I received an email recently from a reader who had discovered among some family papers a printed account of a nearly century-old automobile expedition from Bangor to San Diego, Calif., by four adventurers. Karen Walker of Veazie wondered who these old-time autoists were. Their names were not familiar to her.
Oddly enough, my wife and I received this intriguing query while on the last leg of our own cross-country auto odyssey between Bangor and California. I read the email over several times trying to figure out how my correspondent knew we were cruising through Illinois on our way back from San Francisco, but, of course, she didn’t know. It was just a coincidence.
Anyone who has driven to California in modern times knows that much of the trip between New York and Chicago is monotonous and stressful because of heavy truck traffic and the dreary rust-belt landscape. Every shopping mall and chain hotel looks like the last one, as well. But I’ll try not to complain too much. The hazards and hardships faced by drivers in 1923, especially after they crossed the Mississippi River, were much worse than today.
The firsthand account found by Karen Walker described what it was like to drive cross-country 89 years ago — long before most dirt roads were replaced by interstates or even pavement. The first cross-country auto trip had been accomplished 20 years before. By 1923 many people had made the trip, but it wasn’t easy.
I wondered: Where did they take a break before Turnpike rest areas existed? How did they stay awake in the summer heat before air conditioning? What did they do when the road disappeared in the desert? Who did they call when their auto sank up to its hubcaps in the mud during a rainstorm? West of the Mississippi River motorists were urged to call ahead in case of long detours, washouts or worse — was there any road at all?
Myron T. Gilmore, a 76-year-old Dedham, Maine native, led the expedition. In the early 1880s, he left Maine for California, one of thousands of Mainers who sought their fortunes in the West. The former farmer and blacksmith worked his way up to the presidency of the San Diego Savings Bank. He was now a wealthy widower with lots of energy.
Gilmore was accompanied on this auto journey by his niece-in-law Alice M. Parker, another Maine transplant to California. After both her parents died, one in Maine and one in California, she ended up being raised by the Gilmores. (Readers can find more information on these family connections in Martha Emery’s history of Dedham and on various websites).
The other two voyagers were the Rev. Roy H. Campbell and his wife Mary Burleigh Campbell. The Campbells suggested the journey to their friend Gilmore after a visit from two female Bostonians who had motored between Boston and San Diego and back in a Ford sedan the year before. Gilmore, who was known as an advocate of good roads like so many progressives of the day, planned the details.
The former Dedham selectman picked up a powerful, new Demi Sedan Franklin at the automobile company’s production plant in Syracuse, N.Y., early in July and met his niece in Massachusetts a short time later. They drove around New England visiting relatives, including “many households of Gilmores, Parkers, Pearls and Blacks” in Maine. Gilmore also attended the regimental reunion of the Fifteenth Maine with which he had served in the Civil War.
On Aug. 9, Gilmore and Parker left Bangor with an official letter of greeting from Mayor Albert Day to the mayor of San Diego. That’s how noteworthy this trip would be. After picking up the Campbells in Boston, the group headed southwest through Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio, noting historical markers and other sights — especially at Gettysburg where Gilmore had served in the Union Army.
They often traveled on the best roads of the day, with names like the Storm King Highway and the Washington-Braddock Highway. Another one, the Lincoln Highway, was the first transcontinental road across the United States, but by then it had not been fully paved. Today people can see brief glimpses of preserved portions of the Lincoln Highway as they drive through small towns in the Midwest.
The adventures began with a narrow escape in Dayton, Ohio, when “a reckless boy on a milk truck dashes onto the highway.” Swerving to avoid disaster, the auto “hurdles a stone culvert and hangs suspended over an interurban track.” A crowd gathered and “half a hundred willing hands” lifted the auto off the track.
Someone flagged down the trolley while another person swept up the broken milk bottles. The auto received only a bent fender. There was no mention of police, insurance, ambulances or any other official involvement in this near catastrophe before seat belts, shatterproof glass and other safety features.
The first really “bad roads” appeared in Illinois. Missouri abounded in detours for road construction. The country roads there twisted and turned, “attesting to the farmers’ bloc that demands to be shown why country roads should be straightened.”
Deteriorating conditions as the fearless band moved West included a frightening ferry ride across the Missouri River on a boat “of a most antiquated sort.” The first flat tire occurred in Kansas City, a pretty good record back then, when flats were expected every few miles. Two more flats occurred between Topeka and Manhattan, Kansas. They “crawled” into Abilene “on the rim.”
Mud required the use of chains back then, just as snow does today. “After skidding into Salina, we acquired chains, none too soon, and traded two ‘bruised’ tires for new ones,” stated the trip’s composite account.
The next day they made a record run of 235 miles over poor roads between Russell, Kan. and Burlington, Colo. They “followed paths of Fremont, Custer and Kit Carson, and looked somewhat indifferently at ‘57 varieties of wheat’ each side of the muddy road.” On today’s interstates you would hardly notice such details.
Each of the three drivers careened into a ditch at least once, many of the roads apparently having no shoulders.
They “swam into Denver” and headed south by Colorado Springs, climbing up and over the 8,000-foot Raton Pass into New Mexico. Catastrophes dotted the road ahead as they moved toward Albuquerque. A truck suddenly tipped over into a ditch, its tires spinning in the air and gasoline “spurting out like a small geyser.” A pedestrian was struck by a carelessly driven car.
The roads grew still worse. Cloudbursts “drowned the landscape.” A side trip to the Grand Canyon had to be canceled due to flooding. They splashed through miles of shallow pools by moonlight as they experienced two days of “atrocious roads full of mud holes.”
The adventurers “wandered in circles” looking for the best way through a maze of badly rutted trails in the desert landscape. Finally they were completely stuck in the mud miles from any town. Luckily, a “service car” going to a wreck paused long enough to pull them out.
Much of the rest of the narrative describes more such abysmal driving conditions including “sand ruts,” rough volcanic rock and plank paths across mammoth dunes. These menacing features alternated with stretches of “perfect roads” in Arizona and California (that would seem primitive to a modern driver).
The “agent” of the Franklin Automobile Co. who had sold Gilmore the auto in Syracuse met them in Phoenix to inspect the car. He advised them to leave the mud on it so people would be convinced they had actually made the trip. The company undoubtedly was hoping to get some good publicity from this auto escapade.
The quartet arrived in San Diego on October 4, 38 days after leaving Boston, with 33 days of actual driving. Audiences gathered, speeches were delivered. The mud-caked Demi Sedan Franklin was placed on display, complete with broken “Visionator,” missing robe-strap, one “sprung” door and a crumpled bumper.
The journey was judged a success. The hardy quartet had set out to enjoy themselves and had done just that, unlike many of the people in vehicles they had seen along the way.
“There were so many cars crowded with large families, obstreperous pets, and awkward loads of household goods that suggested migration from grim necessity, that we sometimes felt that we were the only people on the road westbound for pleasure.” Was this a preview of the Dust Bowl migration just a few years away?
The Franklin had gone 6,550 miles (apparently since purchased in Syracuse), burning 385 gallons of gasoline at an average price of 21.5 cents per gallon and gotten just over 17 miles per gallon. They had changed the oil every 500 miles. Hotel bills for 38 days had totaled $280. Sounds like a good deal to me, if a bit hard on the back.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears every other Monday. An illustrated collection, “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire,” is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at email@example.com.