During October of 2003, Ken Burns aired his film Horatio’s Drive, which told about the first North American transcontinental automobile trip.
E.T. (Tom) Fetch is shown taking time out for a smoke while
sitting in the one-cylinder 1902 Packard Runabout he drove
during his 1903 trek from San Francisco to New York City.
(Mitch Frumkin collection)
This enjoyable PBS documentary relayed the arduous adventure that began on May 23, 1903, when Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson and co-driver Sewall K. Crocker drove a 20-hp Winton on a more than 3,000-mile, 63-1/2-day odyssey from San Francisco to New York City.
Fetch was an enthusiastic Packard employee, serving as a foreman and test engineer with enough faith in the durability of his company’s product to volunteer for the transcontinental challenge.
Powered by a one-cylinder, 12-hp engine, Fetch’s 1902 Packard Model F runabout had few modifications, which included the removal of all fenders, the addition of extra gasoline tanks, and a special low gear for hill climbing or descending mountains.
Fetch equipped the car for expected dilemmas, carrying along several lengths of log chain for use on the wheels in tenacious ruts, and a pick and shovel to cut roads along hillsides and fill in the inevitable washouts.
He even packed two strips of canvas that were laid down ahead of the car to get starting traction on the desert sand.
For unknown reasons, except perhaps that he started on the West Coast, Fetch nicknamed the Packard, “Old Pacific.”
Chugging out of San Francisco in June, 1903, Fetch and his passenger, automotive editor Marcus Karup, had no real road maps, signs, or route numbers to follow, so they used the only published guide of the period, the Union Pacific railroad map.
There were no decent roads anywhere west of Chicago, and no bridges, except, again, those used by the railroads west of Denver.
Riding on 34×4 tires that were inflated to 80 lbs. of pressure, the two-seat buggy had a top speed of 20 mph as it traveled eastward.
Fetch quickly learned to avoid the best-looking “main roads,” since they often ended at the front door of a fancy ranch or a working mineral mine.
Seeking directions from the locals proved unreliable, since most had never traveled more than a day’s ride from home in their life.
Clever logistics made sure the Packard never ran short of gasoline as fuel was shipped ahead by train to prearranged stations along the entire route.
When “Old Pacific” arrived in Carson City shortly after a murder had been committed, everyone, including the sheriff, left the scene and flocked around the first horseless carriage ever seen in that part of the country.
Besides the rut-filled trails that needed to be navigated, there were section-line fences strung across roads, which Fetch had to unfasten and refasten after passing through.
Yet, except for prying “Old Pacific” out of the mud and onto solid ground with fence rails, the vehicle was propelled the entire distance under its own power.
To make up for some of the lost time, Fetch drove the final lap from Herkimer, New York, to New York City almost steadily for 40 hours, fighting off sleepiness and the effect of road glare.
After the two-month journey, the still-solid-running Packard reached the outskirts of New York City, where Fetch and Karup were met by nearly 200 automobiles, gathered to escort them to the Astor Hotel. While the many autos were waiting in front of an orphan asylum, the drivers of the machines gave the children rides, which became an annual orphans outing.
As the exhausted Fetch exited the Packard at the giant hotel on Broadway between Vesey and Barclay Streets, he was asked to say something to the assembled crowd.
He had but four words, “Thank God, it’s over.”
Tom Fetch died at 72 years old in March 1944. He was memorialized as one of those robust pioneers, whose courage demonstrated to the world the horseless carriage had passed the experimental stage, and was here to stay.
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