Coast to Coast by Automobile: The pioneering trips

Coast to Coast by Automobile: The pioneering trips

Walsh, Margaret

Curt McConnell, Coast to Coast by Automobile: the pioneering trips, Stanford University Press, Stanford CA (2000), 349 pp., L35.00.

Coast to Coast is an exhaustive description of eight pioneering American transcontinental car journeys. Historians have been reluctant to investigate such trips because of the difficulty of providing accurate information. Now Curt McConnell has painstakingly examined numerous local sources, especially newspapers, to provide automobile enthusiasts and historians alike with an authoritative account. No one else is likely to revise or to replicate his study. Where there are some doubts about dates, times of arrival and departure, hazards, accidents and the spelling of names he has judiciously noted the range of possibilities and from his in-depth knowledge suggests the best answer. At times the particulars of specific incidents and mishaps, of the cars themselves or the weather become overwhelming, but the author is determined to be accurate at all costs. Thus information that otherwise might have been consigned to the endnotes or to an appendix litters the text and encourages readers to browse rather than read. The same cannot be said for the 140 photographs, which are a joy to behold and which provide a ‘feel’ for the journeys which no narrative can rival. The whole effect would have been enhanced, however, by some maps with which to follow the individual trips more easily and compare the early voyages.

So what does the volume tell historians about pioneer long-distance motoring in the United States? Basically that it was a difficult, hazardous, uncomfortable, tiring, physically arduous and weight-losing experience. Those men and women who were brave enough to make the journeys may not have been as adventurous or as courageous as those who pioneered the waggon trails west in the 1830s and 1840s, but they too were trail blazers. In the nine years between 1899 and 1908 those who drove an automobile, or who were driven in one, across the continent, paved the way for millions of travellers and tourists. The early drivers demonstrated that it was possible for the emerging automotive technology to be useful, and they simultaneously deflated the car’s critics. Meticulous planning, aided by the telephone, the telegraph, the railroad and a dealer network ensured that supplies of gasoline, spare parts and even relay drivers were near by when needed. Yet the best planning in the world could not provide a dependable system of mapped roads or reasonable surfaces and could not guarantee favourable weather. Sand, mud, severe slopes, bridgeless rivers and the lack of paths, let alone roads, in the region west of Denver made even the later trips risky ventures. High temperatures, snow, rain, floods and blizzards impeded progress. Local communities, some of which had never seen a car before, welcomed all the early sojourners with much acclaim. The car manufacturers who officially sponsored some of the trips ensured further publicity in the interest of sales. Though the first successful transcontinental trek in 1903 took sixty-three and a half days and demonstrated what was possible, it was the first family trek in 1908 which pointed the way for the average motorist in an ordinary car.

Margaret Walsh,

University of Nottingham

Copyright Manchester University Press Sep 2002

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