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February 22, 2017

It All Started With a $50 Wager, Two Men and a Pit Bull Took the America's First Cross-Country Road Trip in 63 Days in 1903

Horatio Nelson Jackson (1872–1955) was an American physician and automobile pioneer. In 1903, he and driving partner Sewall K. Crocker became the first people to drive an automobile across the United States.

Besides his medical practice, Jackson was a 31-year-old auto enthusiast who differed with the then-prevailing wisdom that the automobile was a passing fad and a recreational plaything. While in San Francisco's University Club as a guest on May 18, 1903, he agreed to a $50 wager (equivalent to $1,333 in 2016) to prove that a four-wheeled machine could be driven across the country. He accepted even though he did not own a car, had practically no experience driving, and had no maps to follow. Jackson and his wife planned to return to their Burlington, Vermont, home in a few days, and both had been taking automobile driving lessons while in San Francisco. She returned home by train, allowing him to take his adventure by automobile.

Having no mechanical experience, Jackson convinced a young mechanic and chauffeur, Sewall K. Crocker, to serve as his travel companion, mechanic, and backup driver. Crocker suggested that Jackson buy a Winton car. He bought a slightly used, two-cylinder, 20 hp Winton, which he named the Vermont, after his home state, bade his wife goodbye, and left San Francisco on May 23, carrying coats, rubber protective suits, sleeping bags, blankets, canteens, a water bag, an axe, a shovel, a telescope, tools, spare parts, a block and tackle, cans for extra gasoline and oil, a Kodak camera, a rifle, a shotgun, and pistols.

Horatio’s route

Heeding the failed attempt by automobile pioneer Alexander Winton (founder of the Winton Motor Carriage Company, which manufactured Jackson's car) to cross the deserts of Nevada and Utah, Jackson decided to take a more northerly route. A route through the Sacramento Valley and along the Oregon Trail also allowed them to avoid the higher passes in the Rocky Mountains.


The car was transported by ferry from San Francisco to Oakland and points eastward. But only 15 miles (24 km) into the journey, the car blew a tire. Jackson and Crocker replaced it with the only spare they had, in fact, the only right-sized spare tire they could find in all of San Francisco.

The second night of their journey, they replaced the side lanterns, having discovered on the first night that they were too dim, with a large spotlight mounted on the front of the Vermont. They stopped early in Sacramento to accomplish this. The duo was assisted in Sacramento by bicyclists who offered them road maps. Jackson was unable to buy a new tire, but purchased some used inner tubes.

Going northwards out of Sacramento, the noise of the car covered the fact that the duo's cooking gear was falling off. They were also given a 108-mile (174 km) misdirection by a woman so that she could send them to the spot where her family could see an automobile.

The rough trek towards Oregon required them to haul the car across deep streams with the block and tackle. Somewhere along this route, Jackson lost a pair of his glasses. Items continued to be lost, including another pair of Jackson's glasses. They were also forced to pay a $4 (equivalent to $107 in 2016) toll by a land-owner in order to cross his property on a "bad, rocky, mountain road" as Jackson described it. When their tires blew out they were required to wind rope around the wheels. Jackson did manage to find a telegraph office and wired back to San Francisco for replacement tires to be transported to them along the journey.

Reaching Alturas, California, Jackson and Crocker stopped to wait for the tires. They offered locals rides in the car in exchange for a "wild west show". When the tires failed to materialize, however, they continued on after a three-day wait.

On June 6, the car broke down, and they had to be towed to a nearby ranch by a cowboy on horseback. Crocker made repairs, but a fuel leak caused them to lose all of their available gasoline, and Jackson rented a bicycle for Crocker to travel 25 miles (40 km) to Burns, Oregon, for fuel. After suffering a flat tire on the bicycle, he returned with 4 US gallons (15 l) of fuel (which Jackson complained cost him "nearly twenty dollars"), and they returned to Burns to fill up.

On June 9, outside of Vale, Oregon, the Vermont ran out of oil. Jackson walked back to the last town to get oil, only to discover eventually that they had been stopped only a short distance outside of Vale. The next day they arrived in Ontario, Oregon, where supplies waited for them.

Somewhere near Caldwell, Idaho, Jackson and Crocker obtained a dog, a Pit Bull named Bud. As it turns out, Jackson had wanted a dog companion since Sacramento. Newspapers at the time gave a variety of stories of how Bud was acquired, including that he was stolen; in a letter to his wife, Nelson said a man sold him the dog for $15 (equivalent to $400 in 2016). It turned out that the dusty alkali flats the travelers encountered would bother Bud's eyes so much (the Vermont had neither a roof nor windshield) that Jackson eventually fitted him with a pair of goggles. At one point, Bud drank bad water and became ill, but survived.

At this point, the trio became celebrities. The press came out at every stop to take their picture and conduct interviews. At Mountain Home, Idaho, citizens warned them that the Oregon Trail was not good further east, so Jackson and Crocker veered off their original course along the southern edge of the Sawtooth Mountains. At Hailey, Idaho, Crocker wired the Winton Company for more parts.

On June 16, somewhere in Idaho, Jackson's coat, containing most of the travelers' money, fell off and was not found. At their next stop, Jackson had to wire his wife to send them money to Cheyenne, Wyoming. Between June 20 and 21, all three of them got lost in Wyoming, and went without food for 36 hours before finding a sheepherder who gave them a meal of roast lamb and boiled corn. Before reaching Cheyenne, however, the car's wheel bearings gave out, and Crocker had to talk a farmer into letting them have the wheel bearings of his mowing machine.

The travelers eventually reached Omaha, Nebraska, on July 12. From there on, they were able to use a few paved roads, and their trip was much easier. The only mishap happened just east of Buffalo, New York, when the Vermont ran into a hidden obstacle in the road and Jackson, Croker, and Bud were thrown from the car. They arrived in New York City on July 26, 1903, 63 days, 12 hours, and 30 minutes after commencing their journey in San Francisco, in the first automobile to successfully transit the North American continent. Their trip expended over 800 US gallons (3,000 l) of gasoline.

After leaving New York City Jackson joined his wife and drove home to Vermont. About 15 miles (24 km) from home his car once again broke down. His two brothers, each driving his own automobile, came to help him get going again. Shortly after returning to the road, both of the brothers' vehicles broke down, and Jackson towed them both home with the Vermont. Upon reaching the threshold of Jackson's garage, the Vermont's drive chain snapped. It was one of the few original parts never replaced during the entire journey.



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