By on May 27, 2016

Nelson and Bud in the Vermont

by Richard A. Ratay

The first noteworthy attempt to drive across America began as many ill-advised feats do — on a bet. While visiting California in 1903, a 31-year old doctor named Horatio Jackson accepted a friend’s invitation to join him for a drink at San Francisco’s University Club.

It’s there, over a cocktail — or likely several — that Jackson found himself in debate with another gentleman on the topic of whether automobiles, then just beginning to appear on city streets, were merely a passing fad. An enthusiastic admirer of the new contraptions, Jackson passionately argued that cars were nothing less than the future of transportation.

In fact, Jackson boldly asserted, automobiles were already so rugged and reliable he could drive a car clear across the country back to his home in Vermont.

Perhaps to his chagrin, Jackson’s declaration was immediately challenged and a wager was set: $50, about $1200 in today’s money. Jackson wasn’t fazed by the amount; he was wealthy. Nor apparently was he dissuaded by the fact that he didn’t own a car, had barely driven one, or that scarcely any roads existed west of the Mississippi River. But he may have regretted having to explain his bet to his young wife the following morning. Rather than joining her husband on the adventure, she opted to take a train home instead.

Undaunted, Jackson prepared for his epic journey. He hired a young mechanic, Sewall Crocker, to serve as his backup driver and traveling companion. On Crocker’s advice, Jackson purchased a two-cylinder, 20-horsepower Winton touring car. With perhaps a touch of inflated optimism, Jackson named the car Vermont, after his home state and the destination he hoped to reach.

Together, Jackson and Crocker planned a route heading north along the California coast before proceeding east along the Oregon Trail. Their aim was to avoid the treacherous Rocky Mountains and baking deserts of the Southwest that had doomed earlier attempts to cross the country by car.

The pair then loaded their Winton with all manner of gear: sleeping bags, blankets, canteens, overcoats, watertight rubber suits, a water bag, axe, shovel, telescope, tools, spare parts, cans for extra gasoline and oil, rifle, shotgun, pistols, and a pulley system they could use to extricate themselves should they become stuck in mud. Last but not least, they bought an Eastman Kodak camera to document their adventure. On May 23, 1903, Jackson kissed his exasperated wife goodbye and he and Crocker set off.

Things didn’t start smoothly. Not even 15 miles into their journey, the duo’s car blew a tire. On the second night, the men realized the Winton’s side lanterns weren’t nearly bright enough to light their way after dark, and they were forced to purchase a large spotlight to mount on the front grill.

Days later, Jackson and Crocker failed to hear their cooking equipment fall off over the din of the car’s engine. Near Sacramento, the pair was given bad directions—on purpose—by a woman because she wanted her family to get their first look at an automobile. The detour added 108 miles to their route. In Oregon, the pair suffered two more flats. Lacking spares, they wound thick rope around the wheels as a makeshift substitute until they could find new tires.

Not long afterward, they ran out of fuel. Jackson was forced to rent a bicycle and pedal 25 miles to a town to purchase gas then ride back with four heavy cans strapped to his back. Along the way, the bicycle also blew a tire. All this before the twosome had even really left the West Coast behind.

By the time Jackson and Crocker reached Idaho, news of their quest was beginning to spread. Their fame was bolstered by Jackson’s decision to pick up another traveling companion — a spunky pitbull named Bud.

Bud Portrait

While driving across the arid salt flats of Utah, the dog’s eyes became so irritated by dust kicked up by the car’s tires that Jackson had Bud fitted for his own driving goggles. The press ate it up, turning out to take pictures and conduct interviews with the trio at every stop. Jackson, Crocker and Bud became national celebrities.

After reaching Nebraska, the quality of the roads improved and so did the adventurers’ luck. Finally, on July 26, 1903, after 63 days on the road (and off it), the Vermont and its exhausted crew rolled onto the streets of New York City, completing the first successful crossing of the North American continent by automobile.

So, the next time you load up your SUV, get the kids situated in the backseat with their iPads, and set off on smoothly paved interstates following a route carefully planned by your GPS navigation system to some distant destination, remember to tip your cap to Jackson, Crocker and Bud. After all, they’re the ones who started us all down this road.

Richard Ratay is the author of the upcoming book “Don’t Make Me Pull This Thing Over! An Informal History of the Family Road Trip.” Follow him on Facebook.

