Skip to main content

Ocean To Ocean—by Automobile!

July 2024
3min read

Cross-country touring was difficult, half a century ago, but if you could make it, you really had an adventure

The American motorist has everything working for him nowadays. There is an infinite network of excellent roads on which it is almost impossible to get lost, he is never out of touch with garages and filling stations, and there is an unmatched abundance of eating places, motels, inns, and lesser conveniences, many of them extremely good. He can drive anywhere he wants to in complete comfort, troubled only by the multitude of other people doing the same thing; and in short, there is just one thing he can no longer do which once was possible to him: he cannot go pioneering and know the thrill of finding high adventure.

All of this is routine, and most of the inhabitants of the United States have not known anything different. But it is only half a century since the exact opposite of every statement above was true. The motorist of fifty years ago needed to be hardy. He was intimately acquainted with dust, grease, and mud, with flat tires and broken springs, with bad roads which wandered off to nowhere and then petered out, usually at dusk with a drizzle coming down. If he undertook a real cross-country tour he faced all manner of problems—not hardships exactly, but difficulties and discomforts. Why anybody ever tried to do it is a little hard to understand, except that in a way it was an adventure. The age of the pioneers was getting mechanized, but it was still pioneering.

These pages present a series of photographs which may help to recall that bygone age. They record a trip that would hardly make dinner-table conversation today but which was sensational at the time—a drive from Atlantic City to Los Angeles, undertaken by forty people in twelve automobiles. (Eleven touring cars and a truck, to be precise.) The drive took place in 1911.

Organizer and leader was a Philadelphian named John Guy Monihan, who was regional distributor for a now-extinct car called the Premier. He rounded up a number of friends who owned Premiers, got a truck to carry camping equipment, and retained a veteran driver named McNamara, who had been pathfinder for the once-famous Glidden Tours, to be a sort of navigator and trail blazer. The party left Atlantic City on June 26, 1911, and reached Los Angeles on August 10, well within the planned sixty-day limit, after covering 4,731 miles. Everybody survived, everybody had had the thrill of a lifetime, and there was a fine collection of pictures. These have been preserved by R. S. Monihan, of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, son of the tour’s organizer, who has generously made them available to AMERICAN HERITAGE.

The pictures tell the story, indicating that motoring fifty-one years ago resembled motoring today about as much as an Algonquin canoe resembles an aircraft carrier. They seem especially eloquent to me, because long ago I once touched the edges of aventure like this myself. In 1915, when I was a boy, I was invited to go along when a benevolent uncle undertook to drive from Minneapolis to Los Angeles, and although this was four years after Mr. Monihan’s trip and covered, I suppose, only about two thirds of the distance, the conditions were very much the same.

Like the Monihan party, my uncle took along a truck full of tents, cots, and so on. We camped along the way, all the way, partly because it was fun but mostly because in all the world there was not a motel, a tourist cabin, or a trailer park. The empty yards that surrounded country schoolhouses made good camping sites, as I recall it: there was plenty of room, and there were sanitary facilities of a sort. In the emptier reaches of Wyoming and Nevada the party simply pulled off the road and camped amidst the sagebrush.

Finding the way was sometimes a problem, because there were no road maps and no route numbers. Our party had three carstwo touring cars, and that truck—and the lead car carried packages of confetti: when it made a turn at a folk in the road, it tossed out a few handfuls so that the following cars would know which turn to take. The cars usually stayed half a mile apart, because between Minneapolis and San Francisco there was not one mile of paved road outside of the cities, and the dust a car could leave behind it was something to experience. All of the women in the parties wore long linen dusters, and the men wore khaki. Most of us wore goggles as a matter of routine.

I mentioned “touring cars.” They were open cars with collapsible tops, carrying side curtains which could be buttoned in place if it rained. The closed car with glass windows was strictly for city driving then; those bumpy roads would have shattered the glass in short order on a cross-country trip. It may be in place to mention that my uncle had a chauffeur, who was very busy every single evening adjusting the motors, repairing tires, and doing the other things that made it possible for us to keep moving. Flat tires, of course, were literally everyday affairs.

Nobody hurried on a cross-country trip. We averaged about one hundred miles a day, which was considered a bit leisurely but not very much so. It might be remembered that most of the roads between Iowa and California were all but totally unimproved. You couldn’t make time on such roads if you wanted to, and if you tried you quickly broke somethinga spring, or a hip, or something.

Obviously this was not much like motoring today. It was a great deal less comfortable, but somehow it was more fun. And some of us who are now doddering peacefully down the sunset slope look back on those days with a queer fondness. You can do absolutely anything with a car nowadaysexcept do what we did back before the First World War.

Bruce Catton


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.