Sixty years after the first great columns of prairie schooners lumbered along the Oregon Trail, two tiny and primitive automobiles followed the historic ruts across the West. The year was 1905, and the cars were in the first transcontinental automobile race.
The pair of 7-horsepower Curved Dash (so called because of the sleighlike front of the body) Olds Runabouts made their historic journey from New York City to Portland, Ore. Essentially motorized buckboards, these were the first automobiles negotiating the Oregon Trail, first to cross the United States from east to west and the first over the Cascade Range. Although parts of the United States were quite ‘civilized,’ in 1905, the 20th century was only a spotty veneer over the western United States. The little cars and their drivers faced bad weather, sickness, wild animals, thirst, accidents and unforeseen breakdowns. Crossing the Oregon Trail was still a rough trip.
The automobile was a growing presence in larger cities and even in some towns. Endurance races and tours were popular events. The densely settled Eastern states had a network of established roads, some of which even had graveled surfaces, but most were little more than smoothed-out trails. There were less than 150 miles of hard-surface roads in the entire country, all of it in cities.
The race was a publicity event as well as a contest. The first prize was a very respectable (particularly in those days) one thousand dollars. James W. Abbott, a major organizer of the race, wrote: ‘[The] important purpose was to bring vividly to public attention a clearer knowledge about all phases of existing transcontinental highways.’
Abbott worked for the Department of Public Roads in the Department of Agriculture. Together with Olds Motor Works and a group called The National Good Roads Association (a group of bicyclists who acted as the first highway lobby), he published an advertisement for entrants in the race, called ‘From Hell Gate to Portland.’ The Association’s 5th annual convention was to be held at the Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland on June 21, 1905.
The race began auspiciously in New York City on May 8, with fanfare and good weather. One of the cars, Old Scout was even cautioned for speeding. Everyone was optimistic. But, like so many earlier westbound emigrants, these pioneers found the trip much harder than expected. Organizers had estimated the trip would take 30 days. They were wrong.
The cars were single-cylinder, tiller-steered, chain-driven and water-cooled. Old Scout was driven by Dwight Russ, an employee of Olds and an accomplished driver. His mechanic and co-driver was Milford Wigle, also of Detroit. The other Runabout, Old Steady, was driven by Percy Megargel and Barton Stanchfield. Both Megargel and Huss had driven in tours and races. Huss had raced also in England and Europe, accumulating an impressive record of victories. Only 13 years after the first American car-the Duryea-was built, Americans were racing at home and abroad.
The previous year, a 90-pound ‘motor-bicycle’ had crossed the continent from west to east, following (and often riding on) the tracks of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads. But driving a race over the Oregon Trail turned out to be a much greater challenge than riding a motorized bicycle.
For the race’s organizers, a snow-free crossing of the Cascades was considered the most important factor. They had not considered the unpredictability of spring weather. Three days into the trip, rain began and continued for half of the race. It rained every day for three weeks. Miles and miles of the route became lakes and swamps. Dwight Huss wrote of following roads that were completely under water, and he steered by keeping parallel to the telegraph poles.
For the next 1,000 miles, there was mud and rain, more mud and more rain. Each state seemed to outdo the one before in quantities and qualities of mud. Downpours seemed endless. The spoked wheels were so packed with mud they appeared solid. To save weight, the cars carried neither fenders nor tops. The drivers were as muddy and wet as their machines. One of the most useful tools they each carried was a block and tackle.
They crossed the Missouri at historic Council Bluffs, Iowa, the major jumping-off point for earlier pioneers. Eastern civilization was left behind. From Nebraska on, the two cars were on a journey under conditions not that different from half a century before. The racers had neither road maps nor gas stations. The only guidebooks were those written for the pioneers crossing the Oregon and California trails, 50 years before. Conditions got worse. Only trails and tracks crossed the wilderness.
Herds of animals blocked the route across the prairies. Instead of the vast throngs of buffalo encountered by the wagon trains, these were cattle and hogs. The drivers nudged their way through and continued.
Because of supply logistics, the route followed the Oregon Trail as the Union Pacific followed the trail. Ruts from iron-tired wagons were the nearest things to interstate highways. At Julesburg, Colo., the cars turned northwest into Wyoming. They reached Cheyenne 11 days behind schedule.
Old Scout took an early lead and held onto it. The two Runabouts began meeting numerous covered wagons still using the trail. As one participant wrote: ‘We passed many parties of traveling prairie schooners to and from the east. These schooners, usually a single wagon drawn by two or four horses, or mules, with one or two saddle ponies and a cow tied behind, are visible for miles, their big white canvas bow tops glistening in the sunshine, and we often pass as many as half a dozen of them traveling together.’
The race was a well-publicized and popular event for the lonely settlers. Townspeople, ranchers, cowboys and sodbusters rode for miles to see the Runabouts pass through their country. People were interested not in the sport of the race, however, but in the utility value of the machines. They wanted to know if automobiles were practical in the rugged West. Horses bucked and kicked as the cars chugged by. The riders laughed and stayed on their bucking mounts. They shouted at the drivers, ‘Good luck boys, give ’em hell!’