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19 Comments on “America’s First Road Trip: How a $50 Bet and a Dog Got a Nation on the Move...”

  • avatar

    I’m just thinking about two people, a dog and equipment (and the weight of the car), on a cross country run, all being run off a 20 HP engine.

    • 0 avatar
      Arthur Dailey

      Isn’t Bud a bull terrier, not a ‘pit bull’?

      And we complain if a vehicle has less than 250hp to drive the kids to school and pick-up groceries on nice paved roads.

      Just like Trabants and 2CVs this demonstrates the gap between ‘wants’ and ‘needs’.

      • 0 avatar
        Richard Ratay

        Bud was a pit bull. A bull terrier has the long nose, like Spuds McKenzie from those old Bud Light ads.

        I know this because I have a pit bull as a travel companion myself!

      • 0 avatar
        George B

        Bull terriers look like Spuds Makenzie with a longer tapered head. Bud looks like a pit bull with a more square head.

        The faster you drive, the more horsepower you need to push air out of the way. In addition, today it’s relatively inexpensive to achieve high peak horsepower numbers from relatively small 4 cylinder engines. Variable cam phasing to extend the rpm range and higher compression ratio, for example.

    • 0 avatar

      And now our chief complaints on cars center around transmission selectors and lack of color options. We’ve come a long way, you could say.

      (This was moderated and I’ve no idea why.)

  • avatar

    PBS did a special on this a few years’ ago titled “Horatio’s Drive: America’s First Road Trip.” Very entertaining. I believe you can watch it online.

  • avatar

    In 1937 my Father took off on an Automobile trip in a Buick , leaving North Bronx , I *think* he said they were headed to Ohio ~ they had numerous flats before getting out of New York City and had replaced all the tires by the time they returned a few weeks later .
    When I asked him if cheap tires were the problem , he said ‘ no , that’s just how it was in the earlier days of Auto travel ‘ .

    • 0 avatar

      And we complain about overly large wheels now, but look at that picture. Absolutely no sidewall to speak of. It had to be an incredibly uncomfortable ride.

  • avatar

    “proceeding east along the Oregon Trail.”

    Better watch out for those damn Indians. And remind yourself you can only carry 226 pounds of buffalo meat.

  • avatar

    My parent’s dog would rather have rock salt in his eyes than wear goggles and pose for a photo op. I know this because I tried to put goggles on him once.

    (This is also moderated?)

  • avatar

    Fascinating. What an adventure!

    We have no idea how good we have it today. We complain about door panel materials and buggy infotainment systems.

  • avatar

    I guess 20hp out of two cylinders was one of the more spirited choices back then? I’d love to know about their car options – what else was considered? – and a budget for the entire journey would also be fascinating to read. Road quality must have been disheartening in 1903…

    • 0 avatar

      A Ford 1903-04 102 cubic inch twin had about 8hp. The 283 straight 4 that replaced it had about 22. So 20hp from a twin was screaming for its day.

  • avatar

    Well, back in 1903 Winton was one of the few established car manufacturers, and seemingly THE brand to beat. Henry Ford got his big boost in the automobile business by beating a Winton, and the Packard was founded because James Ward Packard suggested a few improvements to Alexander Winton, which were snottily turned down.

    In 1903, Ford and Cadillac were in their first year of production, Packard was four years old, Oldsmobile was six, and Winton was one year older. Which made it the oldest of what passed for a “major” automobile manufacturer in the US at that time. “Major” being defined as making at least 50 or so cars a year, every year.

    So, yeah. If they wanted to do this, their main choices would have been Packard, Winton and Oldsmobile. And Winton had already done a Cleveland (home base) to New York City reliability run in 1897, so they had the reputation.

  • avatar
    Ron B.

    A friend of mine owns a Winton. Fine little car in fact and really nicely made. Everytime you hear a EMD powered locomotive rumble past,think of Winton because they designed the Engine ,the EMD two stroke diesel.

  • avatar

    I thought the car in the picture and story was in the Smithsonian in an “on the road” permanent exhibit in the Smithsonian (American History Museum). Maybe it was replaced, because I can’t google it (giving it a ~15 year run, not bad).

    I think they used the dog as the “narrator” of the exhibit.

  • avatar

    A delightful story! (and what poor luck at the outset for the travelers.)

  • avatar

    Left out of the story is whether or not he had to return to California to collect his 50 dollars.

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