The First Great American Road Trip

Bench Racing

by Ryan King

Do you know when the first Great American Road Trip was taken – I mean one that went from sea-to-shining-sea?

It was in 1903, it happened on a lark, because of a $50 bet, and it occurred before there were any roads that connected both sides of the continent.

It was also the event that catalyzed the American Interstate Highway System that crisscrosses the entire United States, today.

The Road Trip

The journey was undertaken by Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson, his co-driver and mechanic Sewall K. Crocker, and a trusty 1903 Winton Touring Car Jackson christened the Vermont. They were joined along the way by their stalwart companion, Bud the Bulldog.

When they left on their adventure on May 23rd of 1903, a number of attempts had already been made to do exactly what they were attempting to do, both by enthusiasts, and well planned and funded factory efforts – including Alexander Winton, the man behind the Vermont.

Every single effort had failed.

Along the way there were numerous mechanical failures, set-backs, and unexpected events – and before they completed their journey, the trio became celebrities as newspaper reporters and towns people came out to greet them.

To add to the drama, their "road trip" eventually became a race. A month after Jackson, Crocker, and the Vermont had embarked on their journey, the Packard Motor Car Company was making an attempt to do the same with a professional test driver, a carefully mapped out plan, and the complete backing of the company.

Packard wouldn't be the last entry into the race to be the first to go from coast-to-coast, either, as Oldsmobile jumped in the fray not long after with two driver/mechanics in a 1903 Oldsmobile Model R Runabout, otherwise known more famously as the Curved Dash Olds, and the first car to be mass-produced. It too was well funded and planned.

Ultimately, it would be Nelson, Sewall, and Bud that would triumph – while shooting from the hip – being the first to reach New York by two weeks, arriving at the Holland House Hotel on July 26th, 1903 at 4:30 AM, covering approximately 4200 miles in just hours less than 64 days.

While it wasn't the first automobile race, it could easily be argued that it is likely the most significant race, and road trip, in history. This journey lit the national fire for free, individual travel throughout the most beautiful natural landscape with the most diverse climate and ecology of any country in the world.

The Significance

The impact of Horatio Nelson Jackson's road trip – and the race that it became – would be felt across history as it spurred the building of the first, ever, transcontinental highway, the Lincoln Highway – which would eventually become Interstate 80 – in 1913.

That lead to the precursor of the current highway system in 1916 with the passing of the Federal Aid Road Act. After several attempts with varying degrees of success, the Interstate Highway System was officially authorized by Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956 with the Federal Aid Highway Act. The system was finally completed in 1992.

There are a total of 68 primary interstate highways with only four of them that connect the eastern and western seaboards:

There are another six that connect the southern-most and northern-most states:

Finally, there is only one highway that connects Canada to Mexico: Interstate 5.

The End

Next time you hit the road on your own Great American Road Trip, you can thank Nelson, Sewall, and Bud for laying the groundwork that make it all possible.

If you're as enthralled by the story of their road trip as I am, there is an excellent documentary covering the journey, called Horatio's Drive from the PBS series Ken Burns: American Lives, released in 2003 – 100 years after the trip. It's nearly two hours long, and narrated by Keith David and Tom Hanks complete with excerpts from the letters Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson sent to his wife and the extensive photography he took while on the trip.

Ryan