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Driving Across The U.S. In 1936
©2006 by Nelle Etchison Burgess (91 years young)
OLD LINCOLN HIGHWAY Editor's note:The year 2006 celebrates the 50th anniversary of the federal law that began the USA's vast Interstate Highway System. This year, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of United States Federal Highways, a motorcade which included Merrill Eisenhower Atwater, Dwight's great grandson, spent two weeks driving from San Francisco to Washington, DC, on US Hwy 80, which replaced the Lincoln Highway and followed the route of many of the pioneer movements west. While Americans take for granted our nine East-West Interstates, we forget these are as important to our economy and way of life as the rivers and railroads were in past generations. Our highways and bridges are currently undergoing many major improvements and renovations all across the United States at a cost of billions, and plans must project needs of decades from now.
This special feature commemorates this history.
Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson made the first car trip across the United States in 1903, driving from San Francisco to New York in a 20 horse power Winton automobile. His trip, which took 63 days, was nearly a century after Lewis and Clark's 1805 two-year journey across the country, by boat with portage on foot and horses , seeking waterways to the Pacific. The first cars made in America were built in 1893. Just ten years later, when Horatio Jackson took the dare on a $50 wager and began his automobile drive, people outside of cities had never even seen a car. The general consensus was that autos were idiotic contraptions doomed to failure, and the horse would never be replaced as the best mode of transportation. When Jackson's Winton car broke down or needed new tires because of the deep ruts in the muddy horse paths, the driver had to depend on the train or stagecoach to get the needed parts to him, sometimes taking up to ten days. Although nearly everyone thought Jackson's proposed trip was impossible, it grew into a sponsored race by three car companies to prove their vehicle was the best. There were no roads and bridges from east to west in the U.S. then, and rivers had to be forded at lowest points, with the car often sticking in the mud or on the rocks.
In 1900 Harvey Firestone, a carriage salesman, began manufacturing rubber tires, which he first sold for carriages as he established the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company in Akron, OH. In 1919 the first Transcontinental Motor Train across the United States included the young army officer, Dwight D. Eisenhower. This convoy traveled for 62 days covering 3,000 miles on small and perilous, rough, rutted roads and the Lincoln Highway, crushing small bridges as the convoy traveled. During World War I Eisenhower had seen the Autobahns and recognized the need for great highways in America. During The Great Depression many men who couldn't find employment were hired by the U.S. government aid programs to build roads, lodges, and bridges near natural wonders in North America, especially in National Parks, some of which were newly formed and becoming tourist points of interest accessible only by train during those early years. From 1933 to 1938 thousands of unemployed male youths from virtually every state were put to work as laborers on road gangs to pave the final stretches of Route 66. As a result of this monumental effort, the Chicago-to-Los Angeles highway was reported as "continuously paved" in 1938. After World War II, when Eisenhower was President, he realized his dream of building Naitonal Highways for civilian and military use, and June 29, 1956, he signed legislation to begin the great Interstate Highway Systeim across the United States, allocating $10 billion federal-aid highway program through 1961, in 60-40 matching funds with states, to build 160,000 miles of super highways. This superhighway system was built with the military in mind, to keep the country safe in times of war. It became the backbone for the efficient transport of food and goods, and for the connection of people and industry. Without this highway system, which we take for granted, the USA would have a completely different regional relationship, and travel would be far more difficult. It signifies and provides freedom and is a tribute to the people responsible for building and maintaining it—although some of the changes it brought our nation have been controversial.
I was fascinated to learn recently that my grandfather, who died when I was three, was a travel writer! My mother, at 91 years young, tells this story of a trip across the United States in July 1936 ,as a young college student traveling with her family of five in the family car, for her father's travel writing research. This was one of the very early tourist trips made by any family across the US, from South Carolina to Los Angeles, traveling some of the first hard surfaced two-lane roads. I have by RV cross-country many times. We know the U.S. highways very well and the difficulties of mountains and deserts even today. We can fully appreciate how arduous and adventuresome the trip would have been in 1936, just after the Great Depression and just before World War II. The story is beyond our modern comprehension!
