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Drivers Retrace First Cross-U.S. Trip

Nicole Davis
for National Geographic News
July 1, 2003
 
Driving a car that has been obsolete for nearly as long as he is old, a
71-year-old retired orthodontist is attempting to re-create America's
first cross-country car trip.


Peter Kesling, of Laporte, Indiana, left San Francisco on June 17 with wife Charlene Kesling riding shotgun in a 1903 Winton. Together with Charles Wake, great-grandson of manufacturer Alexander Winton, trailing behind in a 1916 Winton, the trio hope to drive their two-car convoy to New York in a month's time.

Wake, who is mechanically adept at fixing his ancestor's classic cars, has so far repaired a drive chain that snapped and blackened his eye just 15 miles (240 kilometers) north of San Francisco and refastened a rogue rear axle and wheel that broke off of the car while Kesling was driving it through Oroville, California. "The question isn't whether we can make it to New York," Kesling told the San Francisco Chronicle outside Alturas, California. "It's whether we can make it without being killed."

The endeavor is one of several to mark the hundred-year anniversary this summer of the first transcontinental car trip in America.

Have Gun, Will Travel

Before Horatio Nelson Jackson and his mechanic Sewall Crocker embarked on their trip 100 years ago this summer, no one had driven an automobile across the United States. The pair left San Francisco on May 23, 1903 on a U.S. $50 bet that a car could handle a cross-country drive—despite the fact that there were no gas stations at the time and less than 150 miles (240 kilometers) of paved roads between coasts.

On the supply list for the long-distance journey were sleeping bags, pistols, ammunition, and rubber mackintoshes used as rain gear. To make room for their luggage, Jackson and Crocker disassembled their 1903 Winton's cloth roof. Averaging four miles (six kilometers) per hour, their drive was more like a cross-country road trip by tractor. They stopped at general stores for gas.

Three weeks after the Jackson and Crocker left San Francisco, a Packard followed, albeit along a much more treacherous route. The company hoped its car could still be the first across the country. On July 26, however, the Winton reached New York.

Gaps in reporting along Jackson and Crocker's trip lead some skeptics to suspect foul play, speculating that the duo used two cars to cross the country or shipped the Winton by rail across the roughest stretches of their journey. Despite a U.S. $25,000 reward offered by Winton to prove wrongdoing, no one came forth to claim it.

The Packard arrived in New York nearly three weeks later, after a journey of two months.

The Hard Way

Three cars drove from San Francisco to New York City in the summer of 1903. Following departures by the Winton, a make General Motors bought in 1924, and the Packard, once the largest manufacturer of luxury cars, an Oldsmobile, the only car still on the road today, drove away last.

Packard sponsored their drive as a publicity stunt. After a month of preparation, the company learned that a Winton had left for the East before they could ship their car West. But a well-reported, challenging route compensated for their lost time. Instead of telling their driver to avoid the steepest passes of the Sierra Nevada, the sand traps of the Nevada and Utah deserts, and the highest peaks in the Rockies as the Winton did, Packard designed the most difficult route across the country for its Model F—including a 10,000-foot (3,000-meter) dirt track up and over the Continental Divide. The company also sent a reporter on the trip to document and photograph every mile.

Editor's note: New York-based writer Nicole Davis is retracing the 1903 Packard route with photographer Kristen McClarty. The pair are driving a low-emission vehicle loaned by Ford Motor Company. Read the sidebar at left to learn more about their journey.

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