Updated: Dec 10, 2019
Tacoma man had front-row seat on first cross-country automobile trip By Dan Aznoff
The concept of driving across the country today is no small undertaking. It can take weeks of planning, stacks of road maps and an unquenchable thirst for the road.
The first passage by automobile more than a century ago—in 1903 to be exact—was a challenge to both the vehicle and the brave individuals who tested the limits to travel from sea to shining sea.
A bicycle racer who made his home in Tacoma, Washington, was half of the duo to successfully make the first journey by motorcar across the country more than 115 years ago. His name and the vehicle he and his partner drove have been featured in documentaries and honored with a display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
But Sewall K. Crocker is almost unheard of in his adopted hometown.
Crocker was born in 1883 in Walla Walla, Washington, and lived in Tacoma until he was invited to join doctor and businessman Horatio N. Jackson on the historic drive starting from San Francisco on a transcontinental trek across the continent to New York.
The 29-year-old self-taught mechanic first met Jackson when the doctor approached him with hopes of receiving instructions on how to drive a horseless carriage. The cross-country quest was the result of a $50 wager ($1,200 today’s dollars) the doctor accepted after a lively conversation with fellow members of the San Francisco Gentlemen’s Club. Jackson accepted the challenge to traverse the expanse of America by automobile, in part, to prove the automobile was “more than just a mere toy.”
The drive was only part of the challenge. The 31-year-old doctor was an auto enthusiast who did not know how to drive and did not even own an automobile. Without any mechanical experience of his own, Jackson was convinced to hire Crocker to serve as his travel companion, mechanic and relief driver.
The doctor invested $8,000 of his own money in the venture, the equivalent of more than $200,000 in today’s dollars.
The daring duo left the shores of the California coast on May 23, 1903, in Jackson’s Winton, loaded down with coats, rubber protective clothing, sleeping bags, blankets, canteens, an axe, a shovel, a telescope, tools, spare parts, cans for extra gasoline, a Kodak camera, a rifle, a shotgun and a pair of pistols.
At the last minute, they wisely decided to stow a block and tackle in the vehicle to use in the eventuality they had to pull the automobile out of ruts and muddy spots along the way. What they did not have with them were any maps to help chart a proper route.
Without any published material to study and without any qualified individuals to provide personal recommendations to help Jackson and Crocker determine an actual route across the vast continent, the mechanic advised his partner against following a southern route for fear the pair may become stranded or lost in the desert.
Jackson agreed to follow dirt roads and wagon trails that paralleled trails, rivers, mountain passes and crossed alkali flats on a course that roughly followed the route forged by the Southern Pacific Railroad.
The two drivers planned to pass through the Sacramento Valley and followed the Oregon Trail to avoid the highest passes through the Rocky Mountains. Crocker was primarily responsible for making the necessary repairs of the vehicle during the trip, which broke down frequently, especially on the harsh, unpaved roads of the West.
The pair quickly became national celebrities as news of their quest made the pages of newspapers across the country.
The trip got off to an ominous start when the Vermont, the name given to the Winton by Jackson in honor of the state where he was born, blew a tire only 15 miles after they had off loaded from a ferry that carried them and their vehicle on the first leg of the journey across the San Francisco Bay to Oakland. Crocker replaced the tire with the only spare they brought along. That one spare was reportedly the only tire they could find in the entire city of San Francisco.
The second night out Crocker stopped in Sacramento to remove the side lanterns after both men agreed they were too dim. The lamps were replaced with a single spotlight mounted on the front of the vehicle. It was at that point of the trip that a pair of bicyclists offered Jackson road maps. The maps were crude, but Jackson and Crocker decided the basic maps were better than making the drive without any sort of written plan.
Unable to find a new tire for the Winton, the pair decided to purchase some used bicycle inner tubes in case of an emergency before they left Sacramento. Noise from the road and the engine were apparently so loud that neither Crocker nor Jackson noticed that all of their cooking gear had been tossed from the Winton at some point along one of the bumpy roads.
The pair entertained the locals in the California town of Alturas with free rides in what was described as a carnival atmosphere while Jackson and Crocker waited for three days for replacement tires. They made the seemingly misguided decision to go ahead without the spare parts when the shipment did not arrive as scheduled.
