Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The First Race Across America

Review: Horatio's Drive, documentary by Ken Burns

In late May 1903, Horatio Nelson Jackson, a doctor from Vermont eating in a restaurant in San Francisco with his new bride, overheard a statement made at a nearby table, to the effect that automobiles were a fad that would not last because they could not carry a man across the country. 

On a whim, Jackson laid down a $50 bet that he could drive to New York City in 3 months or less. He bought a "slightly used" Harry Winton car, hired a bicycle racer/mechanic named Sewall Crocker to come with him, and three days later, they left San Francisco on the trip. 

Jackson's wife "gave him his independence" to do this, but declined the chance to accompany him. She returned to Vermont to await his arrival and keep the rest of his family posted on his progress. 


In addition to the bet, Jackson would have competition. Unknown to him, the Packard and Oldsmobile companies had well-planned manufacturer-funded and -supplied expeditions, one starting a few weeks later from San Francisco, the other from Pasadena. These entries in the race would find advance supplies along their routes, including guaranteed petrol caches. Jackson, on the other hand, turned down the offer from the Harry Winton factory to sponsor him (made only when he had reached the Mississippi), rather than lose the independence of making his own way.

"Nel" Jackson's commentary (voiced by Tom Hanks) comes from the many letters and postcards he wrote to his wife. Reactions to the arrival of an automobile crossing the country are garnered from newspaper clips, memoirs, and the PR efforts of the other two competitors. 

The documentary by Ken Burns detailing this first trans-continental road trip is poetic and thrilling. Using clips supplied from archives, plus a realistic "Horatio Cam" view crafted by Alan Moore, the film gives us a real sense of what it might have been like to travel any distance by automobile at a time when the roads were little more than cart tracks and game trails, and there were no roadside inns, restaurants or filling stations. 

The final thrilling note comes almost as an afterword. All three cars drive the entire way in 1903; the Oldsmobile even goes the extra distance to dip its front wheels in the Atlantic (touting its trip as the "only true sea-to-sea transit of the United States"). But that same year, two bicycle mechanics in South Dakota were making history with another kind of vehicle, as Teddy Roosevelt sent the first telegraph "message sent 'round the world". 

And in October 1903, two things happened. Harry Winton drove a car from his factory to set the world record speed of 68 mph. And Horatio Nelson Jackson, behind the wheel of the same car he had driven across the country that year, was pulled over to receive a speeding ticket—for driving faster than 6 mph.