When doing research for The Surveyor’s Daughter’s Series, I came across true stories of the first attempts to cross the country by automobile. These stories were so fun and I incorporated parts of this one in my latest book, Winds of Change.
|Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson|
In May of 1903 Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson made an impulsive $50.00 wager in a wealthy gentlemen’s club in San Francisco that he could drive an automobile from San Francisco to NYC in less than 90 days. He didn’t own an automobile at the time and he didn’t know how to drive one, but he had that American spirit of adventure, courage, determination, and optimism. Within four days of making his bet, Jackson hired Sewall K. Crocker, a bicycle mechanic, to make the trip with him. On Crocker’s advice Jackson purchased a 1903 Winton automobile and all the supplies needed, and they set out to cross the country.
There had been two previous attempts to drive across the country, but both had failed due to mechanical problems or by bogging down in the sands of Nevada.
Most people thought such a road trip was impossible. After all, automobiles were only a passing fad for the wealthy. And there were only 150 paved roads in America at the time. All in big cities.
|Dr. Jackson in the Vermont|
One of the first things Jackson did was name his cherry-red automobile the Vermont, after his home state. He decided to avoid the Sierra Mountains and the sands of Nevada by turning north in Sacramento and heading for southern Oregon. He and Crocker hadn’t gone far when their tires blew, and since they only had one spare, they solved that problem by winding rope around the tires. When they finally reached Alturas, California, they stopped and waited a long time for new tires which Jackson had ordered by telegraph. Once they got going again, they had mechanical problems which Crocker took care of, treacherous mountain roads covered with rock and boulders, and not much in the way of maps. They made a run at the many mountain streams hoping the momentum would launch them across. When that didn’t work, they got out the block and tackle and pulled the Vermont out of the mud and water.
When they finally reached southern Oregon in June, a lot of the roads were simply cow trails, that had never seen an automobile. At one point, the Vermont broke down and was towed to a nearby ranch by a cowboy on horseback. Later, they ran out of fuel and Jackson rented a bicycle which Crocker rode 25 miles to Burns, Oregon to buy gasoline. A punctured bicycle tire forced Crocker to walk most of the way back with the fuel. Through all of their troubles, Jackson maintained his optimism.
Once Jackson and Crocker finally made it across the border into Idaho they picked up a third passenger, a pit bull named Bud. The Vermont had no windshield necessitating the need for wearing goggles. Bud proudly rode in the Vermont between Jackson and Crocker wearing his goggles for the duration of the trip.
Bud in his goggles
Now people lined the streets of every town they drove through thanks to the newspapers and telegraph and the trio became celebrities. The unpaved roads improved in Idaho because they followed the Oregon Trail in reverse, and Jackson usually offered a short ride in the Vermont to anyone who fed them.
Jackson and Crocker got lost in Wyoming and went without food for quite a few days. They finally came upon a sheep camp and the sheepherder fed them a hearty meal. After Wyoming, the roads improved and the weary travelers pulled into NYC on July 26, 63 days, 12 hours, and 30 minutes after leaving San Francisco.
|Museum exhibit honoring the trip|
Jackson won his $50.00 wager but he never collected. And it cost him $8,000 to make the trip. His story is actually a beautiful love story. He wrote love letters to his wife throughout the journey, addressing her by her nickname as My Darling Swipes, and telling her how much he missed her and how he looked forward to being with her again.
Winds of Change was so much fun to research, write, and include some of Jackson’s adventures into my story about Cora Gardner, one of The Surveyor’s Daughters.