Road trip in the good old days was a little bumpy


Recently, I was looking at a picture of a sod house in Colorado where a local family stopped for overnight on their move West. I surmised that the roads there in 1917 were probably somewhere between crude and nonexistent.

With all our maps and atlases and road numbers and signs — not to mention GPS equipment — we don’t often realize the situation that existed in pre-automobile days.

In steam engine days, with speeds of less than five miles an hour and distances of a few miles per day, getting lost was not much of a problem. As automobiles became more numerous in the early years of the 20th century, and with people attempting trips of hundreds of miles, getting lost became a serious problem.

Numbering roads

It was no longer sufficient to ask someone at the crossroads which way to go to the next town. It soon became obvious that a system was needed and the numbering of routes soon became common.

Then there came to be state routes and national or U.S. routes and the shaped signs we see everywhere today.

The Lincoln Highway was one of the first long distance routes to have a distinctive mile post in red, white and blue. Today, few are left and they are collectors items.


I vacationed with a family friend named Pinky James and his family several times. In the teens or 20s, he was living in the Detroit area and he and another young fellow decided to go to the West Coast. They had a Model T (what else) and got to the Mississippi River and joined a caravan for the trek across the mostly trackless and treeless Great Plains.

Ever heard of such a caravan? They were made up of a string of cars and led by an experienced traveler or two, often a military man, I’m told, who could find the way across the open country. The leader in this case was happy to see these two hale and hardy young men join the group, as they could bring up the rear and help solve problems.

Just cut the fence

One of those problems involved mudholes called Buffalo wallows in what there was of a road. The standard solution was to cut the barbed wire fence that lined the road and drive through the field parallel to the road past the wet spot. The last car carried fencing pliers and spare lengths of wire to repair the fence when the line of cars had passed into the dry field. The same procedure was used when the caravan got back on to the road.

Another circumstance that sounds strange today was that the T Ford developed a bad tapping and somewhere in Nebraska, as I recall, they pulled off under a shade tree next to a blacksmith shop. They drained the oil, dropped the pan and filed down the bearing caps to take up the slack that was causing the noisy problem. Then they put her back together and went on to the coast. Those old T Fords were a tough breed.

Smoothing the way

When road improvements became an obvious necessity, the problems of design, cost and engineering rose to the fore. Some states were quick to raise funds and others dragged their feet.

One early plan involved graded roads and gravel or crushed stone surfacing. Later, with faster cars and flying stones chipping paint, cement roads and later tar macadam took the lead, along with brick and cobblestone surfaces being common in some towns and cities.

Thousands of bridges and culverts were also required along with ditches for water. Still signs were needed and directions had to be posted for the travelers. What a change we have with four-lane interstates today.

Railroad tracks were often used to guide travelers as they already went somewhere. In a couple of early long distance races, the drivers actually bumped along the ties under the rails when the ground was too soft. And when needed they used the railroad bridges to cross streams and rivers.

Racing along

I have read of one called “The Peking to Paris” race, which obviously had to cross much of trackless Siberia. That was likely worse than our western plains. Another was called the “New York to Paris” race, which, in addition to the land route problems, required ship transport from the West Coast of the USA to eastern Asia.

Fuel was at times a problem, too, in the back country and one car used benzene for a spell and left great clouds of smoke behind.

I think that was the race that was completed alone by a Thomas Flyer car, which has been justly famous ever since.

Stunt races

These so-called races were more of publicity stunts to demonstrate the reliability of the cars involved. And indeed there were many breakdowns and some cars did not even finish the trips.

One coast-to-coast race here in the U.S. demonstrated that a light flexible car was a better entry by beating out a number of bigger heavier machines.

Air directions?

A similar set of circumstances dogged the earliest fliers.

I was intrigued years ago by some large markings on the roof of West Hall at my alma mater at Slippery Rock. It turned out they were directional aids for fliers.

The early years of the century after Wilbur and Orville Wright demonstrated the proper design parameters for planes, flying became the cutting edge activity for the daring young men of the age. But there were no beacons or directional signs visible from the air.

One of those whose name is still well known was Glenn Curtiss of Hammondsport, N.Y., at the southern end of Lake Keuka, one of the Finger Lakes. Glenn had driven and built motor cycles and so had experience with the light and powerful engines needed for planes. A memorial museum at Hammondsport preserves the history his work.

A few years later one of the big publishers put up a prize purse of $10,000, if I recall correctly, for a plane which could make a trip from coast to coast. I don’t recall how many took up the challenge but there were at least three and Curtiss and Company was one.

Oops, wrong turn

The plan was to start at Roosevelt Field on Long Island, New York, which was one of, if not the very first airport in the country. Then they planned to cross Long Island sound, pick up the Erie Railroad tracks and follow them west across the state of New York.

Trouble was they picked the wrong set of tracks from the many already in place around New York City, and went down into New Jersey or Pennsylvania where there were no airports or prepared landing strips. So they picked out a likely field and crash landed.

Fortunately they had a good crew and were able to make enough repairs to start off again next morning. Several similar false starts, crash landings and repairs later and they had spent a whole month on the trip and were not yet out of the state of New York. They gave up the attempt.

One other plane persevered, so to speak, and got to San Francisco nearly three months later but only three pieces of the plane were original to the machine that started out.

Wow. Do we want this part of the good old days to come back?

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