Most people probably haven’t heard of Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson, which is what makes this story all the more remarkable. In the past, Ken Burns has crafted documentaries about well-known people or events. In this case, the story is somewhat different. In true Burns style, though, once you get just a few minutes into Horatio’s Drive: America’s First Road Trip, you’ll be hooked. I watched it three times.
This Ken Burns documentary first aired in 2003, celebrating the 100th anniversary of a transcontinental road trip taken by Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson, a doctor from Vermont. It was the first successful trip across the continent by someone in an automobile, although Dr. Jackson was racing against two other teams by the end of his trip.
It all began in 1903 when Dr. Jackson was in a social club in San Francisco debating whether the automobile was anything more than a passing fancy. He bet some of his fellow diners $50 that he could drive an automobile from San Francisco to New York City in less than three months.
Before actually getting into the drive itself, Burns presents a somewhat abbreviated history of the automobile as well as transcontinental travel. One of the issues Jackson would face is the fact that there were no route numbers or street signs for them to follow. Quite often, directions to go just twenty miles would span two pages.
Four days after the initial wager, Jackson was on his way in a 1903 red Winton touring car he had purchased for $3,000 and a young mechanic and driver named Sewell Crocker. Much of the story is told with Tom Hanks reading letters Jackson penned to his wife along the trip. There were numerous mechanical breakdowns, just between San Francisco and Oregon. This was a time where finding someone to repair the vehicle wasn’t easy, either. It’s funny to hear him frequently say that when they reach a certain destination “the worst will be over”.
Many times as they traveled through rural western towns, they were the first automobile the townsfolk had ever seen. As a result, they were given meals in exchange for rides in the vehicle. These early nuances were a nice addition to the story, often found in the newspaper archives in these towns. It was also before Dr. Jackson and Crocker realized there were two other teams attempting the same thing.
Not too long after Jackson set out, another team set out which was much more prepared and sponsored by the Packard Company. While they were still on the trip, another team left courtesy of the Oldsmobile Company. It was now a three-way race across the country. This meant there was less time for Jackson and Crocker to stop and enjoy the hospitality in various towns.
The letters are often shown, having been written on the stationery from the hotels they stayed at during the trip. These letters came from Dr. Jackson’s granddaughters who also comment during the documentary on their memories of their grandfather. There are other historians as well who fill in a story that is an untold gem (up until now) in our American culture. Burns also uses photographs and early films from the era.
One of the points that is made is the incredible views they had. They were driving in an automobile without a roof or windshield. The thought seems incredible – the wind in your face and the sky and scenery all around you. All of them wore goggles to protect their eyes from the wind and dirt, including the dog Dr. Jackson purchased along the way. The views are shown on the film and though they look fine on my small DVD player, I really enjoyed it when I saw the film on my widescreen HDTV. It really makes one hunger for the days when you could find these vistas as unspoiled as Dr. Jackson and Crocker found it on their trip.
Horatio’s Drive: America’s First Road Trip is well-paced with my sole complaint that it seems dominated by the beginning of their trip in the west. I suspect this was the way it was at the time, as the pressure mounted not just with the 3-month deadline looming, but also with the knowledge that there were other, better prepared teams on the road behind them. This documentary is a lot of fun to watch, probably one of the best documentaries you haven’t seen and a story most people haven’t heard about.
• The Making of Horatio’s Drive • Program Outtakes