Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Trek put cars on map

A transcontinental centennial

An abandoned gas station off Route 30in Wyoming, along the Murdocks' path. In 1908, when Murdock became the first to drive his family coast- to-coast, gas averaged about 25 cents.
An abandoned gas station off Route 30in Wyoming, along the Murdocks' path. In 1908, when Murdock became the first to drive his family coast- to-coast, gas averaged about 25 cents.Read moreERIC MENCHER / Inquirer Staff Photographer

This year marks the centennial of a wealthy Pennsylvanian's historic, cross-country automobile journey.

Highway repairs, traffic-clogged roads, and $4 gas probably make this summer a poor time to emulate Jacob Murdock.

But in 1908, when Murdock became the first American to drive his family coast-to-coast, conditions were different.

A gallon of gas averaged about 25 cents and, since there were no highways, there were no highway headaches.

Despite hardships that sound like nightmares to 21st-century motorists, the family managed to travel from its winter home in Pasadena, Calif., to New York City in a remarkably quick 32 days, 7 hours and 3 minutes.

"Back then automobiles were all about status and adventure," said Dan McNichol, a Bryn Mawr native and highway historian whose books include The Roads That Built America.

"Only the wealthy had cars and they typically drove them only on weekends," McNichol said.

The change came soon after Murdock, a Johnstown businessman, set out in a 1908 Packard with his family, mechanic, and, at times, a guide and Murdock's mother-in-law.

Indeed, while the 100th anniversary, on May 26, of that pioneering journey has gone largely unnoticed, the Murdocks' 3,674-mile adventure can now be viewed as a seminal moment in American automotive history.

Amply documented by the New York Times, The Inquirer and other newspapers, the trip helped transform driving from a wealthy pastime to the transportation and economic linchpin of American society.

"In the subsequent 100 years," McNichol said, "the auto came to define American culture."

The publicity surrounding Murdock's extended excursion contributed to an explosion in road construction and road paving in the next few decades. It also helped convince average Americans that autos were both practical and a reliable means of leisure travel.

Most significant, it activated the average American's auto-sensors, helping to create a customer base for the industry. And when Henry Ford forever democratized auto ownership with the introduction of his $895 Model T, just five months after Murdock's journey, the revolution had begun.

Three years before that trip, 48,000 autos had been sold in the United States. By 1916, the total topped 2.5 million.

Today, there are 200 million licensed drivers in the United States and 250 million vehicles, according to Transportation Vision, a consortium of organizations dedicated to improving automobile travel. Those drivers traveled three trillion miles in 2007, a figure that could hit seven trillion by midcentury.

America's attachment to the car is so powerful that despite the soaring price of gasoline in 2008, millions of families will make like the Murdocks and drive on their summer vacations.

According to Hospitality Industry News, of the 90 percent of Americans vacationing this summer, 64 percent will travel by car.

Murdock experienced the trend in its infancy.

"I remember making the remark, on our arrival in New York, that within a few years similar trips would be of such frequent occurrence that they would be scarcely worthy of mention," Murdock wrote in 1911. "One day last summer, no fewer than six cars passed through Evanston, Wyoming, all transcontinental bound."

On May 25, 1908, Murdock, who had driven the entire way from California, navigated his car down Tuscarora Summit, a 2,313-foot Allegheny Mountain peak just west of Chambersburg, Pa.

This road, which would soon become the Lincoln Highway (Route 30), and the others he had driven the previous month weren't built for automobiles.

They had been cleared decades earlier to allow armies to pass, stagecoaches to move west, and horse-drawn wagons to haul farm goods to market.

But when the railroad became America's dominant mode of transportation, the roads - and the network of country inns lining them - were abandoned.

"In essence, by 1908, once you got outside of the cities, there were no paved roads," McNichol said. "Except for Washington, D.C., there were no asphalt roads. There were some cobblestone streets in cities. Beyond that they would have been lucky to encounter compacted dirt roads."

A century later, the route Murdock traveled through Pennsylvania on the next-to-last day of his drive remains one of uncommon beauty and history, as well as treacherous declines and ascents.

It winds through the 75,000-acre Buchanan State Forest, down Sideling Hill into Allens Valley and the town of McConnellsburg, through Harrisonville, Monroeville, and back up and down Tuscarora Summit.

There were no guardrails as Murdock descended the summit, and the road's dirt didn't always provide a firm grip for his auto's Continental tires.

But maneuvering over the Tuscarora Summit wasn't the only problem he encountered.

Gasoline was rare. When he could find it, Murdock paid from 14 to 44 cents a gallon. Desert sand and Midwestern mud were often impassable. Mountains had to be scaled and descended. Streams and rivers had to be forded, some with handmade bridges. On occasion, the Murdocks had to drive across farmland, dismantling and reassembling fences as they went.

Murdock's route through Pennsylvania became the Lincoln Highway, the nation's first major roadway in 1913. Five years later, Lt. Col. Dwight Eisenhower traveled the same road with an Army convoy. According to McNichol, the heavy vehicles broke through 88 bridges and slid off countless roads. Many had to be abandoned.

But, according to Murdock's account, by May 25, his party had very few worries. Compared with those they had crossed in the Rockies, Pennsylvania's roads and hills resembled a pleasant amusement-park ride.

"The roads in Eastern Pennsylvania," said Murdock, a Johnstown resident, "were the best on the trip."

Though their speed seems fast for the road conditions, Murdock wrote that they chugged along at 35 or 40 m.p.h. On that day, they passed through the charming town square of Chambersburg, and crossed the Appalachian Trail. They went through York and Lancaster, and journeyed through the peach orchards west of Gettysburg.