The drivers didn’t give’ ’em hell’-they got it. Navigating through the gumbo, Huss wrote, the cars carried a half-ton of mud. That nearly doubled the little cars’ weights. (A popular joke of the time claimed that the cars sold for a dollar a pound-650 pounds for $650.) Two hundred pounds of tools and fuel were carried as well. The cars were packed to double their weight, counting the mud. Driver and mechanic added another three hundred pounds-7 hp to move nearly a ton. Surprisingly, on good stretches, the cars could actually speed along at 15 miles an hour!
There weren’t a lot of good stretches, however. Huss wrote of one day in Wyoming, ‘we drove 18 hours, forded five streams and made a total of 11 miles.’
Where the trail had dried, the ruts were so deep and numerous the cars couldn’t stay out of them. Their axles high-centered between the ruts, forcing the drivers to dig out with shovels. They often had to back up half a mile to a place where they could steer onto relatively smooth ground. But soon, Huss said, they would end up high-centered once again. Iron-hard clay cut the tires to shreds. Rocky stretches were worse. One set of tires was worn out every 90 miles. Huss said he had no idea how many tires were destroyed on the trip.
Supplies, for the most part, were not a problem. Abbott arranged supply depots along the course. While gasoline was generally available, at least in small quantities (in drug stores, for dry cleaning), larger amounts had been stockpiled in advance by train and stagecoach. Stocks of oil, tires and batteries had also been arranged. The cars did not have magnetos. Instead, the engine spark was produced by dry-cell batteries, with a limited lifespan. Deep water would short out the batteries and the engines would die.
Surprisingly, the cars could still run with water over the axles. But not always. More than once, water splashed into the carburetors and killed the engines. Once on dry land, the men opened petcocks on the blocks and cranked the engine-by hand, of course-until all the water was expelled. At one point, Old Steady was topped off with the wrong kind of engine oil; the combination caked and seized the engine. Megargel had to walk to the nearest settlement, hire a team, and tow the car back into town. Gasoline, kerosene and lye were tried; nothing freed the piston. After laboring all night, they discovered that only muriatic acid would cut the resulting varnish.
Farmers and ranchers had arbitrarily fenced off portions of the route. The drivers cut the fences and kept on going. At Omaha, the drivers purchased side-arms and then wore them on their hips, as did most of the people they encountered in the West. Law was still distant, arbitrary and personal. Fortunately, all they ever felt motivated to shoot were rabbits and rattlesnakes. Huss used his pistol for hunting, so they could obtain fresh meat. Eggs and pork were the usual diet.
The cars proved remarkably durable. Despite their flimsy appearance-they were of much lighter construction than the covered wagons or even farm wagons of the time-they endured terrible punishment. The radiators were mounted underneath, between the axles, and took a constant beating. Rocks, mud and sagebrush clogged the cooling fins. As the popular song went, the men would have to ‘get out and get under.’ Using screwdrivers and knives, they picked debris out of the fins. Endless miles of sagebrush jammed the drive chains, causing the gears to bind and lock up the rear axle. Again, the drivers and mechanics got out and under. Huss laconically commented that if Old Scout could have lived on sagebrush they never would have finished.
Because of difficulties and delays, the men had to drive at night. The headlights, inadequate at best, were powered by acetylene. Searchlights had been mounted for night driving, but they also used acetylene. That was the one item in short supply. With or without lights, accidents happened. Old Scout fell into a badger hole and severely damaged the front axle. A reluctant blacksmith (Huss bribed him $10 dollars to work at night) made repairs that lasted the rest of the trip. Many field repairs were extremely creative, but they worked. The simplicity of the cars and the resourcefulness of the drivers were the secrets of their success.
They followed the historic route up the Platte and the Sweetwater, and along the trail over the Continental Divide at South Pass. Now they were onto the Pacific side of the country. Following the ruts, they encountered snow that caused Megargel and Stanchfield, in Old Steady, to become temporarily lost. Stanchfield got altitude sickness. Megargel found a doctor, who also demanded an extra $10 fee. Even 90 years ago the automobilist was seen as ‘an easy mark.’ Banditry took a new, more modern, turn.
They encountered herds of antelopes, and chugged through miles of prairie dog towns. One participant wrote: ‘…about every five miles we would strike one of these dog villages, comprised of from two to five hundred mounds. The dogs would congregate on the tops of their houses until Old Steady would be almost upon them, when they would scamper down into the regions below.’
Bands of wild horses were attracted by the noise and motion of the cars. The horses would form a crescent in front and to the sides of the cars and run with them for miles and miles.
