Car Buffs Mark Centennial of First Cross-U.S. Road Trips

Nicole Davis
for National Geographic News
July 24, 2003
Charles Kuralt, the late television broadcaster best remembered for his
on-the-road reports across America, once said U.S. superhighways "left a
nation of steel guardrails and plastic signs, where every place looks
and feels and sounds and smells like every other place."

Had he witnessed the state of roads circa 1903, he might have appreciated such a homogenous drive. Though a two-million-mile (3.2-million-kilometer) network of dirt tracks crisscrossed the country, a trip across it spelled disaster. Carmaker Alexander Winton began a famous failed attempt in 1901, but he barely made it out of California before his wheels spun to a stop in the Nevada desert.

Two years later, Dutch reporter Marius Krarup successfully crossed the same stretch of sand. He rode in a 1903 Packard driven by Tom Fetch, one of three teams that left San Francisco for New York City to claim records in cross-country driving.

The pair failed in their bid to be first, but they did chart the most treacherous route.

Upon reaching Colorado Springs, Colorado, Krarup spoke of the conditions that preceded: "Nevada is awful, but Utah is the worst I ever saw. We carry a pick and shovel along, and we found it necessary in more than one instance to use them when we had to build roads ourselves, cutting along the sides of hills."

Colorado provided a brief respite. After Denver, Krarup and Fetch wouldn't see another surfaced road until Illinois.

Classic Caravan

This summer, an automobile museum president and the grandnephew of Fetch are retracing Krarup's and Fetch's infamous route—for a second time.

Terry Martin, president of the National Packard Museum, in Warren, Ohio, and Tom Fetch, grandnephew of his namesake, first drove the historic passage 20 years ago in a restored 1903 Packard nicknamed "Old Pacific Two." This year they're replicating the journey with the classic auto in tow.

Though they try to drive the one-cylinder car for a portion of each day, Martin stresses that this year's anniversary tour was organized for other Packard owners.

"When we went across in '83, everyone kept asking where are the other cars? Why aren't there other Packards with you? So this time, we've solved that problem by inviting everyone else to come along."

"It's like a party going across country," says Fetch. The caravan of antique autos left Colorado Sunday morning. In front, a 1939 Packard sped at 80 miles per hour (128 kilometers per hour).

They've been zooming across the Plains this week to meet Packard owners driving from the East. The twain will meet today in Jefferson, Ohio, near the town of Warren, the birthplace of the Packard, for a centennial celebration.

Race for First

The first people to cross the U.S. by car were Horatio Nelson Jackson and his mechanic, Sewall Crocker. The pair arrived in New York City on July 26, 1903, after a two-month drive from San Francisco.

In a world where nobody remembers the guy who finishes second, Fetch and Martin have mixed feelings about being number two. Fetch believes gaps in reporting about Jackson's and Crocker's drive are among several factors that calls the duo's record-breaking claim into question. (See related story.)

Martin isn't concerned with the distinction. "It's just like the Olympics when you come in second," he says. "You [still] accomplished something that no one else has done."

Just like old times, the two are not the only motorists to honor the centennial of the first U.S. cross-continental road trip this summer.

Peter Kesling, a retired dentist from Laporte, Indiana, has nearly finished retracing the route Jackson and Crocker blazed in their 1903 Winton. Driving a 1903 Winton of his own, Kesling plans to arrive in New York on July 26, exactly as Jackson and Crocker did 100 years ago.

Kesling took some satisfaction in the fact that the Packard aficionados are not driving their classic car along the entire 1903 route.

"They're cheating," he said.

For him the trip is pure sport. "It's my giant golf game, to get from one motel to the next in one shot. And I've made it so far without missing a hole."

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 right to learn more about their journey.

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.