The “Vermont”, the Winton touring car which made the first transcontinental automobile trip in 1903 is exhibited—along with life-size figures of Jackson and Bud at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. Fair-use photo by Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz.
Middlebury America’s automotive wanderlust--as typified by either hitchhiking beatniks in Jack Kerouac’s novel “On the Road” or the Chevrolet Corvette do-gooders on television’s “Route 66”--hasn’t abated from the 20th century to the 21st.
Back in 1903, when the automobile was still a novelty, a 31-year-old Vermont physician decided to set out on a transcontinental journey that went down in history.
Burlington resident Horatio Nelson Jackson, M.D., and his wife—Bertha Richardson Wells, the trust-fund daughter of Vermont’s wealthiest man, William Wells, the manufacturer of Paine's Celery Compound—were visiting San Francisco in May 1903. One day, the doctor was a guest at the exclusive, all-male University Club in San Francisco when he and several club members found themselves discussing the automobile and how it would change America in the future.
Jackson was an optimist, a booster of new technology and engineering marvels; he challenged the club members to a fantastic wager.
For $50 (just under $1,200 in 2013 dollars), club members bet the doctor that he couldn’t drive an automobile all the way across the United States.
And so it was that, on May 18, 1903, Jackson agreed to an historic wager that would have made Nick the Greek proud. He planned to drive “a four-wheeled machine” from San Francisco to New York in under 90 days. However, there was only one catch to Jackson’s grand geographic plans: he neither knew how to drive, nor owned an automobile.
With that in mind, both Jackson and his wife took a crash, two-day course in driving in San Francisco in order to make the trip. But it was soon decided that Bertha would rush home to Vermont, via train, to coordinate the east coast leg of her husband’s crosscountry trek.
Jackson soon hired California auto mechanic Sewall K. Crocker to join him.
Together, the two men purchased a used, 20 hp. two-cylinder gasoline-powered Winton touring car in downtown San Francisco. Jackson christened the tall car “Vermont”. (For Trivial Pursuit enthusiasts, the Ohio-based Winton Motor Carriage Co., which made the “Vermont”, was later purchased by General Motors.)