By Gayne Young
Horatio Jackson and Sewall Crocker were the first people to drive across the United States in an automobile. The year was 1903 and it took them 63 near non-stop days. Yeah, sometimes being the first to do something is a bit of a bear.
Things were vastly different in the US in 1903. Cars were still more or less a novelty although their popularity had grown considerably since the turn of the century. In 1900, there were an estimated 8,000 cars in the country. By 1903 there were 32,920. Despite this uptick in ownership, many still believed the “horseless carriage” would be a passing fad.
NOTE: My paternal grandfather said color TV would be a passing fad. My father said the Internet would be the same. Because of this lineage of poor predicting ability, I refrain from commenting on all new technology.
Back to 1903—Roads suitable for automobiles were almost nonexistent at this time and there was no nationwide road network to speak of. Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson saw past this. Although he didn’t own a car, he was fascinated by automobile technology and the changes he foresaw it bringing to the country. He contemplated such while on the train from his home in Vermont to San Francisco where he and his wife would vacation. Once in that City by the Bay, his talking about the future of the automobile caught the ear of someone and soon a bet was made. Dr. Jackson bet $50 (almost $3,500 in today’s money) that he could drive a car cross-country.
Many historians doubt a bet was actually made. Rather they believe Dr. Jackson used the excuse of a bet to justify his trip.
Since he didn’t own a car, Dr. Jackson bought one. He paid $3,000 to purchase a used 1903 Winton with 1,000 miles on it and two bad rear tires. To help with the trip, he hired a driver, mechanic, and former bike racer by the name of Sewall K. Crocker. The two named the car The Vermont and loaded the small open carriage, two-cylinder, 20-horsepower vehicle with a shotgun, rifle, and ammunition, a tool kit, an axe, a shovel, sleeping bags and blankets, rubber suits and coats, a Kodak camera, a telescope, and gallons upon gallons of oil and gas. This gear and supplies plus the two men meant The Vermont weighed an astounding ton-and-a-half.
They left San Francisco on May 23 with the idea of avoiding the deserts of Nevada and Utah and the Sierra Nevada and the Rockies by heading north to follow the Oregon Trail in reverse. Fifteen miles into the expedition they blew a tire and replaced it with their only spare. Shortly thereafter a lady in Sacramento gave them bad directions that took the pair 180 miles off track. Outside Oregon they blew out multiple tires and were only able to continue forward by winding thick rope around the wheels to gain forward traction. After that they were saddled with having to occasionally hike long distances for gas or spare parts despite having the latter shipped to them for pickup at advanced locations. The duo picked up a bulldog named Bud in Idaho and fitted him with driving goggles. Soon after this the press got wind of the two men and dog driving cross country, the trio became celebrities and were greeted as such along the route. The trip got considerably easier once they crossed the Mississippi and paved roads became more prevalent.
They finally reached New York City on July 26. The trip took 63 days, saw them use 800 gallons of gasoline, and was completed at a cost of $8,000 or a little over a quarter million in today’s money. Dr. Jackson never collected his $50 wager (if there really was a wager). In 1944, he donated his car to the Smithsonian Institution where it is on permanent display at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. Jackson and Bud figure in the display. Crocker, for some reason, does not.
To put the Jackson, Crocker, and Bud expedition into perspective consider that the current cross-country driving record stands at 25 hours 39 minutes. That record (illegal though it may have been to obtain) was set by Arne Toman and Doug Tabbutt when they drove from New York to Los Angeles in October 2021. They averaged 110 miles per hour.
No bulldog accompanied them.