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“Traveling Back in Time”: We drive forward from the 19th century to explore the impact and inspiration of automotive travel in America

     It was a big country but prior to the 20th century, few knew from first-hand experience how big or what was out there. Traveling west and into the interior over land was a pioneer’s journey for those seeking jobs and an opportunity to start a new life, not a tourist experience for idle travelers. The rural countryside offered few comforts and conveniences outside of the city limits, and most “roads” were barely passable and not meant for long-haul forms of transportation such as covered wagons. Travel could take weeks and even months depending on how far you were going, the weather, the condition of the roads to be followed, and a host of other unforeseen circumstances. Early 19th-century travel was an arduous and often dangerous challenge for all but the most desperate and adventurous. Even bringing goods to market and traveling to the big city or the closest town to pick up supplies was subject to risk.
     Safe passage came with progress and the introduction of the railroad. In 1828, the first spadeful of earth was turned for the building of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the first railroad chartered for commercial transport in the United States. By 1835, dozens of local railroad networks had been put into place. Each one of these tracks went no more than a few miles, but the speed of progress was unstoppable.
     Not only did trains provide a faster and more efficient way for rural farmers to deliver trade goods to market, and for manufacturing companies in the big city to sell and deliver their wares to customers scattered throughout the rural countryside, they could also transport people more comfortably and safely than previous forms of over-land travel. That proof of concept was tested, literally, on the battlefield. The Battle of Bull Run was won by a group of reinforcements shuttled in on a railroad car.
     After the Civil War, two things were clear: there was a need to unite our country through transcontinental rail service, and the public would help pay the freight.
     To make train travel more comfortable and accommodating for human transport, passenger cars with long aisles and rows of seating became standardized in look and design in 1870, with compartment cars added in the coming decades designed for dining, sleeping accommodations, and observing the sites from open and enclosed platforms. Now, Americans could more easily and comfortably travel to visit with family in faraway places, traveling salesmen could expand their reach into new territories, and those living in outlying areas could more easily visit the big city for a day of shopping, entertainment, and dining out. And, for the price of a ticket, one could just travel the rails to see the country.
     Although infinitely more civilized and safer than previous forms of passenger transportation, rail travel had its drawbacks and limitations for tourist travelers in particular. Trains were scheduled, public, and limited to where service was available. Rail travel also involved long stretches between stops, which offered few tourist comforts and little to see and do (although that would soon change with entrepreneurs like Fred Harvey). Still, train travel reigned supreme as the popular mode of passenger transport, especially for the upper class, until the beginning of the 20th century.
     Once again, technology and progress gave rise to an alternative form of passenger travel – the automobile.
     Bicycle mechanics J. Frank and Charles Duryea of Springfield, Massachusetts, are credited with designing the first successful American gasoline automobile in 1893. By 1899, 30 American manufacturers were producing 2,500 motor vehicles, with some 485 companies entering the business in the next decade. But it is Henry Ford, who introduced the Model T In 1908, and William Durant, who founded General Motors, who are largely credited and remembered as the pioneers of the American auto industry. The automobile was more than a technological novelty. Americans were quick to understand and embrace the freedom and control that came with this personal form of transportation.
     In 1910, an Outlook magazine article declared there to be “about 350,000 autos now in use in this country.” This same article advocated traveling to the country in your auto to “not only show the country to the people but show the people to the country” with a desirable result of increasing “neighborliness and diversion.” By 1912, Outlook writers declared the “automobile has changed interior traveling from a physical racking bore to a distinct frontier outing and a pleasure trip” and proclaimed “the automobile has verily brought a new mental poise to some portions and parts of the unbroken and almost untrodden interior.” In 1913, Outlook published an article declaring that by the end of that year over one million autos would be in use in America.
     Americans embraced the opportunity to seek adventure, witness the natural beauty of their country, strengthen family bonds, and commune with fellow travelers on the road. This new hunger for tourist travel, aside from the obvious and more practical aspects of automotive transport, threw the whole country into high gear. Roads were built and a national highway system was laid out. Along the way, a tourist trade emerged in the form of roadside attractions, motels, gas stations, and diners. Tourist destinations sprung up where nature met the road, and history became enshrined. Travel guides were put out by the Federal government to provide inspiration and share what to see along the way. Travel postcards and locally-made trinkets and gift items became desired souvenirs and something collectible… It is fair to say that the automobile added more than just mobility to 20th America.
     In our May issue, we drive back in time to explore automotive tourist travel at its roots, and the collectibles and memories left behind.