In 1903, few people drove cars in the United States. The automobile had been around for less than a decade and was seen as a gasoline-powered flash in the pan, to those who had seen one at all. Five years before Henry Ford introduced the Model T and made cars widely accessible to the general public, two men and a dog embarked on the first successful cross-country road trip, and inspired a nation to dream about the power of what a car could do.
An Unlikely Driver
On May 18th, 1903 at the University Club in San Francisco, Horatio Nelson Jackson accepted a $50 bet that would change the world.
The 31 year old doctor from Burlington, Vermont was one of few staunch defenders of these new “horseless carriages” that had been showing up in the streets. Something the other men saw as a passing fad -- an unreliable gimmick.
After a heated debate, Jackson was offered a $50 wager (nearly $1,500 in today’s dollars) to prove that an automobile could make it from San Francisco to New York in under 90 days.
He didn’t own a car.
Jackson enlisted the help of Sewall K. Crocker, a bicycle racer and gasoline engine mechanic. Crocker recommended they drive a 1903 touring car made by the Winton Motor Carriage Company.
They found a cherry red Winton with nearly 1,000 miles on it, which made it fairly worn by the standards of that day. To top it off, Jackson paid $3,000 for it (roughly equivalent to $88,700 today). His new ride — which he dubbed The Vermont after his home state — offered:
- A two-cylinder, 20 horsepower engine
- Chain drive
- Right-side steering
- No top or windshield
- BFGoodrich® pneumatic tires
- A top speed of 33 mph
Jackson and Crocker removed the back seat to make space for sleeping bags, tools, a camera, and a block and tackle with 150 feet of hemp rope — every item they could think of to face the challenges ahead.
The cross-country drive would be an extraordinary feat of endurance for the two men, the vehicle, and especially the tires. Of the 2.3 million miles of road in America at the time, fewer than 150 were paved. The rest were dirt paths, suitable for horses and slow-moving wagons. Undertaking this trip, in this amount of time, at this speed, would require much more than rickety wagon wheels.
People just didn’t go that far.
In 1896, BFGoodrich® introduced the first US-built pneumatic tires. In the early 1900s, they supplied tires for the Winton Motor Carriage Company.
These automobile tires were made up of an inner tube that contained compressed air and an outer casing that protected the tube and provided traction. The casings were reinforced with multiple plies of rubberized fabric cords, run at 55° angles to the bead.
They held up well for limited city driving, but on this journey they were being put to a historic test. The great-great-great grandfather of the KM3 would climb mountains, cross creeks, and slog through mud, arduously propelling two novice drivers on an impossible journey. Needless to say, with only 150 miles of paved road spread across a few cities, tires weren’t built for the challenges they are today.
Setting Out From San Francisco
On May 23rd, 1903, — four short days after accepting the bet — their journey began. The unlikely duo took off down San Francisco’s Market Street, embarking on what would become America’s first road trip.
Jackson and Crocker devised a route that would add over 1000 miles to their journey. Using old, unreliable maps, they carefully plotted to go north through Oregon, then headed east to avoid the Nevadan desert landscapes that had stymied the cross-country trip of an adventurer before them.
Jackson decided to follow railroads as much as possible, using their infrastructure to cross paths a car couldn’t otherwise cross.
Even so, their journey led them into arduous situations:
- The Vermont ascended into the Cascade mountains taking trails no car had ever taken before. These had to be driven in low gear, with frequent stops to fix the clutch.
- More than once, Jackson and Crocker got stuck in a creek that was too deep, using the block and tackle as a makeshift winch to pull themselves out.
- For miles, they drove through sagebrush to avoid hard-driven wagon roads.
...and that was just Oregon.
They fixed the carburetor, air intake pipe, oil pipes, clutch, batteries, replaced the worn BFGoodrich® tires with a fresh set, and lost plenty of gear. Near the Oregon border, they added a friend named Bud — a pitbull they purchased for $15.
Driving Even Harder Through the Heartland
The journey continued through Idaho. In many small towns, people were seeing one of these famed horseless carriages for the very first time. As Jackson and Crocker crawled their way through Idaho, they’d trade home cooked meals for rides in The Vermont, what the locals called the “Go-Like-Hell Machine”.
The drivers zigzagged their way through the mountains of Wyoming by crossing rivers and bridges, relentlessly slogging through muddy roads and nearly-uncharted land, moving boulders and using their makeshift winch when called for.
Jackson and Crocker, with the help of local blacksmiths, made frequent repairs. They had money wired from Jackson’s wife for expenses and parts shipped from The Winton Company, who were now aware of the journey.
Making their way to Platte, Nebraska, Jackson and Crocker became aware of two rival, corporate-backed teams who were attempting the same feat. Outside of the company dollars propping up their trips, they had the luxury of pre-planned routes, luggage shipments, and mechanics who were transported by train to specific locations to aid their journeys.
It only made them drive harder.
Slogging through a lengthy Nebraska, they endured storm after storm in their shelterless vehicle. There was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, just another test.
Thick mud clung to The Vermont. Many times, it would sink in the slop, and again the drivers would winch it out by hand, one day, a total of 18 times.
By the time they reached Omaha on July 12th, the two men had become celebrities. The Winton Company even offered to sponsor the rest of their trip.
They started alone and without help, and that’s how they’d finish.
The Final Sprint
The rest of the trip flew by with relative ease. Jackson and Crocker travelled through Chicago, escorted out by a caravan of enthusiasts.
Soon, they would reach Buffalo, and shortly after that, New York City.
63 days, 12 hours and 30 minutes after their journey began, The Vermont finally arrived in Manhattan on July 26th, 1903 at 4:30am, well within the 90 day limit of the wager.
Their corporate-backed competitors? They were stuck in the unforgiving desert of Nevada. They would go on to finish, but they would not be first. That accolade belongs to Jackson and Crocker and The Vermont. Two men and a vehicle resilient enough to tackle a journey nobody dreamed possible.
The Aftermath of the First American Road Trip
All told, Jackson lost 20 pounds and $8,000 of his own money on the trip, using 800 gallons of gas to do it.
He never even bothered to collect the $50 bet.
It wasn’t about the money, it was about the challenge.
For that effort — from the tires to the tools in the trunk — he chose the best equipment for the barely-drivable road ahead.
And those drivers, with those tires, struggled their way into the history books, setting the stage for the infrastructure to follow that would unite a country behind the wheel.
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