America’s First Road Trip

Winton Automobile
The Winton Automobile, Smithsonian

Destination: San Francisco to New York

Film: Horatio’s Drive, America’s First Road Trip, a Ken Burns PBS Special (2003)

In 1903 the world changed. The Wright Brothers took their first flight, the President of the United States sent a message to the King of England over wireless, a cable was strung across the Pacific Ocean for communication, and Horatio Nelson Jackson and his mechanic, drove  from coast to coast across America.

If you have a member of your family who gets grumpy when you start planning a road trip, find the travel film, Horatio’s Drive, and make them watch it. On the other hand, if you or someone you know is obsessed with automobiles, check out this blog about automobiles and American life.

Most rational people in 1903 thought the automobile was at best a nice toy for the wealthy, and and worst, a menace to horses. Horatio, insanely optimistic and obsessed with automobiles, begged to differ. He believed that people would use the automobile for long distance travel, and he made a little bet–$50–that he could drive across the country in less than 90 days. At that point nobody had made the trip across the country, and with very good reason.

NobYou did not just add gasoline and take off. You carried spare parts enough to build a second car. You made friends with blacksmiths along the route. And you hoped that your car would not sink into desert sands or mud pits, seeing as how there was not a paved highway to be found. Not to mention no maps, no road signs and no motels.

Every day Horace Nelson “Nel” wrote reassuringly to his wife little notes that said things like “We had to set up the winch and tow the car 18 times” or “took the wrong road and had to backtrack 50 miles,” and ended with “but from now on everything will be fine.”

Fortunately for us, he took photographs along the way. With those photos, letters to his wife, and a lot of new footage shot on back country roads that resemble the ones “Nel” was on, Burns has made a remarkable recreation of this fantastic adventure.

Tell your family nervous Nelly, that if these guys could do it in 1903, and in only 63 days, 12 hours and 30 minutes, then you can make a road trip to a National Park that is 200 miles away.

I really loved this video, partly for the production values (narration by Keith David , Tom Hanks, Adam Arkin, and Eli Wallach, among others.) But I also loved the personalities involved, and the picture of a nation trying to come to terms with a gigantic change in daily life. It makes me think of today’s struggle to reconcile the age of print with the age of pixel.

When Horatio Nelson Jackson got back to his home in Vermont, he fixed up his car (a cherry red Winton that set him back $3,000, a real fortune in those days) and kept on driving.  A few months after his return, he got picked up and fined for driving faster than six miles per hour. Somebody should have told him that those red cars are traffic cop magnets.

I got the DVD from Netflix, but you can also find a book by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns,Horatio’s Drive: America’s First Road Trip, that was published to accompany the TV show. National Geographic carried an article in 2003 about a trip retracing Horatio’s wheel tracks.

The Winton picture comes from the Smithsonian Institution, and you can click on the landscape picture to see more about the photographer. Picture used by Creative Commons license through

Have you had to overcome arguments against a road trip? What are the worst obstacles we face in the 21st century to taking to the road? (Tune in Wednesday as the Great American Road Trip reaches West Virginia.)

Note: There is an Amazon link here for your shopping ease. I am an Amazon affiliate and make a few cents on each purchase you make through these links, although it costs you no more.

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

15 thoughts on “America’s First Road Trip

  1. Delighted to find out about this video. I have been wondering when the first road trip was made and some how missed the PBS documentary. I look forward getting it from Netflix and perhaps showing it in the road trip (writing) class I’m teaching next spring. Thanks for such a great site.

  2. Fantastic. One of those things, road trips, that we love to do and somehow forget to plan. I have my mother’s ashes, and although she didn’t request it, I know she’d love to have some of her live on in Chaco Canyon. It’s been two years. Thanks to you I’ll revisit my urgency in making this happen.

  3. This sounds like exactly what I need to take a break from all the work I have piled up. A great historical road trip documented by Ken Burns! Awesome.

    1. Well, the fact of the matter is that when they got home, there was only one part that had not yet broken, and it broke as Homer pulled into his garage in Vermont!

      1. That’s hysterical! I’m sure he breathed a sigh of relief with that one. I had that happen to me once, where the engine died as the car was sitting in the driveway, not long before I was supposed to take a long road trip. We were so grateful it happened at home instead of 300 miles away on the interstate. Positively providential!

        .-= Laura Hartness hopes you will read blog ..Contest Results & Latest Movie Review =-.

  4. Is there any chance I can add these entries into the pot for the contest? I did tweet this weekend, but I guess the tweets didn’t get through. Here are the links to each tweet, for Friday, Saturday, Sunday and today:

    Hope these are okay to add as entries. Thanks again for hosting!

    Laura Hartness
    The Calico Critic
    .-= Laura Hartness hopes you will read blog ..Contest Results & Latest Movie Review =-.

    1. Absolutely Laura–and I did see your Friday(which went into Friday night’s drawing) and Saturday tweets. Just had not yet checked today for Monday. Did not mean to downplay your hard work, here!

  5. First, I’m very excited to be the first winner. But lest your readers think my pick of Dogtown was based on the title alone, I hasten to assure you that I read the review of the book that you linked to. And I even read Anita Diamant’s book on the topic — not my favorite of her works, but interesting nevertheless.
    .-= Edie Jarolim hopes you will read blog ..The Friday Five: Dog Crating =-.

  6. oh I definite MUST SEE…I absolutely love road trips!! I’ll check out the accompanying book as well.

  7. I have seen this special, and the story of the Winton crossing the country was inspiring! It is interesting to hear about the state of the country’s roads until the 1930s. For example my grandfather left Idaho in 1931 on an Indian Motorcycle, following a dirt road most of the way to the Bay Area. Incredible story! Thanks for sharing. -r

  8. Me, too. The only place I did not love a good road trip was France, in the 1970s. I hated the roads with three lanes, where the middle lane was for anyone who chose to take it. And, back then, there were no speed restrictions in France.
    .-= Alexandra hopes you will read blog ..Five Blogs I Cannot Live Without … =-.

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