Skip to main content
CNN EditionEntertainment
The Web     
Powered by
powered by Yahoo!

2 men, a dog, and the 1st car road trip

'Horatio's Drive' charts special journey

By Adam Dunn
Special to CNN

'Horatio's Drive' charts special journey

Story Tools

Dayton Duncan
Ken Burns

NEW YORK (CNN) -- It all started with a bet.

On May 19, 1903, a 31 year-old Vermont physician named Horatio Nelson Jackson took up a wager in the University Club of San Francisco. Jackson, already a seasoned traveler -- he was on his way back from Alaska, as a matter of fact -- overhearing someone pooh-poohing the relatively new invention of the automobile.

Jackson, who was fascinated with the new machines and had already purchased several, took the challenger's $50 bet that he couldn't drive one of these contraptions from San Francisco to New York in three months.

Jackson's cross-country journey -- in a day before a nationwide highway system, easy-access hotels and restaurants, or even gas stations -- has become the basis for "Horatio's Drive," a Knopf book and PBS special by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns. The TV show airs Monday.

Jackson was a character of his age, said Duncan in a phone interview.

"I would describe him as a quintessential man of that time and station," he said. "He reminds me of Teddy Roosevelt, who came from the upper strata of American society. Jackson had been to college and medical school, and had been a practicing physician, but had married Bertha Wells, who was the daughter of the richest man in Vermont."

But Jackson wasn't the type of man to "sit around waiting for dividend checks," Duncan added. "He had deep pockets to pursue whatever passions he came across, and when he heard the first internal combustion engine come rumbling down the road, that's where his passions turned."

'It is a hilarious scene'

Jackson pushing car
Jackson battled his car as much as the elements and roads.

Within two days of making the bet, Jackson had purchased a car (a $3,000, 20-horsepower touring car made by the Winton Company of Cleveland, Ohio), outfitted it with camping gear for the transcontinental trek, and with a 22-year-old bicycle racer-cum-mechanic named Sewall Crocker, struck out for New York on May 23, 1903.

It wasn't the first time somebody had tried to drive across the United States. Indeed, the Winton Company itself had tried in 1899, and gave up after 500 miles.

Burns was amazed at Jackson's tenacity.

"He sets off on the greatest journey of his life, takes along a 22-year-old mechanic, later buys a dog named Bud. All three wear goggles on this windshieldless, topless car, and make their way, grope their way across a country that has 2.3 million miles of road, but only 150 miles are paved, and all of those are in cities," he told CNN's Wolf Blitzer Monday. "So he's on cow paths, two tracks, railroad rideaways, and it is a hilarious scene."

Jackson and Crocker were moving out into an as-yet undefined American West, despite the century separating them from Lewis and Clark, noted Duncan.

"Jackson's trip stands at the cusp of major change in the United States for transportation," Duncan said. "To a great extent, he was still traveling through a 19th-century America that hadn't changed much since the 1860s or so."

Jackson got his fuel from general stores (when it was available) and slept where he could, whether at a town inn or under the stars. There were no gas stations or garages if something broke down, and on the course of Jackson's trip, everything on his prized Winton did, in fact, break -- right up until the day he pulled the car into his barn at home.

Indeed, our hero spent as much time battling his beloved, breakdown-prone car as he did the roads and the elements.

"Tires were a constant problem, which was a direct result of the roads," Duncan said. "They spent a lot of time trying to pull themselves out of what they called 'buffalo wallows,' soft patches of ground that turned into bogs when it was wet. ... They spent some time getting stuck in streams they tried to ford, there not being many bridges to use ... and they spent a lot of time in blacksmith's shops to get them fixed, or waiting for replacement parts from the Winton factory in Cleveland."

A huge influence

Burns and Duncan
Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan worked on "Horatio's Drive" on and off for more than a decade.

Winton did not in fact even know of Jackson's attempt until it began receiving cables for parts from him on the road. Moreover, Jackson found himself in a race with both the Packard and Oldsmobile companies, both of which executed similar attempts in his wake (with plenty of technical support and publicity, both of which Jackson lacked), and yet he won.

"Here's this guy making this road trip on his own nickel, everything's breaking down, and he beat them to New York," said Duncan. Jackson arrived in Manhattan at 4:30 a.m. on July 26, after 63 days, 12 hours, and 30 minutes' travel.

Jackson's journey occurred at a pivotal moment in the prospering country.

The year 1903 saw the finishing of the global undersea cable chain, the adoption of Marconi's wireless set, and the first manned, powered flight. The authors cite Jackson's road trip as the initiation of the movement to modernize America's roads, peaking in 1913 with the Lincoln Highway, the first paved coast-to-coast route of its kind.

And yet Jackson's tale is almost unknown.

"This is what I don't understand, why we're not taught this," Burns told Blitzer. "I mean, you would be hard pressed to say that there was no machine more important than the car in the last 100 years. Nothing has been more influential in how we live, how we work, what's worked itself into our songs, into our mythology. The idea of a road trip is very much in everyone's life, and this is the first road trip."

Jackson's tale also allowed Burns and Duncan to shine a bright light into the country's interior life. And, added Burns in a phone interview, it was a heck of a lot of fun.

"I think it's really good to do a happy story," he said. "Nobody dies here. The worst thing that happens is that a crankcase breaks. It's all good stuff, yet it's a story running on all cylinders, literally."

Story Tools
Subscribe to Time for $1.99 cover
Top Stories
Review: 'Perfect Man' fatally flawed
Top Stories
CNN/Money: Security alert issued for 40 million credit cards

International Edition
CNN TV CNN International Headline News Transcripts Advertise With Us About Us
   The Web     
Powered by
© 2005 Cable News Network LP, LLLP.
A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines. Contact us.
external link
All external sites will open in a new browser. does not endorse external sites.
 Premium content icon Denotes premium content.
Add RSS headlines.