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Epic 1903 Journey Ushers in Automotive Age

Mon January 26, 2004 - Northeast Edition
Pete Sigmund



A lone open “horseless carriage,” holding two men and a bulldog — that wears goggles — lurches, stops, coughs and burps, on a rutted dirt road.

It’s America, 1903. The Winton open touring car, piled high with cans of fuel, block and tackle, tents, blankets, frying pans and other paraphernalia, was as strange in towns across the country as a spaceship from Mars would be today.

Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson, 31; mechanic Sewall K. Crocker, 22; and “Bud” the bulldog (age unknown) are trying to become the first to drive from San Francisco, CA, to New York, NY. It was like a trip to the moon in those days when fewer than 150 mi. of roads, all within city limits, were paved (compared with an estimated 3.9 million mi. in 2004).

This was a highly unusual, yet epic, journey as the new age of the automobile (and of better roads) dawned. Our grandfathers or great-grandfathers loved the newfangled motorized contraptions, which opened the doors to “Sunday drives” in wide unspoiled countryside. But to drive across the whole country?

You rode up on top, as on a horse. Jackson or Crocker used the wheel on the right-hand side partly to steer, partly to hang on. Unlikely explorers, they forgot glasses or coats, dropped pots and pans, brought along their own oil and gas, suffered blowouts day after day, went to blacksmith shops for repairs, endured all the slings and arrows of outrageous roads — but they made it.

The Bet

It all started with a $50 bet. Jackson, who had retired from his medical practice in Burlington, VT, because of a mild case of tuberculosis, was visiting the University Club in San Francisco in May 1903, with his wife, Bertha, who was the daughter of a Civil War Union cavalry general.

The talk at the club turned to the new horseless carriage. The majority of people there declared that the horse was better for longer distances because it was more reliable. (There were only approximately 33,000 cars in the United States in 1903 compared with 14 million horses.) When they said a horseless machine couldn’t make it across the country, Horatio disagreed. He had only a few hours of driving experience, but he ended up betting $50 that he could cross the continent in less than three months.

Jackson got Crocker, a former professional bicycle racer who was now a mechanic in a gasoline-engine factory, to help him. Crocker said the Winton Motor Carriage, manufactured in Cleveland, OH, was the most reliable of the new machines. Jackson purchased a used (1,000 mi.) Winton for $3,000 — $500 more than the original price of $2,500 — and the two rode it out of San Francisco on May 23, just four days after the wager. (Bertha preferred traveling back to Burlington by train.)

Jackson called his new buggy, “Vermont,” for his home state on the other side of the country. He and Crocker wore caps, goggles, jackets, and boots. To other people, they looked like creatures from another planet.

Tough Ride

Jackson weighed 225 lbs. Luckily, the steering wheel folded down to help him sit down in an armchair-like leather-upholstered seat. Beneath him, a 20-hp, two-cylinder water-cooled engine could bring the car to 30 mph. The wooden car, painted maroon, had two forward speeds and a reverse, a chain transmission drive and a 12-gal. gas tank, which the manufacturer said would provide enough fuel for 175 mi. They got new cans of gas from general stores, or residents, along the way.

Oil was fed by gravity from a tank under the hood in front of the driver’s seat. Jackson had to visually monitor the oil flow. Vermont had no windshield, and at first no headlights (only side-running lamps). The car could fit on a queen-size bed.

Most of the wagon trails or roads were mud or gravel. From the beginning, the two were often stuck in the mud (18 times on one bad day). Horses sometimes pulled them out. They often “shot” the car at top speed through streams. If it stalled, they pulled the car across the water with their block and tackle.

At least they didn’t have to worry about traffic. No automobile had ever passed this way before.

Finding Their Way

Jackson chose a northern route — Northern California, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and New York (through Buffalo and Albany and then down to New York City). This avoided the Nevada desert, but added more than 1,000 mi. distance.

A rear tire blew just 15 mi. outside of San Francisco. This took their only spare. They purchased second-hand tire tubes in Sacramento, and an acetylene headlamp for night driving.

Roads were unmarked. Jackson and Crocker, alternating two-hour shifts, followed railroad routes as much as possible, even driving on trestles if necessary (especially on rail bridges across rivers).

They often got lost, and a mistake could easily mean 100 mi. of extra driving. Jackson later recalled how the two asked directions from a red-haired young woman on a white horse:

“Which way to Marysville?” I asked her.

“Right down that road,” she said, and pointed. “We took that road for about 50 miles and then it came to a dead end at an isolated farmhouse. 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 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.”

Vermont climbed the Cascades in Northern California mostly in low gear, with frequent stops to fix the clutch or patch inner tubes. The ride was so bumpy that Jackson lost two pairs of glasses ’jarred off his nose’ and his fountain pen on the mountain trails.

“Often the trail narrowed to 10 feet — one-way thoroughfares established by nature,” Jackson wrote. Jackson put the car into high gear to cross streams, which the two sometimes welcomed “to let the car’s hot tires cool.”

