By KATIE WATTS / Petaluma Towns Correspondent
In 1912, Petaluma’s Carlson-Currier Silk Mill ordered three tons of soap, to wash the silk, from a Philadelphia company. How it was to be delivered is quite a story.
“Now leaving the station, the Time Travel Express, headed back 100 years. There’s plenty of room, so hop on.”
In the summer of 1912, Republican William Howard Taft was president and running for re-election against former president Theodore Roosevelt, running in his own Progressive “Bull Moose” Party, Democrat Woodrow Wilson and Socialist Eugene Debs.
Earlier in the year, New Mexico and Arizona were named the 47th and 48th states. In April, the “unsinkable” Titanic sank on its maiden voyage. In Washington D.C., the first cherry trees were planted. The Boston Red Sox opened a new stadium, Fenway Park, where if you bought Cracker Jack, you got a prize in the box. Fifteen young women were fired for dancing the Turkey Trot on their lunch break. The summer Olympics were held in Stockholm, with Jim Thorpe winning gold medals in two new events, the decathlon and pentathlon, and Sweden taking the gold in tug of war.
And, on June 20, 1912, the Philadelphia Inquirer announced that teamsters from the Chas. W. Young Company would make the first transcontinental shipment of goods in the United States. A crew left Philadelphia in an Alco truck, loaded with three tons of Parrot Brand Olive Oil Soap, heading for Petaluma and the Carlson-Currier Silk Mills.
What was it like to travel a century ago in an automobile, a touring car: a Locomobile perhaps, Chalmers or Ford Model T? The top speed of the Model T was 30 miles per hour. Most roads were unpaved and unimproved because, in many communities, transportation was still primarily horse and buggy. For the daring souls who traveled coast-to-coast, it was a journey of weeks, or more.
“The trip was kicked off with a big truck parade and display,” wrote the Inquirer. “There is no paved highway system across the country, and the drivers are expecting a pretty difficult journey.”
The truck, stated Commercial Vehicle magazine, “is an Alco, built by the American Locomotive Company. It has a capacity of 3½ tons, is rated at 40 horsepower and is capable of an average speed of 12 mph. The weight of the chassis is 6,800 pounds; the body weight, 1,200 pounds. Platform measurements are 14 feet by 5 feet 6 inches. Besides the cargo, the usual equipment of planks, tackle, skidding boards, etc. will be carried. The front and rear tires measure 36 inches by 5 inches.” Described by one source as ponderous, the Alco was wider and much heavier than an automobile.
The hardy crew was led by pilot E.L. “Fergy” Ferguson, who filed daily dispatches via telegraph, “wearing out one reasonably good typewriter telling about it,” according to Commercial Vehicle. Drivers were Frank Morin and Walter Dick. Morin, commented Power Wagon magazine, “was a hero of the world’s record non-stop run when an Alco truck of 3½ tons capacity ran for 336 hours without the stopping of its motor.” The fourth crew member, billed as an assistant, was photographer John Cambon.
These drivers, according to the Teamsters website, would find “no gas stations, no restrooms, no padded seats, no shocks on the truck and no real protection from the weather … and there were few roads of any consequence along the route.”
“The truck,” reported the American Silk Journal, “carries all the latest equipment for battling with bad roads, and no difficulty is expected by Harry S. Houpt, general sales manager of the automobile department of the American Locomotive Co, in making this journey successfully. One of the features of the vehicle will be its new type of body which is of all-steel construction and considered especially adaptable for the rough trip.”
The route was ocean to ocean: Philadelphia to New York City, Albany, Syracuse and Buffalo; on to Cleveland and Toledo; through Indiana via South Bend; then Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska. Denver was next, then Cheyenne, Salt Lake City, Reno, Sacramento and San Francisco.
In addition to delivering cargo, the trip was considered a splendid opportunity to advertise the virtues of the Alco. Fergy’s bulletins appeared in the Inquirer, the New York Times and newspapers along the route, and the truck and its crew were greeted enthusiastically in every city. The Alco was festooned with banners and placards for the Charles W. Young Company and Parrot brand soap, and Cambon photographed the crew eating soup, beans and chocolate with makers’ names prominently displayed.
“The whole thing,” wrote a reporter for the American Silk Journal,“is a large undertaking by a firm who feel that, notwithstanding they are doing a fair business on the Pacific Coast, there is still room for more in the fast-growing, progressive territory, and are looking forward with intense interest to the completion of the Panama Canal.”
At first, reported Power Wagon magazine, “the well-paved roads of New York for the most part allowed the machine to maintain consistently good time.” But after Cleveland, “the crew had their first experiences with bad roads. The new highway construction forced the truck over trails of its own and, armed with shovels, the crew were forced to build their own roads through long stretches of sand, soft earth and ‘rough and ready’ hummocks.”