Finally, about 4:30 p.m., the Packard arrived in Philadelphia. They were met by a horde of newspaper reporters, many of whom had come from New York.

The muddied car was parked at the Keystone Motor Car Co. garage as Murdock checked into the Bellevue-Stratford hotel for a final night's rest. There he conducted a news conference for the eager reporters, some of whom referenced the Chestnut Hill trolley-car accident the previous day that had killed four people and injured 50.

The story he told appealed to the Victorian Age's thirst for outdoor adventure.

Murdock, whose family had earned a fortune in lumber and banking in Cambria County, was a lifelong tinkerer who enjoyed a challenge.

He purchased an automobile not long after they became popular in the United States. He toured Europe by car and, on a train trip to Pasadena that winter, decided he would like to drive his family cross-country. Only a few drivers, most of them teams of professionals, had made the trip successfully.

His purpose, he later said, was "to successfully demonstrate that it was possible for one person to drive a touring car" across the country.

Because he was convinced that the journey would be safe and that the average man could accomplish it, Murdock took his family - wife Anna, daughters Lillian (16) and Alice (14), and son Jacob (10).

"I resolved to go to that point when the discomforts should exceed the pleasures," he later said.

Mechanic Payton Spaulding accompanied them. Guide Lester Whitman got them past the Rockies before departing. And Murdock's mother-in-law rode with them for the final two days, joining them May 22 when they reached Johnstown.

According to the book Coast to Coast by Automobile by Curt McConnell, Murdock had written ahead to various gasoline suppliers to ensure that he would be able to find fuel. He also shipped spare tires and auto parts to towns where he planned to stop.

On April 24, he loaded his supplies into portable trunks affixed to the rear and side of the four-cylinder, three-speed Packard Model 30. The car cost him $4,200 at a time when the average American's annual salary was about $1,600.

His equipment included a stove, a tent, 250 feet of rope, two shovels, a pick, an ax, a rifle, food, seven gallons of water, three spare tires, and 20 extra gallons of gasoline.

The large traveling party, the females in flowing Victorian dresses, would have been comfortable in the Packard, according to an antique-car authority - though they would have been dust-coated constantly.

"It comfortably sat seven," said John Grundy of Carmel, Calif., who owns and drives a 1910 Packard. "The seats were tufted leather and very comfortable. And there were two jump seats that swung out from the side of the car."

The vehicle had a good suspension system, a retractable cloth roof, and a glass windshield. It also had enough torque to carry the heavy load and make the kind of steep climbs required when the Murdocks passed through the Rockies.

The journey's most difficult stretch, Murdock wrote, was the 1,600 miles between Pasadena and Cheyenne, Wyo. Even though they tried to follow railroad routes and had Whitman along, they got lost in the Mojave Desert near Death Valley.

It wasn't until someone spotted train tracks through binoculars that they managed to escape. But even then, the thick sand bogged them down, so much so that in one 30-mile desert stretch, Murdock used 16 gallons of gas.

On May 4, they entered Ogden, Utah, the first travelers to reach that city without horse or stagecoach. A day later they encountered a spring blizzard in Wyoming.

The terrain flattened out after Cheyenne, but rains often made quagmires of the roads and makeshift paths, particularly in Iowa.

"The mud of Iowa was unspeakable," Murdock told reporters in Philadelphia. "[It] was the only serious obstacle east of Cheyenne."

They stopped in their hometown and rested there Saturday and Sunday. On Monday, they left for Philadelphia. Murdock notched his best single-day mileage total of the entire journey that day - 244 miles.

"An earlier Packard had set a speed record between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, 14 hours," according to noted Packard historian Per Christiansen of Boston. "It used to take a stagecoach 15 to 20 days to go that same distance."

As they neared Philadelphia, a man the Philadelphia Record identified only as "Mr. Godschalk" of the Keystone Motor Car Co. met them on Lancaster Avenue in Paoli and escorted them into the city.

Waiting for them there, in addition to the reporters, were M.J. Budlong, president of the Packard Motor Car Co. of New York, and Murdock's brother, Wilbert. They would ride along, in their own Packards, the next day.

Describing the family's appearance, The Inquirer noted only that they "looked sunburned and rugged."

The Murdocks departed the Bellevue at 8:45 the next morning. They began their 104-mile trip to New York by crossing the Delaware on a ferry. In New Jersey, they made brief stops in Trenton, New Brunswick and Newark. From Newark they made the trip into Manhattan on another ferry.

At 2:07 p.m., accompanied by several other motorists, they arrived at the Packard garage at 61st and Broadway.

They had beaten Murdock's estimate by nearly a month. A devout Methodist, Murdock had rested on the four Sundays and didn't drive one other day, when mud bogged them down in Wyoming. Still, they averaged 131 miles a day and 7.01 miles per gallon.

And the Packard had performed remarkably well.

According to its driver, the only service the car had required - besides a new set of tires, oil, and 524 gallons of gas - were repairs for a blown wheel and engine bearings.

They slept indoors every night but one, usually in what Murdock termed "unfinished shacks."

Murdock wrote an account of his trip for Packard with advice for those who hoped to follow in his tire tracks.

"When you are ready to give up in despair . . . open up your commissary box and eat a hearty lunch," he said. "Then lie down on the warm sand and either think or sleep a few minutes, and you will be ready to start off with renewed vigor, and you will find that no matter how hard it seemed, nothing is impossible."