But already, he was enjoying pristine nature as he followed the lure of the roads (such as they were), just as many millions would do, and still do on now-paved highways.

Describing a waterfall 1,000 ft. below the trail, he wrote Bertha: “A grand sight. I never went through such country in my life.”

Letters Home

Jackson wrote Bertha every night, affectionately addressing her as “My Darling Girl,” “Old Girl” or “My Darling Swipes” and finishing with lines like “Yours till a widow … Nels.” One of the early letters was from “Alturas, Nowhere, three miles back of sundown.”

“How I wish you were with me, and that it was possible for you to make the trip … I feel confident we can make it,” he wrote. Five days later, still in Alturas, he wrote: “Well, Old Girl,” and told of waiting for a new set of tires coming by Wells Fargo stagecoach, then adding: “We are causing a great sensation along the road. It is the first machine that has ever gone over these mountains. Yesterday the farmers drove in for miles to see my machine & there has been a hundred people around the livery stable since our arrival. I have been offered all prices to take them for a ride. I have promised some of the cowpunchers a ride if they will get me up a good roundup. They are planning it for this afternoon & I expect to see a regular Wild West show.”

The letters showed what Jackson was made of: “I know that you know what this trip will mean to me if I can carry it through and that I will. So you will be brave & patient until I come. I know it is hard but it is also for me … I miss you so.”

Jackson also sent Bertha film to have developed. He took hundreds of photos.

Welcomed in Oregon

When the stagecoach failed to arrive, Jackson and Crocker left Alturas with Vermont’s rear tires wrapped in rawhide and rope. A front spring broke, but Vermont chugged along at under 10 mi. per hour and pulled into Lakeview, OR, to find the whole town waiting to see what the local paper had announced as “the first automobile to visit Lake County.”

A local blacksmith fixed the spring, and Wells Fargo arrived in Lakeview with new tires and new battery.

On June 6, Jackson and Crocker set out to cross 300 mi. of Oregon desert. A few hours out, the car just stopped. The new battery was defective. AAA? Are you kidding? A cowboy on a horse tied his rope to the Vermont, and pulled the car to a ranchhouse where Crocker managed to get the engine running again.

And, yep, back in the desert the next day, they ran out of gas, which had leaked out of their storage tank. Crocker walked 26 mi. to Burns, OR, and walked back with 4 gal. of gas and 3 gal. of benzene.

Bud Joins the Trip

After crossing the Snake River, and sleeping in a hotel in Caldwell, ID, the two set out on June 12 for points east. Jackson stopped a few miles out. “I forgot my coat,” he told Crocker. On the way back, a man stopped them and asked, “Would you like a dog for a mascot?”

Jackson needed more company, and liked dogs. He gave the man $15 for a young, light-colored bulldog, whom he named “Bud,” and who became famous, riding in the front with the two men and wearing a pair of goggles against the dust.

More Problems

Jackson would take off his coat when it got hot. In Soda Springs, ID, he discovered that it had fallen off the car, with most of his cash. He sent a telegram to Bertha. Send $200 to Western Union in Cheyenne, WY.

By June 18, the three were in Diamondville, WY, where a machinist repaired the iron cone for Vermont’s bearings. Torrential rains washed out wagon trails and swelled rivers and streams. They got lost, slept out under their tent, and didn’t eat for 36 hours. Along the Snake River, they met a lonely sheepherder who treated them to roast lamb and boiled corn, and refused to take any money. (Jackson gave him a rifle.)

Competition

Jackson was making the trip without any sponsor. The Winton Company didn’t even know about the venture until the Vermont was in Idaho.

The Packard Motor Car Co., in Warren, OH, however, sent one of its test drivers, named Tom Fetch, to beat the Winton. Fetch and Marius Krarup, who was a reporter for Automobile Magazine, set out from San Francisco on June 20 in a 12-hp Packard Touring Car.

Packard carefully planned the trip, placing supplies at strategic points and often having one of its machinists ride along in the car. The two took the southern route — Lake Tahoe and Carson City, NV, and then across the desert. They rolled two strips of heavy canvas over soft spots in the sand, and covered 70 mi. the first day in the desert.

The two reached Salt Lake City, UT, on July 4, after driving 106 mi. in one day.

On July 6, Lester Whitman and Eugene Hammond, left San Francisco for New York in a small 1903 Oldsmobile runabout — the model which would be the first to outsell electric and steam-powered machines. They were both mechanics for Ransom Olds, which provided the car and tires, and which promised a $1,000 bonus if they reached New York first. They, too, followed the shorter route across Nevada.

Trials and Tribulation

Meanwhile, Jackson was in deep trouble. Vermont was stuck in mudholes over and over. Jackson rattled over railroad tracks as often as possible. In Bitter Creek, WY, he pawned his watch for $10. In Rawlins, WY, the Winton shot a rod through the cover of the crankcase. Jackson wired the Winton factory. New parts arrived by train on June 28.

