The Record Setting Trips:
By Auto from Coast to Coast, 1909-16

Once the automobile was invented people wanted to use it and extreme users wanted to do extreme things like drive across the country.  The first attempt to cross the country by auto was over Donner Summit in 1901 by Alexander Winton (see our August ’14 Heirloom).  The first successful trip was by Horatio Jackson in 1903 but he did not go over Donner Summit so he’s irrelevant.

Once transcontinental travel could be done it was done over and over by professionals who tried setting cross-country records.  They were supported by the automobile companies who wanted to demonstrate their wares.  There followed some tours (“by luxury loving men, women and children… [in] a dozen Premier autos” and a “transcontinental automobile train”), families, and women – ordinary people.

This book traces the record setting trips by professionals but also goes into the more ordinary folks who followed showing that transcontinental travel was really for everyone, that  by 1916 that were no “insurmountable difficulties in the way.”  In 1909 the record crossing was 31 days and in 1916 it was five days.  Auto travel, in 1916, could almost compete for speed with the railroad.  McConnell sums up the change over the eight years covered by the book by saying, “…the earlier transcontinental trips merely proved that it was possible to drive across the country in an automobile, from 1909 onward such trips increasingly illustrated how pleasurable coast-to-coast travel could be. In short, each of the eight journey described in The Record-Setting Trips represented a public test of the automobiles’ performance and reliability.” 

The book covers eight journeys across the continent by automobile in detail using newspaper and magazine articles, journals, advertisements, and lots of pictures and quotes.  It’s a fun journey through the book if you are interested in the early history of the automobile.

A couple of the journeys went over Donner Summit and so we should focus on those.

The first of the “record setting trips” going over Donner Summit was in 1910.  Lester Whitman was a serial transcontinentalist (a DSHS term for someone who crossed the continent many times in the old days).  He and Eugene Hammond had crossed the country in the third car to cross in 1903.  Whitman had crossed again in 1904 and 1906 and was ready, with Hammond and two others, to cross again in 1910.  

The 1910 trip was to break Whitman’s own record  of 15 days by having the four men alternate driving and driving as close to non-stop as possible.  They would never go more than 35 mph to avoid accidents and tickets. They used a 4 cylinder Reo Thirty which cost $1250.

The men did break the old record crossing the country in 10 days 18 hours and 12 minutes, knocking four days off the old record.  They tried to travel 25-35 mph during the day and 15-25 at night.  At the end they averaged 15.19 mph driving time. 

The next “record setting trip” that went over Donner Summit was very different: “Millionaire Auto Party Leads Drive for Transcontinental Highway.”

This was an auto caravan of amateur drivers.  They started their journey in June, 1911 taking about 40 people, including 12 women and 3 boys (different accounts reported different numbers).  They took 10 Premier cars, one pilot car to guide the way, and a baggage car and left Atlantic City for San Francisco. They accomplished their feat using hotels covering 4617 miles in 35 days of running time.

For the other trips we really have only the maps and the log books to show they went over Donner Summit.  The “record setting” drivers were not sightseers but the Millionaire group took pictures – e.g. the one of Donner Lake.

The purpose of the millionaires’ trip, besides recreation and meeting a challenge, was to advocate for a transcontinental highway. To that end they carried a flag from President Taft which they brought to San Francisco.  Along the way they met various politicians looking for support.  Of course two years later, the Lincoln Highway was inaugurated. 

This trip had one important outcome.  It was the first one to really show that amateurs could cross the country by automobile and not just professionals.  It encouraged many more people to try.

The third of the “record setting trips” that went over Donner Summit was done in the summer of 1916 by five men driving in a Marmon in relays.  They went almost non-stop with two drivers in the car along with a local pilot.  The others traveled ahead by train.  They did cross Donner Summit but left no impressions of it since they were in a hurry to get to San Francisco.   The San Francisco Chronicle said only, “The run down the Sierra was negotiated at a good clip.”

They did set a record of five days, 18 hours and 30 minutes.  The whole trip averaged 25.1 mph for 602 miles per day.  The run from Reno to San Francisco was the second slowest leg, averaging only 20.6 mph.  It helped that the journey was meticulously planned along with the help of local Marmon dealers across the country, the local pilots so they would not get lost, and the UPRR.  That record was light years away from the first transcontinental trip, only 13 years before, that took 64 days.

Besides setting the record, the secondary objective of this trip was “to demonstrate the value of the auto in time of mobilization and to arouse interest in the building of military roads…” 1916 was the year before the U.S. entered WWI.

In the end the trip also showed that automobiles could almost compete with trains in speed.  It took 4 ½ days to cross the country by train and five days by auto. Of course that had to be non-stop rotating drivers but the trip showed the “wonderful strides being made nowadays in automobile speed.”

The book is available to purchase on the Internet and for borrowing at a few libraries.

Mr. McConnell  has also written a Reliable Car and a Woman Who Knows it reviewed in our February ’15 Heirloom.

Good Quote
 “Transcontinental runs are rapidly being relegated to the commonplace in motoring, … sturdiness and flexibility of the modern automobile under unusually severe road conditions are strikingly demonstrated.

From the chapter 7, Pushing the Railroads in the Matter of Time
Horselesss Age