DNA X #15 The First Cross Country Road Trip

September 28th, 2010 by

DNA-XAs we left off in the last DNA X blog we had met Horatio Earle an insightful Vermonter who was dubbed the “Father of Good Roads. He laid the groundwork for another visionary Vermonter to follow. Horatio Jackson Nelson, no relation to the famous British Admiral Horatio Nelson, was a Dr. from Burlington Vermont. In 1903, on a business trip in San Francisco, he met up with some well to do businessmen at the University Club. Hearing their rants about the unreliable “horseless carriage” and how it would only be a passing fancy never able to drive across the country, he made a hasty wager – $50.00 says he would do it, and in less than 3 months. They scoffed at his foolishness but he was already out the door. He had no car but he and his wife had been taking private driving lessons while in San Francisco. He had no maps, no sponsor and no mechanical skill. No one liked these horseless carriages; they were a nuisance, toys for the rich, and a mobile status symbol. They were noisy, polluted the air and created huge dust storms as they recklessly wheeled through towns. They were dangerous to pedestrians and horse and carriage. In fact back in Vermont, the state enacted a “Red Flag Law” which required an adult to walk in front of an automobile holding a red flag to alert other citizens of the approaching menace. Some cities banned cars and in Tennessee you had to give a weeks notice if you planned to drive.

Somehow Nelson saw the future and was willing to bet on it. His driving teacher was mechanic and professional bicycle racer Sewall Crocker who he convinced to help him drive across the country. But they needed a car, a Winton touring car as recommended by Crocker. They located a used one for $3000.00, took out the back seat to make room for equipment and prepped it in less than four days. It had a two cylinder, 20 horsepower engine located under the drivers seat. The chain-drive 2 speed, one reverse gear allowed a top speed of 30mph. The wood body held two leather seats, steering wheel on the right and one light. It had no windshield, no roof, no heater and no spare tire. The list of equipment they decided to add included sleeping bags, rain coats, cooking gear, a block and tackle, guns, fishing rods, two telescopes, tools, goggles, one spare tire and extra tanks to hold gas and oil. There were no gas stations at the time and the Winton’s fuel tank carried 12 gallons “sufficient to run the car about 175 miles over ordinary roads”. Meanwhile no roads could really be called ordinary back then. So they had to keep an eye out for the general stores which sold gas for farm equipment and carry extra gas just in case. Fully loaded, the Winton ended up weighing one and a half tons. Back in those days each car came with a number, pre VIN number. This Winton was number 1684 but Nelson felt that it had a personality of its own and in honor of his home state named it The Vermonter. The car’s instruction manual warned against such anthropomorphism. It read, “Remember that an automobile has no brains. You must do it’s thinking. It is merely a man made machine subject to man’s control. And under thoughtful handling, it will perform all the work for which it was designed”. Indeed if we had such wisdom in today’s auto manuals!

DNA-XOf course they were not the first adventurers to cross the continent. Lewis and Clark were the first of European descent and made it with the help of Native Americans in two and a half years. In 1840 wagon trains rattled and creaked their way across in 6 months. A few years later you could have a bone-rattling ride in a stagecoach and finally a smoother ride by train began in 1869. So off they went taking the ferry across the harbor to Oakland to begin their journey. They planned a more northern route due to a previous failed attempt by another “motorneer” who tried to cross the desert, got hopelessly bogged down in the sand and gave up. They went north around the deserts but no matter where you go eventually you have to cross the mountains. Many times they had to go up steep trails with no guardrails in reverse to control their speed. They encountered numerous breakdowns and were often helped by blacksmiths who outnumbered doctors in the US at the time. They had to wait for supplies that arrived by train – still the only reliable high-speed transport. The noise of the engine covered up the fact that their cooking equipment and tools were slowly being jettisoned never to be seen again. Nelson even lost his glasses and his coat filled with all his money to pay for the trip. By the time they reached Oregon they had found their third partner in the adventure, a bulldog named Bud who became the mascot for the trip. They attracted attention wherever they went, as most people had never seen a horseless carriage. While they were underway two other car companies sponsored cars and drivers to “get there first”. Eventually Winton got wind of Nelsons plan and offered to sponsor the trip – Nelson declined. The intrepid trio followed the carriage trails that would soon thereafter be turned into the Lincoln Road now called US I 80 which goes coast to coast. Nelson, Crocker and Bud made it across in 63 days and arrived in New York City well short of the bet he made, and never collected. They traveled 5600 miles, getting lost for days at a time. Nelson spent $8000.00 of his own money, used 800 gallons of gas and $15.00 to buy Bud. They were the first to do the trip for pleasure and had they known of all the difficulties probably would have canceled their plans. Nelson drove the Vermont home to Burlington in August where he got arrested for driving more than 6 miles an hour. Eventually he donated the car to the Smithsonian Museum were it can be seen today. Blackie heard about this story and approved of the Vermont’s name and itinerary. She is glad she has more than two gears and two cylinders and can climb a mountain going forward. She’s not sure about a bulldog but maybe a stuffed animal would do as a mascot. We already have too much equipment in her back seat but the seat will stay in. Thanks to the “Father of Good Roads”, Nelson and others there is a series of paved paths that cross the country today. Blackie tuned up her GPS and is now anxious to head west following a similar path. She disagrees that an “automobile has no brains…” she has her own and two on board human brains for back up. The Lincoln Road calls us – “Go West!”

-Nelia