Vermont moved along well on a good road east of Laramie, WY, and was in Cheyenne, WY, by July 1. The next day, however, Vermont shot another rod.

Jackson lost five more days, camping out with a railroad grading crew until more new parts arrived from Ohio. He then followed the stage route to Julesburg, CO, and crossed into Nebraska, where, Jackson wrote, “the mud was a cement-like mass that stuck to things like the best Portland. And it seemed to have no bottom. The car sank in it clear up to the battery boxes — that is, nearly to the tops of the wheels.”

Jackson and Crocker, with Bud watching, pulled Vermont out of deep mud, which locals called “buffalo wallows,” 18 times in a single day.

Making Time

Though the rains were the worst in years, the roads got better as they headed east. Vermont covered 265 mi. non-stop and arrived in Omaha, NE, on July 12, to a cheering city.

“On our arrival here this morning, half the city turned out,” Jackson wrote Bertha, closing with: “Good night, old girl … Watch me now.”

A representative from Winton also met them in Omaha. He offered them logistical support, and financial help. Jackson turned it down.

He wrote Bertha: “I have informed them that we have made the trip so far without their assistance & thought that perhaps [we] two greenhorns could do the rest of it.”

Vermont was now making time, averaging approximately 150 mi. per day.

“A huge automobile, manned by a couple of sphinx-like men, shot through Jefferson on Tuesday morning,” reported the Jefferson (IA) Bee.

Crossing the Mississippi at Clinton, IA, the threesome arrived in Chicago, IL, on July 17. Honored by city officials, he said: “We have come to the conclusion that we can run our car over any road that a man can take a team of horses and a wagon, providing we can get traction.”

They rolled through Hammond, IN, South Bend, IN, and Toledo, OH. On July 20, at Elyria, OH, 27 mi. west of Cleveland, the Winton Company’s ad manager met the three with a convoy of Wintons and led them into the city for a “grand reception” sponsored by the Cleveland Automobile Club. The company washed Vermont in its garage.

In 1901, Alexander Winton, owner of the Winton Company, had tried to make his own cross-country trip from San Francisco, but his car broke down in Nevada after 10 days and 530 mi. “A Winton motor carriage cannot be expected to work a miracle,” he had said. Now Jackson told reporters: “I have met with success where Winton and others failed.”

Others Falter

Meanwhile, Fetch and Krarup, after driving the Packard into the Utah canyons and Colorado Rockies for photo ops, fractured a ball joint and lost days stuck in mud. They had only reached Denver by July 20. Whitman and Hammond damaged a chain drive climbing a hill in their Olds, broke down repeatedly, and were still in Nevada on the 20th.

Reaching the Prize

“Watch me now come to you,” Jackson wrote Bertha from Cleveland, which he left on the 21st. To avoid Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Mountains, his planned route to New York City went through Buffalo and Albany.

Despite torrential downpours, the two men and Bud pushed on past Buffalo. Driving on a thin strip along the Erie Canal at 20 mph, Vermont hit a hidden obstruction, throwing the three to the ground. None was injured. The car lost two mudguards. They drove on, through Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, Albany, and Poughkeepsie to Peekskill, where Bertha and Winton officials met them late at night.

Accompanied by other cars, Jackson then kept on. Vermont now carried at least 10 fluttering American flags. He crossed the Harlem River into Manhattan at 4:30 a.m. on Sunday, July 26, and drove down a deserted Fifth Avenue to the Holland Hotel at 30th Street. They had made it from San Francisco to New York in 63 days, 12 hours, and 30 minutes, covering more than 5,600 mi.

Their “thrilling dash over roadless country” was big news across the country (often capturing more space than the first powered flights by the Wright Brothers later that year). The New York World, for instance, ran a four-column story with nine photos (which Bertha supplied). The begoggled Bud received special star treatment.

Horatio and Bertha headed back to Burlington on July 30, arriving on Aug. 7. As Jackson parked Vermont in his garage, the car’s drive chain, which had no problems during the entire trip, broke in two.

In October, Jackson was arrested and fined $5, plus court costs, for driving more than 6 mph. No place like home.

Postscript: Jackson’s trip helped spur a national movement for better roads. A car crossed the country in five days in 1916 on the new Lincoln Highway, which had opened in 1913.

Jackson enlisted in the Army in World War I and won the Distinguished Service Cross and France’s Croix de Guerre. He became a successful newspaper publisher and bank president in Burlington, donated the Vermont and Bud’s goggles to the Smithsonian Institution, and died in 1955 at the age of 82.

Crocker toured Europe by car for two years. He suffered a nervous breakdown after his family property in Mexico was threatened by the Mexican Revolution, and died in Tacoma in 1913.

The Packard driven by Fetch reached Manhattan late in August. Whitman and Hammond arrived in their Olds on Sept. 17.

Jackson told his granddaughters years later that he never collected the $50 bet

(This article was based on information from the Horatio Jackson Web site and on the book “Horatio’s Drive,” by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns.)