Saturday, May 14, 2011

MY New Hero!

Horatio Nelson Jackson is my hero! When I tell you his story, he’ll be your hero too. Ya see, Nelson, along with a former bicycle racer named Sewell Crocker and a bulldog named Bud made the first cross country Road Trip by Automobile. In 1903. In 1903 there was something like 150 miles of paved road in America. TOTAL. There was no Route 66, no Lincoln Highway, no Mickey D’s, no road signs, no road maps, no Holiday Inn, and yep, no gas stations. And best of all, he did it on a $spur of the moment bet for $50 (which he never collected on). THEN he went out and bought his first car! If Horatio Nelson Jackson isn’t your hero, you are reading the wrong column!

So what brought on this deification of H.N. Jackson? Blame it on my eldest daughter. Brianna works in a library where she came across this video, “Horatio’s Drive.” First broadcast in October of 2003 by PBS, this Ken Burns documentary (yes, THAT Ken Burns, he of “The Civil War,” “Baseball” and the inventor of the “Ken Burns Effect”-that way of panning around a still photo to give it some movement) is, as all of his other works a fascinating tale of adventure and daring do. 
It is also quite sweet. Jackson wrote daily to his wife back in New England and the family saved ALL of the letters, as well as his photos. The car, a 1903 Winton, is enshrined in the Smithsonian. Everyday, Jackson not only told of the daily occurrences, he also continually expressed his love for his wife and an unfailing optimism (“The worst is surely behind us” is in almost every letter, despite ever increasingly daunting mishaps) in the face of what would  be to the most of us, insurmountable problems. 
Little things like having to fix tires as an almost daily ritual, finding a smithy to re-fabricated suspension bits (and here I thought I was pretty good, bringing the Blue Meanie home from Hollister with a completely broken rear leaf spring!), gettoing NO factory support until almost halfway across the country, as well as fighting floods, rains, dust, and a route that was virtually unchanged from when the Conastoga Wagons crossed the country only a few decades prior to Jackson’s trip. Positively Homeric! 
As a route, they planned an odd one. Not wanting to chance a late snowstorm in Donner Pass (and no doubt, the legend of the party that gave that pass in the Sierras it’s name was still in people’s memories) as well as the dust of the Nevada desert, they opted for an odd northerly route from San Francisco , winding up to Alturas and eastern Oregon, Idaho, and Wyoming before hitting Nebraska and supposedly smooth sailing following the tracks of the Transcontinental Railroad.
They left Frisco on May 25th, having made a bet that a car couldn’t make it to New York in three months time. They headed for Oroville, the end of the rail line. "We never noticed," Jackson wrote, "as our cooking utensils jolted off one by one. When we discovered our loss, we could not afford to turn back to seek them." And that was on the GOOD road!
His first letter home reads;
“My darling Swipes. (his nickname for his wife-Ed) We leave in the morning for Oroville... the last railway point we will have until we strike Ontario, [Oregon]. When we get there the worst will be over. 
I can run the car as well as Crocker & have rather surprised him... We take 2 hours on and 2 off at the wheel. He is a mighty good man.
I am fine... and the only trouble is I miss you so. 
They had also acquired a bulldog named “Bud” who road the entire way with them, wearing goggles. 
By June 4th, they had made it to Lakeview, OR. The local paper recounted the excitement of the town as the first car anyone had ever seen rolled into town:
“The way the streets of Lakeview were lined with people Tuesday afternoon, one would think a circus was coming to town, or a 4th of July procession was about to pass. While it was neither, the people's curiosity had been aroused from a report that an automobile was coming this way, and that if they wished to see it pass it was necessary to have a seat in the front row, otherwise it might go through at the rate of 90 miles an hour, and would be out of sight before they could run a block.
“It drove in sight at just 4 o'clock and the crowds surged forward to get a first look at a real live auto, a machine that nine-tenths of the people of Lake county had never seen. The machine drove up in front of the Hotel Lakeview and stopped. 
“The Chauffeur inquired for a blacksmith shop, having had a mishap coming over the rough roads.”
By June 20th, they had reached Wyoming and got lost. July 2nd saw them still in Wyoming, and ten days later, they were in Omaha, Nebraska. Often, they traded meals and a place to sleep for a ride in the Winton. On one occasion, lost, they asked directions of a young woman. Whe sent them the wrong way so they’d go by her family’s farm so they could see their first car! They almost lost Bud in Chicago, as he “had taken it into his head to see the city.” Having found Bud, they left Chicago, reached Buffalo, NY by July 21st and New York City on the 26th. Sixty-three days, twelve hours, thirty minutes.
From the New York Herald:
“Dr. H. Nelson Jackson and Sewall K. Crocker, his chauffeur, finished the first transcontinental automobile trip at half-past four o'clock yesterday morning.
“On their arrival, the mud besmirched and travel stained vehicle which had borne them so faithfully and sturdily over fifty-six hundred miles of roads between the Pacific and the Atlantic was housed in a garage in West 58th Street. All day yesterday it was visited by admiring automobilists, and curious passersby peeped in upon it. In honor of its achievement it was decorated with tiny flags and draped with national standards.
“The thick coating of mud gave evidence that it had been somewhere and that somewhere a long way off. A broken mud guard and a sprung front axle alone attested the hard knocks it had had on its long journey.”
When you consider that the unofficial record for Brock Yates’ “Cannon Ball Baker, Sea to Shining Sea Memorial Trophy Dash” was something under 24 HOURS, the automobile (and the roads) has come a long way in 100 years. 
Autobooks has copies of the DVD and the companion book on order, but they are also available at Look for “Horatio’s Drive.” The narration is by Tom Hanks and is a must for any REAL Road Tripper!
(photos and quotes from