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Car Stories: The First Crossing of America by Car

Nowadays, traveling by car is a common thing and it is no longer getting anyone nervous. Over a hundred years ago, however, this was an adventure. Here is the story of the first crossing of the North American continent at the steering wheel of a car.

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The year is 1908. The car was a new invention, a mechanical curiosity, and those who could afford to purchase this wonder of technology were regarded as celebrities and their photos appeared in the local newspapers. Besides the fact that cars were a rarity, a hundred years ago the roads were a problem as well. For most of the time they did not exist, or were in very poor condition. And asphalt was out of the question. In addition, no one knew exactly which road was the right one. Maps were few and imprecise, and most of the times you had to rely on the guidelines of the local people. In these circumstances, a family from Los Angeles had the courage to take the first trip from West to East in a car.

Where did the idea come from?

Jacob Murdock was a profitable businessman and his house was located on the East coast of the North American continent, in Johnston, Pennsylvania. But every winter, he and his family traveled to California to avoid the cold winters on the east coast. In California, the Murdock family had a second home in the city of Pasadena. Each time they had to travel by train, but inspired by the landscape and a recent car journey between Paris and Peking (Beijing today), Mr. Murdock had an idea: a trip by car from west to east across America.

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Jacob M. Murdock took his family and got it on board of a Packard car for which he had paid $ 4,200 and had 5400 miles on it. It was a car with an open bodywork and right-side steering wheel, like most cars in those times. The 1908 “Thirty” Packard was equipped with a canvas roof, folding windshield and speedometer. The only change applied to the car was larger tires on the front axle to allow switching between them if needed. Murdock also equipped the car with a few spare car pieces, a tent, a small winch, two wooden poles, two shovels and a Winchester rifle to keep the lustful coyotes away, some rope, a pickaxe, a stove and kitchen utensils. There were a few cans for water, oil and gasoline; three backup Continental tires to take care of the common flats.

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Specific Issues

In 1908, there were no gas stations everywhere. Actually, they did not exist at all. In most cases, the fuel was purchased at department stores or mechanical workshops where it was stored in sealed canisters. To be sure he did not run out of gas, Murdock wrote in advance to shop owners on his route so that he did not run out of fuel. Throughout the trip, Murdock could buy five gallons of gasoline cans for which he paid between 2.2 and 2.5 dollars. During the crossing, the Packard consumed 524 gallons of fuel, or 1983 liters. Given that the trip amounted to 3694 miles (5945 km), we can calculate the 1908 car’s consumption: 33 liters per 100 kilometers.

Thus prepared, Mr. Murdock and his family gathered on the morning of April 24, 1908 and hit the road, leaving Los Angeles behind. The crew consisted of his wife, Anna, his three children, Lillian, Alice and Milton, a mechanic and a friend. With this crew, plus supplies and backup equipment, the total weight that the car was carrying was of nearly 2.5 tons. This was felt immediately after the departure, the car being too heavy. Murdock decided to lighten the burden by giving up some supplies, which amounted to probably approximately 50 kilograms. Given that the Packard used by Murdock was powered by a 30 hp engine, we can imagine what the average speed was. The Murdock’s approached this trip relaxed, traveling only during the day. In addition, the family members rested on Sundays. Thus, to cross the 5945 km, it took Jacob and his family 32 days, 5 hours and 25 minutes.

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One of the biggest problems of those times was the fact that there were no maps. And the ones they had were imprecise and only showed limited areas. Many times, the Murdock’s had to ask directions from locals to find out what the right direction. The first obstacle was crossing a dry lake immediately after the crew left California. The Coyote Lake was followed by an extremely sandy and difficult to cross area. That was the limit where most of the time drivers turned back. But the Murdock’s were not discouraged and boldly attacked the sandy area. Although they remained stuck numerous times, they managed to overcome this difficult time after the wrapped tires with thick rope and managed to go forward.

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The first leg of the journey ended in Ogden, Utah. This town was the terminus for the family friend who accompanied them on the first part of the trip and gave them an opportunity to rest after a difficult crossing of Nevada. From there, the landscape became friendlier. The Murdock family had divided the journey in four stages: Ogden – Cheyenne, Cheyenne – Omaha, Omaha – Chicago and Chicago – New York.

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On May 22, 1908, travelers have arrived home in Johnstown. They changed their clothes, rested for two days, and then continued the journey to New York. They were accompanied by four other cars that had journalists. On May 26, Jacob Murdock and his family entered on Broadway with the Packard and then in Central Park. They posed for journalists, but an overzealous policeman interrupted their moment of joy, ordering them to get the muddy car out of the park.

The crossing of America in 32 days, 5 hours and 25 minutes became a record for the longest journey of a car with the same driver. Today, the same journey can be made in 48 hours. Murdock later wrote a book about his adventure, book that can be read in full HERE.

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