The trancontinental automobile

By: Nancy Hagman, Colfax Record Correspondent
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Since the 1860s, Colfax has been best known for being a key player along the first transcontinental railroad. It also had a brush with being a stop for the first air flight across America when pilot Robert A. Fowler made a stop in Colfax in 1911 (Colfax Record, March 24, 2011). What about the automobile? This story?s time is set in 1903, and the mystery is how this area is related. At that time, Colfax folk may have witnessed two separate teams pass through this very town, attempting to drive the first motorcar to cross the nation. Like Fowler, ?also ran? doesn?t get a lot of publicity because the notoriety of being the first to drive across the country in an automobile (then often called a ?horseless carriage?) goes to Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson. First, a little about Jackson?s amazing accomplishment. The 31-year-old doctor was traveling the west with his wife. In 1900, he had given up his medical practice in Burlington, Vt. due to a mild case of tuberculosis. On May 19, 1903, he was a guest at the exclusive University Club in San Francisco. That evening, he was engaged in a lively discussion about the motor-driven carriage, a ?new fangled? travel device of the time. He asserted it was, ?More than a rich man?s toy.? Others debunked it as a passing novelty, saying one would never be driven across the continent. Jackson placed a $50 wager with his host that it could be done in less than three months. To show his conviction, he went out the next day, hired a 22-year-old mechanic by the name of Sewell Crocker and outfitted supplies for the journey. He thoughtfully included another new gadget ? a Kodak camera ? among the necessities. On the recommendation of his new companion, he purchased a used Winton vehicle for $3,000. He named it the ?Vermont.? He put his wife on the train for home. Four days after the gentleman?s handshake, he embarked on the first coast-to-coast road trip. Keep in mind that there were only 8,000 horseless carriages in the entire nation at that point. The bulk of those were located in eastern cities. Two years earlier Alexander Winton, the owner of the company that manufactured Jackson?s vehiclem had attempted the SF-NY journey. Winton got stuck in the desert sands 530 miles east of San Francisco and aborted the attempt. Based on this failure ? and perhaps snow over the pass ? Jackson chose a route north through Alturas and onto the old Oregon Trail. The purpose was to avoid the mighty Sierra and deserts of Nevada and Utah. The problem with this route, ironically, was that when Jackson needed replacement parts he had to rely on Wells Fargo and their horses for delivery. This often delayed his progress for days at a time. Coincidentally ? unknown to Jackson ? months prior to the start of the whimsical adventure, the Packard Motor Company had been planning a cross-country tour of its own. The meticulously orchestrated event included Tom Fetch, a professional driver, and the requisite newspaper reporter, Marius Krarup. Mechanics with spare parts and machinists were stationed at strategic points via the railroad. Fetch and Krarup carried supplies, including tarps as well as block-and-tackle to surmount the sand problems Winton had encountered earlier. Departing San Francisco on June 20, nearly a month after Jackson, they claimed to be the only ?official team? crossing the continent. However, a rival company called Oldsmobile had underwritten another pair, Whitman and Hammond, with the same idea. They departed, literally, from the San Francisco shore ? after touching the tires of the machine in the Pacific Ocean ? on July 6, 1903. Today, we call this a publicity stunt. As Fowler did with his aerial attempt, these two teams planned to follow the railroad, thereby keeping the support teams at hand. Therefore, they must have traveled through Colfax. Like Jackson and despite the meticulous planning, both teams ran into mechanical problems of their own. It seems, however, the main reason the independent Jackson won the honor of being the ?first? is a rabbit-versus-hare story. In their pursuit of publicity, the companies? publicists selected routes away from the monotonous deserts and to the beautiful Utah canyons to the south. The purpose was to get backgrounds that are more appealing for the photography, thus adding many days to the journey. Jackson made it to New York in 63 days. The tale of Jackson?s trip with its trials and tribulations and photos is beautifully related via ?Horatio?s Drive? a DVD produced by the Public Broadcasting System and available at the Colfax Library.