This Place in History: Dr. H. Nelson Jackson



At This Place in History, we check out one member of a famous Burlington family, who made the first cross-country road trip in 1903! Steve Perkins, Executive Director of the Vermont Historical Society, gives us a little background, before launching into the fascinating story of Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson.

“We’re standing in front of H. Nelson Jackson’s house on Willard Street. The house has a sign with two sides; one for H. Nelson Jackson and the other for William Wells. For genealogists, Jackson is his son-in-law.”

Jackson was a doctor and a really wealthy man from Burlington, Vermont. His legacy, however, comes from driving a car across the country in 1903; the first person to do so.

Jackson was in San Francisco lunching in a club when he overheard someone say he bet no one could drive one of ‘those newfangled automobiles’ across the country. Jackson bet $50 that he could. 

“This is probably a losing bet. Automobiles are in their infancy at this point and the roads, a lot of them are dirt track. There are no interstates; especially we’re talking about the western United States where there are desserts and mountains. But he was going to do it.”

Nelson didn’t have a car, nor had he ever driven a car. He bought a used Winton automobile and found someone to drive with him and help with inevitable breakdowns. His name was Sewall Crocker, a young bicycle mechanic from San Francisco. 

“Off they set across the country in 1903. To spoil the story, he made it. That’s why there’s a sign here in Burlington. It took him two months and nine days, or 68 days to make it from San Francisco to New York City.”

Jackson and Crocker made modifications to the car, including ripping off seats and tying extra tires to the front, as early rubber tires ruptured easily and often. They drove through Oregon, over across through Utah, Nebraska and Chicago.

“The hardest part was the beginning, getting to Utah where they could follow the railroad and could be supplied through the railroad. Things were always breaking, early rubber tires didn’t last. That early piece, they were driving in the wilderness, getting resupplied by stage coach. Imagine we’re driving a car, something breaks down and we have telegraph back to San Francisco so we can get resupplied via stage coach and horses.”

Many people they saw along the way had never seen a car before. As Jackson and Crocker went across the country, it became a celebration in every town. Word spread and people would come out to meet them.

There was a third passenger on the trip; an American Bulldog named Bud that Jackson purchased early on.

“That dog learned to sit right in the front seat in someone’s lap and came across the country with them. The sand coming across the Midwest was getting in his eyes, so they bought a pair of goggles for the dog, who learned to wear them. Of course, the car had no windscreen.”

“If you are really interested in it, Ken Burns made a documentary called Horatio’s Drive. So go to your local library or the Vermont Historical Society Library and you can check out the video about his drive.

Explore more of Vermont’s History!

To check out more of our series “This Place in History,” click here

For a map of Vermont’s historic roadside markers, click here.

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