originally published August 22, 2014
Roll down your windows, crank up the vintage Lindsey Buckingham and ready your innards for a deluge of fast-food grease – we are hitting the open road.
In 1903, right around the time those two bike-shop brothers in North Carolina were writing the first stand-up routines about in-flight meals, the general public was underwhelmingly embracing the automobile. Many thought it was a passing fad, that nothing could beat classic oat-eating, poop-dispensing horse travel. Those who disagreed were eager to test the physical boundaries of motorized transportation. They pushed for faster speeds, longer voyages and snazzier features. Even the kids were too enthralled with the technology to ask, “Are we there yet?”
It was a magical time of firsts for car fans. Among them were Toronto-born doctor Horatio Nelson Jackson and his mechanic friend, Sewell J. Crocker. When the opportunity arose to break the bi-coastal barrier, they couldn’t resist. This is how they grabbed hold of their own little chunk of history.
While visiting friends at San Francisco’s University Club, someone bet Horatio a whopping $50 (which is about $1300 in today’s money) that he couldn’t drive from coast to coast in one of those new-fangled auto-thingies. Despite the initial handicap of not owning a car, Horatio agreed to the bet. He had faith in the technology, the kind of faith that propels men to stupid manly endeavors. Endeavors that either result in a comical or ironic death, or a dusty little corner in the cubbyhole of history.
Horatio’s wife boarded a train back to Burlington, Vermont while Horatio searched for a travelling companion who knew something about how cars work. He met up with Sewell K. Crocker, a former bicycle racer who knew enough about cars to keep a vehicle operational over such a trip. They gathered blankets, sleeping bags, tools, water, food, fishing supplies, some spare parts, cans for gasoline and oil, a camera, and a small collection of weaponry, including a rifle, shotgun and some pistols (presumably because their route would take them through Detroit).
All they needed now was a car.
It wasn’t much, but the 2-seat, 2-cylinder, 20 horsepower Winton was up for the journey. Horatio named it Vermont after his home state, since naming her after his wife would be creepy, especially given that Sewell Crocker would also be… ahem… inside her. Alexander Winton, who had founded the car company, had tried (and failed) in his previous long-distance drive. Learning from Winton’s mistakes, Horatio plotted a route that would avoid the high Rocky Mountain passes. They’d head north, using the Oregon Trail as their superhighway.
The first leg of the journey took them by ferry from San Francisco to Oakland, at which point they aimed east and slammed on the gas pedal. For about fifteen miles. That’s when their tire blew out, requiring them to use their only spare. It turns out the tires for that particular Winton model were hard to come by; they’d have to hope they wouldn’t need another.
The next night, they stopped in Sacramento to replace the side lanterns (which were great for perusing magazines after dark but useless for seeing the road) with a spotlight in the front. Horatio also bought a few inner tubes; if they couldn’t replace another tire along the way, they could at least rig up a workable alternative.
Due to the lack of bridges along the way, the trek through Oregon required the men to haul the car through streams or over rough terrain. Horatio lost his glasses. One particularly dickish resident charged the men a $4 toll to cross his property – roughly $104 of 2014 money. Again, the tires blew out. Rope was used to keep the steel rims off the road, and Horatio sent a desperate telegraph back to San Francisco to have more tires delivered to them along the way.
A fuel leak drained them of petrol, necessitating a 25-mile bike ride to Burns, Oregon for a refill. Along the way, the tires on the bicycle went flat, prompting me to wonder just how shittily tires were made back then. They also ran out of oil just outside of Vale, Oregon – that state very nearly killed this voyage before they’d reached the Mountain time zone. In Idaho, things finally began looking up.
Somewhere near Caldwell, Idaho, the duo picked up a pit bull named Bud, who joined their ragged mission. One newspaper reported that they’d stolen Bud, though Horatio’s letter to his wife explained that he’d paid $15 for the guy. They even gave him a pair of goggles, since no one had yet invented the windshield.
By now the story of the wager had spread, and the two men (and one dog) had become national celebrities. The press showed up to meet them at each stop, which also encouraged the kindness of the ogling masses who gawked at them as they passed. Horatio and Sewell skirted the southern edge of the Sawtooth Mountains, as they’d been advised that the Oregon Trail was fairly rough beyond Mountain Home, Idaho. Around this time, Horatio lost his coat, which also contained most of their money. He had to wire his wife to ask for more cash, which she sent to wait for them in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Then they got lost. For 36 hours they drove about with no food and scant little water, before a shepherd took them in and fed them. Their wheel bearings gave out, and Horatio had to use his most eloquent shmoozery to talk a farmer into parting with the bearings of his mowing machine.
Once they hit Omaha, Nebraska, it was relatively smooth sailing. Most of the roads east of Omaha were paved, which meant far fewer mechanical problems to contend with. They did collide with an obstacle in the road near Buffalo, which launched all three of them from the car, but apart from a few scratches, they were fine. On July 26, 1903, some 63 days after they’d set out from San Francisco, they arrived in New York, and proudly upon the pages of automotive history.
The drive back to Vermont saw the Vermont breaking down yet again, though Horatio’s brothers were happy to zip over to help him out. As Horatio was pulling into his garage – home at last – the drive chain snapped. It was one of the only original pieces that hadn’t been replaced along the journey, and it literally lasted to the very end of the trip.
The men never collected on that $50 bet, but they did become brief stars and driving pioneers. Sewell Crocker passed away at the age of 32 after failing to rally support for a round-the-world driving mission. Bud moved in with Horatio and his family, and the Vermont found its way into the Smithsonian Museum. It’s a fine historical artifact if you have the inclination to visit it. Well worth the long drive to Washington.