United States. Starting in San Francisco, CA, they arrived in New York City on July 26 after a trip that took 63 days, 12 hours, and 30 minutes. Over 800 gallons of gasoline were needed to complete the journey in this Winton.
Horatio Nelson Jackson drives the Vermont through Sage.
Driving across the country is as American as apple pie. For millions of people, getting their kicks on Route 66 — or more commonly, on Interstate 80 — is a rite of passage, an epic adventure, a visceral, are-we-still-in-Nebraska introduction to the heroic scale of the United States. The Great American Road Trip has been the theme of countless movies and books, most famously Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” But long before Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty made their mythical odyssey from New York to San Francisco, a 31-year-old retired doctor from Burlington, Vt., named Horatio Nelson Jackson did it first — albeit going in the opposite direction. Accompanied by a young mechanic and, for much of the trip, a faithful, goggles-wearing bulldog, Jackson pulled off what was thought to be an impossible feat.
The adventure had its genesis on May 19, 1903, in a smoke-filled room in San Francisco’s University Club. As recounted in Dayton Duncan’s “Horatio’s Drive: America’s First Road Trip” (a companion volume to Ken Burns’ eponymous documentary), over drinks a group of men were discussing the future of the new machine that had recently begun appearing on the streets of American cities: the automobile. The consensus among the group was that the newfangled contraption would never amount to anything. It was just a novelty, suitable only for short city drives.
Jackson, a guest at the club, strongly disagreed. The wealthy young doctor, who had retired at age 28 (his wife, Bertha Jackson, had inherited a fortune from her father who founded a popular cure-all called Paine’s Celery Compound), had stopped in San Francisco after a long trip to buy two automobiles and learn how to drive. Jackson said that a car was more than a rich man’s toy, that it could make it across the entire country. Someone bet $50 (more than a month’s rent at the time) that no one could drive from San Francisco to New York City in less than three months. Jackson immediately accepted the wager.
Jackson hired a 22-year-old mechanic and chauffeur named Sewall K. Crocker to accompany him and purchased a slightly used two-cylinder Winton touring car from a Wells Fargo executive for $3,000 (about $100,000 today). He loaded it up with cooking and camping gear, a rifle and an ax, an extra gas tank, and a block and tackle to use if the car got stuck. With the 225-pound Jackson and the 150-pound Crocker on board, the fully loaded car weighed more than 3,000 pounds. Jackson christened the vehicle the Vermont, after his home state.
Jackson and Crocker set off from San Francisco at 1 p.m. on May 23, 1903. They were facing a daunting task. Automobiles were in their infancy: The first American car had only been produced 10 years earlier. In 1900 there were just 8,000 cars in the entire country. There were no gas stations. And of the 2.3 million miles of road in the U.S., only about 150 miles were paved, with a small additional fraction “improved” with gravel. The rest were dirt paths. Maps and guidebooks scarcely existed and usually consisted of prose instructions like “turn left at the statue.” Two earlier attempts to drive across the country, in 1899 and 1901, had ended in humiliating failure, the second bogging down in the sands of Nevada just 530 miles from San Francisco.
Not wanting to go too far off the beaten path, Jackson decided to follow the railroad lines. And to avoid the Nevada desert, he planned to head north to Oregon, even though that would add more than 1,000 miles to the trip.
Their trip started off auspiciously enough. Despite blowing a tire after just 15 miles, they made it to Tracy the first night, having covered 83 miles. But then one mishap after another befell them. On the way to Oroville, they noticed that their cooking gear had fallen off the car. Then they got lost and asked a redheaded young woman riding a horse directions to Marysville. She pointed down a road. “We took that road and drove down it for about 50 miles and then it came to a dead end at an isolated farmhouse,” Jackson recalled. “The family all turned out to stare at us and told us we’d have to go back. We went back, and met the red-haired young woman again. ‘Why did you send us way down there?’ I asked her. ‘I wanted paw and maw and my husband to see you,’ she said. ‘They’ve never seen an automobile.’”
They motored on through northeastern California, then across the Sierra Nevada, climbing steep, rocky roads no automobile had ever traveled. Crocker frequently had to fix the clutch; another tire burst. When the trail crossed mountain streams, they had no choice but to drive across them at high speed. One creek was too deep, however, and the Vermont got stuck. They had to wade to the other side, attach their block and tackle to a tree, and pull the car out with the 150-foot rope they had brought. In Alturas, Jackson had to telegraph to San Francisco for a new set of tires, which were to be delivered by Wells Fargo, but after waiting in vain for three days, he decided to drive on.
On they rolled, making time and then breaking down, passing through small towns where the entire population would come out to gawk at them, stalling on the desert floor and having to be lassoed and pulled out by a horseman. They ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere — it was all pretty much the middle of nowhere — and Crocker had to bicycle and walk 26 miles, and then back, to get gas.
In Idaho, Jackson bought a young bulldog he named Bud, who quickly became a favorite with everyone who ran into them, and with the press that was now avidly covering them. “Bud soon became an enthusiast for motoring,” Jackson boasted. After he discovered the dust bothered Bud’s eyes, Jackson put a pair of goggles on him, which became his trademark.
After countless adventures and misadventures, the intrepid trio finally made it across the country. At 4:30 a.m. on July 26, 1903, Jackson, Crocker and Bud pulled up to the Holland House hotel in New York City. They had crossed the United States in 63 days, 12 hours and 30 minutes.
Jackson was acclaimed as a conquering hero, the “automobile Pathfinder” whose “thrilling dash over roadless country” had inspired and transfixed the nation. However, his groundbreaking journey had not been a financial success: Jackson estimated that he spent $8,000 on the trip, including the cost of the car. (He apparently never collected the $50 bet.) The Vermont is now displayed at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
Jackson, Crocker and Bud’s epic odyssey opened the door to more cross-country car trips and helped inspire the movement to improve the nation’s roads. Five years later, a family of four drove across country in 32 days. In 1913, the Lincoln Highway, the nation’s first transcontinental motor route, opened. For better and for worse, America’s automobile age had arrived.
The last question: What serving U.S. president died in San Francisco?
Answer: Warren G. Harding, who died on Aug. 2, 1923, in the Palace Hotel, aged 57.
This week's question: How many commercial ships sail in and out of San Francisco Bay each year?