Coast to Coast by Automobile
The Pioneering Trips 1899-1908
by Curt Mcconnell
When automobiles were new early pioneers wanted to push the new technology and see how far it would go. There were speed trials, hills climbs, and endurance runs. Sometimes there were time and endurance runs.
A natural objective for some people, and particularly automobile companies wanting to highlight their products, were transcontinental trips. These trips would test the “real merits of an automobile.” The first two tries, in 1899 and 1901, were failures as far as crossing the whole continent was concerned. In 1903 there were three tries and they were all successful. Then people began to work on breaking the records.
Coast to Coast by Automobile starts with the failed trips and ends in 1908 when the first average person took the trip, taking his family all the way across the country. Before 1908 trip, the drivers had been professionals or auto company employees. The book is loaded with pictures, newspaper and magazine quotes, cartoons, letters, and little stories. It is heavily footnoted too which shows the research and makes it easier for others to go deeper. For example, the first automobile over Donner Summit was one of the first two failed trips. Reading the original story by one of the participants, provided more detail for one of our newsletter stories.
Traveling by auto in those days was very different from today. There were few roads and no transcontinental roads. Most of the transcontinentalists followed the railroad route. They brought along a lot of things we would not think to bring when traveling by car: ropes, axes, revolvers, shovels, and block and tackle. After the first failure through the desert automobilists began carrying temporary bridges of canvas or wood or had cotton filled canvas tires to put on for traction.
The hardships they endured in crossing the continent were amazing. Automobiles were open to the elements. When it rained, snowed and hailed, the occupants were exposed. When it was hot they roasted and when it was cold they froze. They traveled over rocky ground, through mud and streams, through sand, on the railroad ties, and over rough terrain. They had to navigate “tortuous grades”, avoid stagecoaches on narrow roads, and descend “fearfully steep hills”. They had to worry about overheated brakes, getting trapped in deep ruts and they even had to worry about highwaymen. Sometimes they would travel all day and only cover a few miles.
Automobiles broke down often, although the drivers and sponsors didn’t always acknowledge that publicly. Drivers had to make use local blacksmiths, order parts from long distances, or do the work themselves. Alexander Winton completely took apart his motor at Hobart Mills during his trip and fixed a broken axle.
One quote from Charles Shanks, part of the 1901 journey, gives a good flavor for getting stuck while automobiling in those days and for what is in the book,
Pull out block and tackle, wade around in the mud, get soaked to the skin and chilled from the effects of the deluge, make fastenings to the fence or telephone post and pull. Pull hard, dig your heels into the mud and exert every effort at command. The machine moves, your feet slip and down in the mud you go full length. Repeat the dose and continue the operation until the machine if free from the ditch and again upon the road.
Just paging through the book and looking at the photographs makes one wonder why anyone would do what these pioneers did. Why not just wait for the interstates? On the other hand, it was pioneers like this who called attention to the miserable state of the nation’s roads and so enabled the Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental highway; the highways that came after; and finally the interstates. The text and the research make really good history reading.