- Bonnie Neely
By Nelle E. Burgess
My dad loved to take a trip, but he hated planning one. ..that was my mother's fun. She was always planning trips for us to take. In the early days travel was by public transportation, trains mostly. We got our first family car in the 1920's, so whenever mom would hear about a place within driving distance with roads to it, she got out a map and began planning. I never quite realized how unusual it was for my family to make tourist trips by auto that early.
William P. Etchison, my father, was Advertising Director of the State Newspaper in South Carolina. When I was a child we went to New York City and stayed in the Waldorf Hotel, which Dad was advertising with its “Big Breeze from the Hudson River!” I remember we went to Coney Island Boardwalk, where I had my first ferris wheel ride, the 150-foot Wonder Wheel, and I ate my first hot dog.
When I was a child our first car had a front windshield and the car sides were open air. Early cars didn't have glass windows all around because glass was too dangerous; if broken, jagged edges would cut you to pieces. Safety glass, which breaks into little "ice cubes," had not been invented yet.Canvas side curtains with peephopes were packed in the back of our automobile, to be installed if needed. The peepholes were eisenglass, a sort of thin mica, and gave only a small, fuzzy view. When mother saw a storm brewing she would say, "Will, it's time to put up the windows." But he hated to unpack them from their storage place, so he always delayed until the first raindrops were falling. Then everybody had to get out of the car, and we had to remove the back seat to find the curtains and unpack them to be installed. We'd be quite wet and often the shower was over before he had the window curtains in place.
Mother carried a tin cup to catch the drips from that leaky roof. We were four children in the backseat then, and when Mom would see a big bump ahead in the road she would say, "Everybody up!" We'd grab hold of the rope handle, intended for a coat rack that was attached to the back of the front seats, and we'd brace ourselves for the rough jolt from the rutted, dirt road. We had to handle emergencies and problems as they occurred because there were no First Aid kits or minor emergency centers then.
When I was in high school, Dad's curiosity got the best of him, and he decided our family needed to see the West. He loved adventure and was itching to see these far-away places. But it was during the Great Depression, so we spent five years dreaming and planning this trip. Finally, in 1936 when I was a junior in college at the University of South Carolina, with a few roadways all the way across our great country newly completed, he organized a business trip during which he would solicit ads for the newspaper from the budding tourist places that were springing up. Our family of five (my married sister couldn't go) excitedly piled into the big, heavy hupmobile, and off we went on what was a most uncommon adventure for a family in those days. Because there weren't many choices,we had to go westward whichever way the roads went. There were no road signs and almost no traffic, so there were very few two-car accidents like you have today. Some of the roads were tar and gravel and many of them were still muddy dirt. Gas, of course, had lead in it then and averaged 29 cents a gallon. We had to get gasoline wherever we saw a filling station because they were few and far between. We carried a big can with extra gasoline in it on the running board with the luggage.
1930's cars were made of steel and really heavy. There was no speed limit, but our car wouldn't go much over 35 miles an hour, partially because of the road conditions. Our trip was seven weeks of a round-about route from Columbia, South Carolina, to Los Angeles, even crossing into Mexico at one point. We had to carry jugs of water for the radiator and just stop and wait whenever the car overheated. We made many, many stops!
Steel belted tires were unheard of back then. Tires were narrow, thin, and went flat very frequently! We'd all climb out of the car, (happy to be free for awhile), and my dad would get out the equipment and jack up the car. He carried a tire patch kit in a bright red box…I can see it now! The patch was a little square of rubber, and he used a cheese grater to rough it up. Then he squeezed the tube of glue and applied the patch to the tire. We had many “rest” stops while he fixed a flat tire, and we waited for the glue to dry for the patch to hold. After it was set, dad got out his hand pump and pumped air back into the tire, like you do to a bicycle tire today! Then we'd all pile back into the car, and off we'd go again. There were no public bathrooms or rest areas along the roads. Filling stations sometimes had a bathroom, but these were filthy. When nature called, we just had to go to the woods. My goodness, how travel has changed! Wouldn't my dad and mom love to take a road trip today!
