“Pull out block and tackle, wade around in the mud, get
soaked to the skin and chilled from the effects of the deluge, make fastenings to the fence or telephone post and pull. Pull hard, dig your heels into the mud, and exert every effort at command. The machine moves, your feet slip and down in the mud you go full length. Repeat the dose and continue the operation until the machine is free from the ditch and again upon the road.” When Charles B Shanks wrote this feature article for Scientific American in the summer of 1901, he wasn’t describing an African safari or an adventure into the Amazon. He was writing about a trip from Oakland to Port Costa in California. It was the first leg in what was to be a cross country odyssey with Alexander Winton, president of the Winton Motor Carriage Company of Cleveland, Ohio.
The years between 1885 and 1926, the year of certification for Route 66, were, to say the very least, interesting times. Ransom E. Olds best know for the creation of Oldsmobile and later REO, noted in an 1892 interview that an automobile “never kicks or bites, never tires on long runs, and never sweats in hot weather. It does not require care in the stable and only eats while on the road.” Four years later, a Duryea Motor Wagon was given top billing over the albino, fat lady, and giant at the Barnum & Bailey Circus.
A mere decade later there were literally dozens of automobile manufacturing companies. A steam powered Stanley set a new speed record (just under 150 miles per hour) on Ormond Beach, now Daytona Beach. Yet, to leave town with your automobile was a truly daring adventure.
“A few miles from the ferry, a tree had fallen across the road. Mr. Winton used the ax to splendid advantage and, after some delay, the road was clear, and we were going ahead once more.”
By 1914, two new states had joined the union, Arizona and New Mexico. A network of “highways” had been knit to unite the nation and serve the number of automobile owners that was growing exponentially. Still, even as late as 1915, motorists rich and poor that set out to traverse the country faced a daunting array of obstacles, some of which would have been familiar to pioneers on the Oregon Trail in 1850 while others were exclusive to the automobilist.
July 14, 1915, “At 4 1/2 miles out at 11:15 Ford broke rear axle shaft. Sent for new one by hotel chauffeur who happened to come along. When it arrived we found we had no wheel puller, so could not put the new shaft in. All tossed coin, odd man to walk back to hotel for wheel puller.”
This is an excerpt from the travel journal of Edsel Ford written during his trip from Detroit to California with college buddies in the summer of 1915. The entire journal is being reprinted in weekly serial format on our crowdfunding Patreon site.
One of the most amazing facts about the automobile is that it ever replaced the horse. Can you imagine looking at a customer and telling them, “Yes, this vehicle costs more than a house, it is quite unreliable and will need repair often, fuel is not often available in rural areas, and there aren’t really roads suitable to drive on but this is the future.”