The History of Transcontinental Travel Part 2: Wheels and Wings

7 min read

By Ryan Price

In October of 1893, General Roy Stone, a Civil War hero and roads advocate, was appointed to be in charge of the new Office of Road Inquiry (ORI) within the Department of Agriculture. With a budget of $10,000, ORI promoted new rural road development to serve the wagons, coaches, and bicycles on America’s dirt roads.

On May 18, 1903, a wealthy physician and auto enthusiast, Horatio Nelson Jackson, agreed to a $50 wager ($1,350 in 2014 dollars) to prove that a four-wheeled machine could be driven across the country. He didn’t own a car and had no experience even driving one; plus, he had no maps to follow and no plans, but he took the bet. A few days later, his wife returned home by train, and Jackson got behind the wheel of a two-cylinder, used, 20hp Winton he named Vermont (after his home state and destination) and headed east. Alexander Winton—the maker of his car — even tried to warn him not to try it.

Fifteen minutes into his journey, he blew a tire. He lost his glasses, all three pairs. The car broke down on June 6, and a fuel leak emptied the tank. Along with fellow driver and mechanic, Sewall Crocker, they had to use a block and tackle to hoist the car over railroad tracks and across rivers. Jackson saw his first paved road in Omaha on July 12, nearly two months after he started. They arrived in New York City on July 26, 1903, at 4:30 in the morning. It was the first car to traverse the entire continent, establishing the record for the quickest car to drive from coast to coast: 63 days, 12 hours and 30 minutes and used 800 gallons of gas. The trip cost him $8,000 to win the $50 bet (which he never collected). Once near home the only mechanical part he hadn’t had to replaced on during his trip —the drive chain— snapped. Jackson’s Winton, the Vermont, is now in the Smithsonian. Here is a small snippet of Ken Burns’ documentary on Jackson’s trip.

Henry Ford introduced his low-priced, highly efficient Model T in 1908. Its widespread popularity created pressure for the federal government to become more directly involved in road development. With the increased availability of cheaper automobiles, most of society gravitated to this new form of transportation, but suitable roads beyond wagon trails were slow in coming.

No Age Limits for Adventure

There was more than one way to make an extended trip, as brothers Louis and Temple Abernathy proved in 1909, when they rode on horseback from Frederick, Oklahoma to Santa Fe, New Mexico, which isn’t too surprising, except that the Abernathy brothers were only age five and nine at the time. The following year, continuing under an extreme lack of adult supervision, they rode horses to New York City to meet Theodore Roosevelt, where they were greeted as celebrities. A short video of them riding their horses behind Roosevelt in 1910 can be seen here. While in D.C., they purchased a Brush motor car and drove back to Oklahoma by themselves (shipping home their horses). In 1911, the boys accepted a challenge to ride horseback from New York to San Francisco in 60 days or less, sleeping and eating outdoors the whole trip, but missed it by two days, losing the prize money of $10,000. Two years after that, they bought an Indian motorcycle and again rode to New York City.

The Hearst Prize

At this time, cross-country travel wasn’t considered normal (most Americans hadn’t traveled more than 12 miles from their home, the distance a horse could pull a wagon in a single day), but adventures documented by various automotive pioneers cropped up from time to time. In the air, the race to navigate from coast to coast was heating up thanks to a $50,000 prize offered by publisher William Randolph Hearst in 1910 to the first aviator to fly across the United States, in either direction in fewer than 30 days. Famous early pilots Henry Atwood and James J. Ward each attempted the feat in 1911, but both failed. Calbraith Perry Rodgers started his attempt from New York on September 17, 1911, in a Wright Model EX plane named Vin Fiz after the sponsor Armour and Company (a soft drink maker). He paid the Wright Brothers’ mechanic, Charlie Taylor to follow in a train to make daily repairs. On November 5, 1911, (after the prize deadline had expired), he arrived in Pasadena, 19 days late. It took him 70 flights and several crash landings with many delays due to repairs.


There was no reason to fly from coast to coast if there was no profit to be made, but profit came in the form of mail and passengers. The U.S. Post Office’s interest in airplanes went back to the Wright Brothers. It experimented with airmail after World War I, using old training planes leftover from the Army, seeking a transcontinental air route from New York to San Francisco to improve its long-haul delivery time and to lure the public into using airmail. By September 8, 1920, a multi-stage route was established, similar to the Pony Express of 60 years prior, but it was only flown during the day. At night, mail was transferred to trains to get to the next station.

In order to keep mail flying around the clock, the postal service had to ensure the safety and success of night flights. Its solution was a series of beacons and bright yellow concrete arrows. Just a year after Congress funded the idea in 1923, the line of yellow concrete markers stretched from Rock Springs, Wyoming to Cleveland, Ohio. The next summer, it reached all the way to New York, and by 1929 it spanned the continent uninterrupted. Every 10 miles across the country, a bright yellow concrete arrow showed the way. Each arrow was further pointed out by a 51-foot steel tower and lit by a million-candlepower rotating beacon. Hundreds of those arrows still remain.

Mail could now get from New York to San Francisco in 30 hours, beating even the quickest trains by 22 hours.

Baker: Coast-to-Coast Racer

Born in Deaborn, Indiana, in 1882, Erwin George “Cannon Ball” Baker became famous for his point-to-point record attempts. In 1908, he took part in his first race on an Indian motorcycle, a 4th of July event in Crawfordsville, Indiana, and became hooked on the thrill of speed and competition. His passion was further fueled when he won one of the first races held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a ten-mile motorcycle race on August 12, 1909.

When he took part in a cross-country race in 1914, only four of his 3,379 miles were run on paved roads, sixty-eight miles were actually on a railroad track. He finished in 11 days, 11 hours, and 11 minutes, four days faster than the record for an automobile. This feat led one New York reporter to call him Cannon Ball Baker, a name Erwin liked so well he adopted it and eventually had copyrighted.

In 1915, Harry Stutz offered Baker a new $20,000 Stutz Bearcat, if he could set a new record in it. Cannon Ball took him up on the offer. On May 7, 1915, he and reporter Bill Sturm left San Diego on a trip sanctioned by the new American Automobile Association. They arrived in New York 11 days, 7 hours, and 15 minutes later. They repeated this in 1916, arriving in only 7 days, 11 hours, and 53 minutes later, breaking their old mark by four days. It was on this trip that Cannon Ball got his first speeding ticket.

In case you missed it, take a look at the first part of The History of Transcontinental Travel: The Unknown Horizon.


[alert-info]Ryan Price

About the Author

Not only is Ryan Lee Price a freelance writer specializing in automotive journalism and a former long-time magazine editor, he is part of the technical editorial team that provides content for most all of the ChiltonPRO and ChiltonDIY products. He currently resides in Corona, California, with his wife Kara and their two children.


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