Somewhere near Caldwell in rural Idaho, Jackson fulfilled his desire to have a dog join them for the ride. Various stories reported that that pit bull named Bud was either stolen or purchased for the sum of $15. Jackson wrote to his wife that he had wanted a dog since he had left Sacramento.
The round expression of the small dog became the face of the well-publicized adventure. Bud’s face appeared on magazine covers from coast to coast.
In early June, the men were forced to ask a cowboy to tow the car after a fuel leak had drained their gas tank. Crocker was forced to rent a bicycle (which had its own flat tire) while they waited for replacement parts and peddled 25 miles to purchase four gallons of gasoline for the “outrageous” price of $20.
At one point of the trip, the crew of the Vermont ran out of supplies and went 36 hours without food. They were rescued by a farmer who fed them stew while Crocker convinced the generous man to give them the wheel bearings out of his mowing machine for an emergency repair.
The good news is that newspapers across the country had made the motorists into national celebrities. Local newspaper reporters greeted them at virtually every stop.
Sometime in mid-June, Jackson’s coat, along with every penny of their cash, fell off the Winton. Jackson was forced to wire his wife to send them more money.
The pair followed the sage advice of locals in Mountain Home, Idaho, to avoid a stretch of the Oregon Trail and changed course through the Sawtooth Mountains. In Hailey, Idaho, Jackson agreed to wire the Winton Company for more spare parts.
The list of lost items continued to grow. While using the block and tackle to cross a river, Jackson lost the new money his wife had wired to him as well as his glasses. It was at that point that a greedy landowner forced them to pay $4 ($105 now) to cross, as Jackson described the acreage as “bad, rocky, mountain road.”
Crocker’s ingenuity came in handy when he used rope to wrap around the wheels when they suffered another flat tire.
The trip became much easier beginning on July 12 when they reached stretches of paved roads beginning in Omaha, Nebraska. The only recorded mishap from that point of the trip reportedly took place just outside Buffalo, New York, when the Vermont hit a “hidden obstacle” in the road and threw Jackson, Crocker and Bud out of the moving vehicle. The trio arrived in New York on July 26, crossing the country in a respectable 63 days, 12 hours and 30 minutes to claim the title of the first automobile to go coast-to-coast. The Vermont had consumed 800 gallons of gasoline along the way.
Following the hero’s welcome at the end of their adventure, Jackson joined his wife for the drive home while Crocker headed West. Newspapers reported that the Vermont broke down again shortly after Jackson was on the road without a mechanic and that the car’s drive chain snapped at the threshold of his own garage.
The drive chain was one of the few parts that had not been changed over the two-month drive across the country.
More importantly, Jackson scoffed at the reality that he was never able to collect his $50 wager.
Despite his acclaim as a national celebrity, Crocker returned home to Tacoma in relative obscurity. There were no parades, no newspaper reporters or magazine photographers lined up at his door like Jackson had when he returned to New England.
Following the adventure, Crocker attempted to capitalize on his newfound fame by launching a search for sponsors for an around-the-world auto tour. With his fame and his health failing, Crocker finally settled down in Tacoma where he died just two weeks after he turned 30 years old. Newspapers at the time reported that the once famous mechanic died of depression after suffering a nervous breakdown.
Not only was he not honored by the residents of Tacoma, he died without any family or many friends at his bedside. The people in his hometown quickly turned their attention to the latest news of the day.
More than a century later, his name has not been used for the name of a street or any public venue associated with his pioneering achievements. To some people, like former Tacoma Mayor Bill Baarsma, that is a fact that still needs to be corrected.
A film by documentary filmmaker Ken Burns was produced to mark the 100th anniversary of the historic crossing during the time Baarsma served as mayor. In addition to his duties as mayor, Baarsma had hoped he could use his elected position to raise the image of the city’s forgotten luminary.
“He was lost in the pages of history,” Baarsma reflected when contacted for this article. “Renaming a street in his honor on his birthday (April 7) would be a fitting and proper way to recognize his remarkable accomplishment.”
Dan Aznoff is a freelance writer based in Mukilteo, Washington, dedicated to preserving the stories of our generation. He was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and has received acclamation for his work regarding sustainable energy. He is the author of three books that document colorful periods of history in Washington. He can be reached at directly email@example.com.