The Alco reached Chicago on July 1, although rain had turned roads into slippery stretches and heavy clay. “The trip across western Illinois,” said Power Wagon, “was made through roads of gumbo that wrapped around the wheels of the truck and was thrown in huge masses for many feet. Rain intensified the road conditions.”
And then, in the middle of a heat wave, the Alco entered Iowa. “Our experiences along the route,” wrote Ferguson, “known as the Iowa Official Transcontinental Route, can never be repeated by any who may follow, because many of the bridges we crossed will this year be replaced by concrete structures. Few, if any, of the wooden affairs will be left by the end of 1913.
“We rebuilt, replanked and reconstructed bridges almost too often to count. We strengthened worn flooring with planks, supported weak stringers with boxes of soap from our load, and held in place rotted or washed-out header beams with 10-ton jacks or block and tackle. The applied details of each method were as varied as the methods,” Ferguson continued.
“In the trip across the state, over 300 bridges were examined and no less than 100 were given some kind of attention. None of this would have been necessary with a touring car. But … we were driving a truck under capacity load.”
Iowa soil was, in short, appalling. Ferguson recalled, “It is a peculiar quality of the natural soil that when wet it cakes into huge masses and at the same time has a surface that is as slippery as grease. It is treacherous to walk upon; even a light touring car is likely to go crabwise rather than in a forward direction. Tire chains are of little value because they immediately become filled and then form the best sort of foundation for huge masses of caked clay.”
In addition to the soil, Ferguson noted Iowa is not a flat state. “Drive across it and there will be found some of the stiffest of hills, with the sharpest grades that ever came within ken. The truck negotiated them without once removing the load, but the low gear was mighty handy going up two of them that varied from 14 to 17 percent on the gradometer. One was particularly tough climbing, inasmuch as its surface kept crushing through under our weight.”
Near DeWitt, when the truck fell through a weak bridge, according to Commercial Car Journal, alarmed citizens came from all directions to help and to reassure the crew, “They’ve been promising to give us a new bridge. Now they’ll have to!”
The Alco, and its crew, fared better in Nebraska, although near the western edge, they had to slog through a five-mile stretch of sand.
With a record of 2,184 miles in 24 days of actual running time, Power Wagon’s article continued, the truck reached Julesburg, Colo., on July 18. But between Julesburg and Sterling, a break in a huge irrigation canal put the crew out of communication for two days, as the Alco was “engulfed in a sea of alkali mud and the crew were forced to go without food for 27 hours.” In addition, a damaged bridge “dropped the truck six feet into another canal.”
The Alco continued on toward Denver, where a flood had done more than $2 million in damage and many bridges and roads were washed out. At one point the crew had to fight through a stretch of mud that “even men in saddles avoided,” Ferguson wrote.
In Denver, Walter Dick left the journey and was replaced by Frank Colburn.
Leaving Colorado, the truck entered Wyoming via Laramie on a road rising 5,140 feet in 50 miles, and the crew made it to shelter ahead of a cloudburst that turned 70 miles of road ahead into rivers and washed away bridges.
In eight days, there were nine more cloudbursts. During one, they were stranded with four touring cars and two prairie schooners on a 7,000-foot plateau. The roads, when dry, according to Power Wagon, “were at best narrow trails of deep ruts and high centers. Steep-sided gullies were numerous and frequently there was the necessity of leaving the road and blazing the way across virgin paths, often more than 150 miles from civilization and encountering other roads submerged under two feet of water.” The crew was told conditions throughout the state were the worst in 14 years.
The Alco arrived in Rock Springs on Aug. 11, reported Commercial Vehicle. “On an overflowed alkali flat, the crew had been forced to spend a day building a dam to hold back the water prior to the construction of a temporary causeway.” Five days later, the truck rescued a touring car. At Evanston, they brought in a stranded motorcyclist.
Canyon conditions past this point were dangerous, wrote Commercial Vehicle. “Touring cars westward-bound abandoned their journey owing to the danger of skidding off the narrow, sharply winding roads and rolling over the high cliffs. The perils were rendered greater than usual on account of the treacherous conditions engendered by the heavy rains.”
On Aug. 19, after three bad washouts and a snowstorm, the Alco arrived at Echo, Utah. The following day, approaching Salt Lake City, it was driven over two summits, through two canyons and along cliff-side roads that were only six inches wider than the tread of the truck.
