The past and the future of the road trip on the streets of Kingman, Arizona in the 1920s. Authors collection

Road trip. Route 66, a highway, a television program, a road trip inspiring song and a destination. Memory making, epic adventures on the open road. It’s as American as apple pie, hot dogs and a marketing campaign that encouraged people to see the U.S.A. in their Chevrolet.

The restless nature of the immigrants that would come to be known as American was made manifest in the Oregon Trail, the Pontiac Trail, the Old Spanish Trail, the Beale Wagon Road, the National Road, and the Sauk Trail. This restlessness and the wanderlust of the pioneers, the mountain men, and the ’49ers that rushed to California in search of gold set the stage in the late 19th century for the adventures of pioneering automobilists.

In The Beginning

This chapter in the history of the American road trip opened with a national obsession for the bicycle. In 1901, Henry Sutphen wrote Touring in Automobiles for Outing: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine of Recreation. He noted that, “Several years ago the bicycle suddenly made a prodigious leap into public favor, a result largely due to the fact that it provided people of moderate means with an entirely new and fascinating amusement – the exploring of the particular locality in which they lived, but about which they had usually known little or nothing.”

In 1890 the number of bicycle manufacturers in the United States numbered less than fifty. Six years later there were hundreds of companies. And many of them were working three shifts to meet the demand.

Touring became a national mania. Dozens of clubs and groups were organized. The railroads offered special rates, and accommodated people traveling with bicycles. Hotels near railroads and along primary roads advertised special rates for bicyclists.

There were folding bicycles and electric assist bicycles. The League of American Wheelman, and Wheelwomen, became a powerful lobbying organization that petitioned state and federal government for the devlopment of a national network of improved all weather roads. This was the origins of the good roads movement that became the foundation for the creation of the U.S, highway system in the early 1920s.

Dawn of The Modern Era

While people were taking to the open road on bicycles in record numbers, a few visionaries and eccentric’s were looking toward a future without old Dobbins, the restraint of a railroad time table, or the limitations of the human body. In the late 1880s, Ransom E Olds explained the advantages of the horseless carriage in an interview. The Duryea brothers initiated the manufacture of automobiles for sale. In 1898 the first American automobile race was held in Chicago. And in 1901 pioneering automobile manufacturer Alexander Winton made an ill fated attempt to be the first person to complete a coast to coast trip by automobile.

The societal evolution in first decades of the 20th century were unprecedented. A Stanley steamer was driven to a new land speed record of nearly 150 miles per hour in 1906. By 1910 it is estimated that there were more than 500,000 automobiles on American roads. Just five years later that number had soared to nearly 2.5 million. And yet in western Arizona stagecoaches were in use until 1916.

Telling America’s Story

At Jim Hinckley’s America we tell America’s story. And on October 20 at the Miles of Possibility Conference I will be telling the story of the dawning of the modern American road trip. It promises to be a grand adventure. It will be a journey through time and a road trip inspiring odyssey. Come join the adventure!.

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