Skip to main content

Jackson’s Bet

June 2024
1min read


I love to drive,” writes the filmmaker Ken Burns. “I love to drive. I can think of only a few pleasures in life that are more satisfying than getting into a car and starting out on a road trip. Especially if it’s new territory.” In his latest documentary, Horatio’s Drive , Burns pays tribute to what might be called the original road trip. It began in 1903, when a Vermont doctor named Horatio Nelson Jackson, spending an evening in a San Francisco club, impulsively accepted a wager that he could drive across the continent to New York in less than 90 days. He bought a 20-horsepower Winton touring car and proceeded to make the journey in 64 heroic, calamity-ridden days, becoming the first American to cross his country by automobile. If Dr. Jackson’s exploit, audacious though it was, might at first seem a bit too frail to support the weight of a feature-length film, Burns and Dayton Duncan—the writer, whose deep fascination with the story led to the movie—have managed not only to tell a spirited adventure story but to unfurl a superb panorama of the American nation at the last moment when we could see what the enormous energies of the nineteenth century had built—and just before the furious little machines that followed Dr. Jackson’s Winton rearranged everything. The show first airs on PBS on September 22; Duncan also wrote the excellent book that accompanies it.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.