There were few hotels and motels weren't popular until the 1950's. East of the Mississippi River we stayed in Tourist Camps in little cabins or cottages. The average cost for our family of five was $3 to $5 a night. West of the Mississippi River were Tourist Homes similar to Bed and Breakfast places today, only back then it was just sharing a family's extra room...nothing fancy. They had indoor plumbing but no private bathrooms. Usually children were booted out of their bedroom to sleep with their parents for the night. Usually, we could buy dinner in these Tourist Homes for an extra 50 cents per person. In tiny cafes in the towns, a breakfast of eggs, country ham, toast and jelly, coffee, and juice was 24 cents per person!
We stayed a couple of days in Gulf Port and Biloxi, Mississippi, which still has the wonderful and beautiful historic mansions from the 1800's right on the water front and the sugar white, sandy beaches. But then, the view was not ruined by the Casino Boats as it is today. With the perfect beach, we really had fun dipping into the great Gulf of Mexico, as placid as a big lake! We stopped in New Orleans for a couple of nights, which we spent in a tourist home for $4.50 for our whole family. New Orleans was a small town then compared to today, even after last year's hurricane. We had to see the already famous Bourbon Street too, but my tea-totaling family did not want to stay long there.
In Baton Rouge we visited the famous 31 story, 5 million dollar capitol, which had been planned by Huey Long, murdered just the year before we arrived. My brother and I climbed to the top floor to view the 20 acres and very beautiful gardens with Mr. Long's grave, which stayed lighted all night. We also visited the LSU campus. There was no bridge across the Mississippi River at Baton Rouge then, so we had a very brief but exciting ferry ride for 25 cents!
In Shreveport, Louisiana, we first saw an oil well, but we were equally impressed by six-feet high corn in the fields and cotton over 5 feet tall in these rich farm lands. We stayed in a terrible tourist camp, the only one we could find, and a wasp stung my brother. Dad had to chew a plug of tobacco and put on it. That was the way to stop a sting and kill the poison in those days. I often wonder how someone ever discovered that remedy!
In Tyler and Longview, Texas, we were thrilled to see lots of oil wells and towers. Just two years before, Kilgore had only 600 people, but when they discovered oil the population tripled practically overnight. The locals told us the wells produced the equivalent of two and a half barrels of oil per person per day! The town grew so fast they hadn't even had time to build a second bank to hold all that oil money! We saw real cowboys! A Negro church discovered oil on its land, and every month each member came to draw his check. They wouldn't allow anyone else to join the church. Tyler was the rose-growing capital of the USA, and we got to see the beautiful acres and acres of roses in full bloom.
To us, Dallas, was a huge city of 100,000 people. Of course, today Dallas has over 1.2 million people and the metroplex has over 5 million. We stayed in a very nice tourist home on Windmere Street, which was far out from town then, and we drove into the city for supper. My but the stores were so big! We went to the Texas Centennial Exposition at Fair Park, which had fabulous big rides. We saw in the Ford Building the first V8 car. We paid 20 cents each (for charity) to see the wonderful half million dollar doll house, which belonged to the movie star Colene Moore. It had a miniature working fountain and a real tree house. I loved it! We always attended church on Sundays, so this was a way to learn more about each town we were in on the week-ends and to meet some of the people. We went to the service at First Baptist Church, which was a seven-story building with eight people employed then.
Oiled roads in the West looked smooth, but we quickly learned that speeding would cause treacherous 360 degree turns, or maybe turn-overs, because of deep potholes and sloughed-off shoulders. Thank goodness it was other cars we saw this happen to, and not us!
Mineral Wells, TX, was famous as a place where you could be cured of any illness. We had to see the crazy crystals people were talking about. Drinking water from the springs here was supposed to cure anything. What we enjoyed, though, was our first all-you-could-eat dinner for 80cents...terrific! And our big breakfast cost only 20cents.
At the Wilson Hotel in Abilene we ate chicken fried steak dinner for 30 cents! A little farther along the road we first saw small mesquite trees, like willows with silvery leaves, and we saw many cacti, a thrill for South Carolineans! In Great Saline, TX, we visited the Morton Salt mines, where they mined 20 tons a day and told us they have enough salt to keep mining for 200 more years. I loved the little salt house on the property. They claimed their salt was 99 percent pure, so they just had to collect it and crush it. We went down 700 feet on an elevator, which was very exciting and scary.