Rattlesnakes attempted to ambush the cars and breakdowns occurred in the middle of nowhere. Mud became less of a problem, although Huss remarked that the western states didn’t believe in building bridges. Most existing bridges had been washed out by the spring rains. Old Steady, driving with inadequate lights at night, crashed into a broken bridge and bent both axles. No matter: They hastily pounded the axles back into a simulation of straightness and continued. Some swollen rivers were too much for a block and tackle. After one storm, Old Steady was engulfed in a raging stream:
‘We half waded and half swam to the shore, leaving the car with just the top of the seat above water. … Sighting a sheep ranch in the distance, we walked to it. Eventually we found the owner, Lone John, in the barn….He was at war with several of his neighbors, and kept a loaded gun at hand at all times. He had just been released for cutting open the head of one of his neighbors with an axe, and he regretted the fact that he had not killed the man. Despite his grievances, he willingly threw the harness on his horses, and telling us where we would find the wagon, and to use his team as we saw fit. … We drove the bronchos [sic] down to our stranded machine, and, attaching a line, soon pulled it out of that creek, and through four others before we got to the ranch.’
Later the men suffered from the lack of water. Huss went for several days without drinking water and became disoriented. Attempting to cross Idaho’s Snake River Plain, the cars bogged down in sand dunes. The drivers mounted specially made, wide-treaded’sand tires’ and kept heading west.
Here, finally, the racers encountered their first Indians, friendly Shoshonis from Fort Hall Reservation (many of whom were later hired for the first epic film about the Oregon Trail, The Covered Wagon). Like the covered wagon emigrants, the drivers reflected the same cultural biases. Megargel complained that ‘the man stealing the most is regarded as the bravest.’ The Shoshonis operated a primitive towing service. They kept teams of horses available to pull-for a fee-hapless wagons out of the sand dunes in the area. The Runabouts, though, with their special sand tires, didn’t need the help. This delighted the drivers and annoyed the Indians. In eastern Oregon, some native people refused to have their pictures taken with the evil-smelling, noisy machines. Perhaps the Indians somehow saw the future and really didn’t want any part of it.
Crossing the Cascade Range was the hardest part of a hard trip. The road over Santiam Pass had originally been a military road, opened to allow supplies and troops to move back and forth during the period of Indian resistance to white settlement. After the resistance was crushed, it became a toll road. Santiam Pass was considered one of the easier passes through the mountains. Easy, however, turned out to be a relative term. What is easy for a freight team, or a rider on horseback, is not necessarily easy for an automobile.
The crossing began with jokes. At the Cache Creek toll gate, on the east side of the pass, the drivers and gatekeeper squabbled over the toll rates. Eight-horse teams were charged $4, and six-horse teams cost $3-but hogs went for 3 cents a head. Since teamsters had called the cars ‘roadhogs,’ the drivers argued they were entitled to passage at 3 cents a head. But a telegram arrived from the road company, instructing the toll collector to let them pass for free. It made for good publicity.
Huss described the road as being ‘paved with boulders.’ Time and time again, they had to pile rocks to allow the cars’ small wheels to negotiate giant rocks. Portions of the ascent were simply too steep for the heavily laden little cars. The blocks and tackles came out again.
The descent was terrifying. The brakes on the Runabouts were little better than the ones on covered wagons. Like the pioneers, trees were cut and dragged behind, to add braking power. Huss’ mechanic, Wigle, rode the tree down to increase the drag. Old Scout slid close to disaster, and at one point had both left wheels hanging out in space.
Several days later, Old Steady came even closer to destruction: the car went into a four-wheel slide. Megargel wrote: ‘you have no idea of the sensation of a skid, down a fifty per cent grade in the Cascade mountains, thirty miles from the nearest house. Down, down, we came … ‘ Finally Old Steady tossed out the driver and co-driver, and came to rest hanging over a precipice. A prairie schooner came along and hauled the little runabout back onto the trail. This may well be the only time an automobile was ever rescued by a covered wagon.
Eventually, Old Scout made it to Portland only an hour before the opening of the convention. The trip had been figured at taking a month; it took half again that long-44 days. Megargel and Stanchfield were eight days behind. Having decided they has already lost, the two men finished the race in a leisurely fashion, stopping to fish and loaf. Their reception in Portland was not much less than that accorded to Huss. Haberdashers gave them new clothes in exchange for displaying their worn garments in shop windows. Megargel ended his account with: ‘I am commencing to believe that possibly I do belong to the freak family, a belief strengthened by the numerous mailing cards sent me, usually containing in bright letters of scarlet, ‘It’s great to be crazy and ride around in an automobile.”
Later in the year, Megargel repeated the trip; this time he went south from Portland, into California, and then east again. He is credited with being the first person to cross the Mojave Desert in an automobile, as well as the first to cross Arizona. Pioneer automobilists, and trailblazers, these early drivers made America aware of the need for decent all-weather roads across the nation.
Huss, though, reflected a less optimistic sentiment. In an interview for Life magazine in the mid-1950s, he said: ‘The truth is, we’d all be better off if we never had any danged automobiles at all … ‘
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