Continuing through Utah, the truck took to the railroad tracks. The crew removed the front tire, said Commercial Vehicle, “running on its rim, and the twin rear tire on the right side straddled the rail.” Later, traveling across the Great Salt Lake Desert with no towns or telegraph stations within 100 miles, the crew camped next to the Alco, where Cambon photographed them dining on (well-advertised) soup, crackers and chocolate. And on Aug. 28, they encountered a sandstorm, a hailstorm and two cloudbursts. During one of the cloudbursts, wrote Commercial Vehicle, “the sudden rush of water carried away the bridge over which the truck was crossing.”
Despite this, and having to fill in deep washes and gullies to make the road passable, the crew considered Utah roads good in comparison to what they had dealt with in Wyoming.
On Sept. 3, the truck reached Elko, Nev. “For many miles,” Commercial Vehicle reported, “the rear wheel had to cut off both sides of narrow roadways. The afternoon journey was through intensely cold rain.”
After leaving Elko, the Alco climbed the crest of the Humboldt Mountains, “up a new road freshly plowed out of the washed mountain sides, through a rain-slippery mire and for a whole day in a snowstorm,” Commercial Vehicle continued. “Just ahead of the truck traveled a 10-horse freight team carrying only half its usual load, the horses resting every 100 yards and being permitted only slight advances.”
The truck drove on, across Nevada’s basin and range, climbing five mountain crests, negotiating sagebrush flats and roadways a foot narrower than the truck’s tread, and through six miles of heavy sand up a 20 percent grade. Then, before reaching Fallon, the crew had to blast a road through a new canyon pass.
The crew rested, and showed off the truck, in Reno on Sept. 10, then set off across the double summit of the Sierras. The first, wrote Commercial Vehicle, “was a 12-mile pull up to 15 percent grades, narrow and sandy. The second was a shorter, but harder, run, as the grades ranged up to 20 percent.”
After that, it was all downhill. On Sept. 16, the Alco rolled into Sacramento, delivered letters to California’s Governor Hiram Johnson and was exhibited at the state fair for the rest of the day.
On Sept. 20, 94 days after leaving Philadelphia, the truck was greeted in San Francisco by booming guns, a parade and reception for the crew.
And on Sept. 21, the Petaluma Argus reported, “The big Alco truck which was scheduled to reach this city at 2 o’clock will not get here until between 4:30 and 5 o’clock. It could not be taken on the morning ferry boat from San Francisco to Sausalito and had to wait for the 1 o’clock ferry, thus spoiling plans for the reception in this city which has been arranged at the 11th hour. The truck will require about three hours to make the trip from Sausalito to this city if all goes well. The big Alco truck of the Golden Eagle Milling Co,, which is the only Alco in this city, will head the procession. The parade will go through the business streets with flags flying and horns tooting and escort the truck to the Carlson-Currier Silk Mill where the three tons of soap which were placed on the truck on June 17th and have been on the vehicle ever since, will be unloaded. The truck will remain in this city until Sunday or Monday. Many citizens are out now awaiting it and wondering why it does not come.”
A later paper finished the story as follows. “A reception committee of 23 local auto owners with parties of officials, members of the Chamber of Commerce and auto trucks crowded with pretty girls who waved flags, blew horns and shouted themselves hoarse met the transcontinental Alco truck south of town. A procession was formed that stretched for nearly four blocks as the truck completed its 4,145-mile journey. It stopped on the lower Main Street Plaza where the Alco was photographed, and it was then escorted to the silk mill where the soap was unloaded and the car was then escorted back to town. Manager F. W. Brown received the car and cargo on behalf of the company. There were no formalities.”
Facts and figures (from Motor World)
By the way of ensuring an accurate record of mileage and time on the road, the recording apparatus included a Sear-Cross speed and mileage recorder, Servis time recorder, Coronet hub odometer and Veeder odometer. In addition, the truck was equipped with an aneroid barometer, gradometer, thermometer and compass.
According to the daily log, the total time the truck was on the road was 595 hours, 36 minutes, of which 302 hours and 20 minutes (approximately 51 percent) was the time the vehicle was actually underway. The remainder of the time was spent reconstructing roads, digging the truck out of mud and sand, lending a helping hand to indigent bridges, filling up with fuel, eating, typing and filing dispatches.
The Servis recorded the average daily road time as 10 hours, 29 minutes; average time in motion, 5 hours, 21 minutes. In a single day— the day on which the greatest number of stops were made for road construction and labor — the crew stopped no less than 100 times, eight hours of examining bridges along Iowa’s unfortunate roads.
Altogether, 1,305 stops were made in the 56 days, an average of 25 a day.
Aside from the front tires, the Alco required no part replacement and, after normal servicing, returned to Philadelphia and regular delivery work.
Truck photos courtesy of the American Truck Historical Society. Silk spools courtesy of the Sonoma County Library. Preliminary research materials and photos courtesy of the Petaluma Historical Museum and Library.