We found a tourist camp of little cabins at the hot springs near Las Cruces, where boiling water straight out of the ground was famous for curing asthma and helping TB. We discovered too late at night this was a miserable tourist camp and we left at 2:30 A.M. because of the wracking cough of a man next door and a spider in my bed! We drove through the night. When morning came we crossed the Rio Grande River, which was much smaller than we had imagined, and we went by trolley into Old Mexico. My first time out of the United States! We were all eyes and couldn't understand a word! Also in many places when we were west of the Mississippi River we saw Indians, fascinating discoveries for all of us.
My dad also wrote features for the newspaper, and one of the focus articles from our trip to California was to interview Madame Ayme McPherson, a famous and controversial lady revivalist. She had raised funds to build the Angelus Temple, which cost $1,500,000, a huge round building where she preached to audiences of over 5,300. I remember she was very beautiful, all dressed in white, and held the crowd spellbound as a dramatic and emotional evangelist and healer. She used lots of movie dramatics and actors as her props to emphasize points in her sermon. Something was happening in the temple at all times of the day with four services a day. She filled the temple to capacity and the attendees were urged to give at least a dollar each because they had gotten that much entertainment. We visited her mansion also, with jasmine scents emitted everywhere. She was glamorous and rich but always under suspicion as a possible hoax. We also went to a famous restaurant that had a huge tree in the center of it in Los Angeles. It's peculiar the things that you remember most about a trip. The population of LA, the fifth largest city in the USA then, was already one and a quarter million! We got to watch a movie being made in Hollywood and toured Warner Bros. Studio and saw the stage props for the movie "Three Men on a Horse."
Franklin D. Roosevelt was our President then and had started his New Deal , which helped the farmers whose crops were devastated by grasshoppers that summer. In Nevada we saw the amazing Boulder Dam, the highest concrete dam in the Western Hemisphere, more than 725 feet above the Colorado River. Amazing!
We were really apprehensive about crossing the Great Salt Flats and Death Valley…even my father was scared. It was summer when temperatures were over 110 degrees. I really don't know how pioneers or we made it! Of course, there was no air conditioning and no way to carry ice. The Salt Flats and the Great Salt Lake were famous tourist attractions then, so we actually got to swim in the Great Salt Lake. It really does hold you up, even in a sitting position!
When we finally got to the Grand Canyon, one of the places we had most wanted to see, I just couldn't wait, so I jumped from the car and ran to see it and peered out over the huge, deep gorge below, before the others could get out of the car. "Words just couldn't describe it" was all I elatedly wrote in my trip diary!
Famous or new tourist attractions were important for us to see, since Dad was soliciting those ads. He even drove our heavy car up the steep dirt road to the top of Pikes' Peak in Colorado Springs. The trip up and back down required the entire day, and I don't know how on earth we made it! Even today, they tell me, it is quite a difficult drive. My dad was very eager and loved nature, so he was not going to miss the highest point anyone had driven to in those days! There was a Park Ranger at the top even then, and when we got out of the car to see the amazing view, my mother nearly passed out from the thin air. And there were no oxygen tanks on the Peak then as there are now. We also loved stopping at Estes Park, Colorado, whicih was already gateway to Rocky Mt. National Park.
We stayed with a Swedish farmer in Wyoming and his wife insisted if we didn't eat a huge breakfast it meant we didn't like her cooking... 4 eggs, 3 slices ham, 6 pancakes, half jar pickled venison,2 bowls oatmeal for each person for breakfast! I guess we all hurt her feelings! It was required that we help clean up our dishes and joke with the hired hands too. Their work ethics were terrific, and they could get good crop yields in places others could not. My dad said South Carolina farmers could learn a lot from these hard working farmers.
We planned our trip to stop at cousins and other relatives' homes whenever we were anywhere close, because we knew that opportunity would not come again. The Interestate Highways did not exist then, so we did some criss-crossing instead of taking direct routes. We travelled about 10,000 miles traveling through 24 states, an amazing opportunity when the Great Depression was just ending. But as we finally made it back to our home in South Carolina, even with the high weeds in the yard, it looked like the most welcome sight of all! There truly is no place like home!
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