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When the Rubber First Hit the Roads of America

Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan are the producers of "Horatio's Drive: America's First Road Trip," which will be broadcast on PBS stations in October; their companion book of the same name will be published in July by Knopf.

One hundred years ago, on May 23, 1903, an eccentric doctor from Vermont named Horatio Nelson Jackson set off from San Francisco in a 20-horsepower Winton touring car, hoping to become the first person to cross the United States in the newfangled “horseless carriage.” The first American transcontinental road trip had begun -- and with it dawned an era that would transform the nation.

At the time, there were only 150 miles of paved roads in the entire U.S., all of them within city limits. There were no gas stations (although general stores in some towns sold gasoline for farm equipment) and no road maps as we know them today. Most Americans doubted that the automobile had much of a future except as a rich man’s toy for driving around town. Jackson’s improbable journey would prove them wrong.

Like hundreds of millions of road trips that would follow, Jackson’s began on a whim, with little planning. Finding himself caught in a debate at San Francisco’s exclusive University Club over the new machine’s reliability, Jackson impulsively wagered $50 that he could drive a car all the way to New York City -- and do it in less than three months.

A mere four days later he was on the road, accompanied by Sewall K. Crocker, a young mechanic he had quickly hired as co-driver.

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Their open-seated, two-cylinder Winton (with the horsepower of a modern lawn tractor) was capable of speeds up to 30 miles per hour under ideal road conditions. But most days they were lucky to average more than 15 mph. Dirt paths became quagmires after every rain; mountain roads were strewn with rocks that had to be pushed out of the way by hand; small streams without bridges had to be forded; and sometimes they bounced over railroad trestles to cross major rivers.

Nearly every day brought some mechanical problem -- broken springs, worn wheel bearings, faulty batteries, two busted crankshafts and lots of punctured tires. If Crocker couldn’t fix it himself, they would recruit a local blacksmith for help and often had to wait for days in small towns while spare parts were shipped by railroad and even stagecoach. Once they had to walk 26 miles for gasoline. Another time, a cowboy tied his lariat to the car and towed them to the nearest ranch house.

And without good maps or road signs, they were constantly getting lost. In Northern California, a young woman deliberately sent them miles down a dead-end trail simply so her family could get their first glimpse at what one small-town newspaper called “one of the wonders of the century.” In western Wyoming, they went 36 hours without food as they wandered across broken ground near the Green River.

Throughout it all, Jackson’s indomitable spirit and sheer enthusiasm were as indispensable as the fuel for his car. He was having the time of his life, seeing the vast American landscape unfold before his eyes, experiencing the adventures of the open road and reveling in the great sensation his journey was creating, particularly in those towns that had never before seen an automobile.

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Schools let out and people lined the streets to watch him pass. Ranch wives traded home-cooked meals for short rides on what some cowboys dubbed the “go-like-hell machine.”

Adding to the excitement was a young dog named Bud, purchased early in the trip, who rode in front wearing goggles, just like Jackson, to keep the swirling dust from his eyes. (Bud, one newspaper gushed, is “so ugly that he is handsome.”)

While still in the West, Jackson learned that his spur-of-the-moment trip had turned into something of a race. First the Packard company and then the Oldsmobile company dispatched their own highly organized and corporate-sponsored expeditions from San Francisco in hopes of passing him and gaining the publicity of being first across the nation. However, 63 1/2 days after leaving California, on July 26, 1903, Horatio Nelson Jackson arrived triumphantly in New York City and claimed the honor for himself.

“The journey has shown the possibilities of the automobile,” one newspaper editorialized, predicting that when good roads were built, “such journeys as that made by Dr. Jackson will be far from extraordinary.”

Two weeks later, Jackson was back home in Burlington, Vt. -- where he was promptly arrested and fined for exceeding the city’s 6-mph speed limit. The automobile era was officially underway.


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