Early Sierra auto travel roared with excitement
By Gordon Richards The Great Race, coming to Truckee July 1, reminds us that Truckee could be a tough but fun place for early automobiles. Here’s a look at some adventures and early races during the first years of auto travel in the area.Alexander Winton – an early carmaker, racer and racetrack builder – drove the first automobile over Donner Pass. He drove a car of his own construction over the old Dutch Flat & Donner Lake Wagon Road in May of 1903. Winton was on an attempt to drive from coast to coast, but only made it into central Nevada before breaking down on sand dunes.Truckee’s first car accidentThe first Truckee resident who owned an automobile was local Wells Fargo agent “Jolly” Jack Winter. The Truckee Republican reported that in October of 1903, he bought an Orient, made in Akron, Ohio. A large crowd of interested spectators gathered to watch the adjusting of the different parts of the mechanical wonder. The machine was the Buckboard model, and was strongly constructed, making it the ideal vehicle for the mountains. The engine was gasoline powered, with the spark provided by an electric battery. The machine wasn’t complicated, and with a little experience person could operate it. 1903 was the first year that Orient Buckboards were made, with the last one being made in 1908.Once the small engine was running, a slight pressure on the throttle lever would start or stop the automobile. The steering gear was also simple, with a turn of the steering bar guiding the machine in any direction. The car was so simple it came in a kit: Some assembly was required. Alas, a missing throttle part delayed the unveiling by a day – until it could be shipped in on the railroad.The wheels were fitted with heavy rubber air filled tires, designed to resist the sharp rocks of rough roads. There were no smooth paths over the Sierra Nevada – and there were no shock absorbers. On good flat roads, the Orient was capable of 60 mph. Mileage was said to be excellent, with a few gallons of gasoline allowing it to run a hundred miles or more.
There was little to go wrong and repairs were easily made with homemade parts. The machine cost less than a buggy and team.Winter motored his car as far as Reno, but mostly just drove around the immediate Truckee area, giving rides to all who dared. When he took it to Reno in October of 1903, no one would go with him.The next time that Winter’s auto made the newspaper was when he was shipping it by railroad down the mountain. In January of 1904, when he was driving up the ramp to the freight platform, he lost control and the auto ran off the back of the platform. Winter was able to jump free. Uninjured, he got the car back on the platform. Truckee’s first car accident put an end to a Truckee citizen having an auto, until the following spring when Winter ordered a new one.By June of 1906, Truckee had five autos registered. Front Street clothing merchant and electric company owner Paul Doyle bought a new Rambler in San Francisco. He tried to drive it up the mountain but due to flooding in the Sacramento Valley he had to load it on a train at Tracy. When he got it to town he drove around area roads with wild abandon. Other auto owners included J. E. Sibley of the Truckee Lumber Co., who owned a White, Arthur Davies of the Davies Lumber Co. of Sardine Valley, and even a woman, Mrs. Booth, a Truckee pharmacy owner. The latter three owned Ramblers.The race beginsThe first automobile driven cross country was a Winton, which completed the trip in 1903. It went from San Francisco up through Oregon, avoiding the Sierra Nevada. In September of 1907, an effort was made to break the current cross country record of another Winton auto. Three men had left San Francisco on a Wednesday afternoon and had reached Donner Pass by Thursday afternoon. Charles D’arcy, G.W. Turner, and Roy Scott were part of a group of early day adventurers who took the new autos to their limit on rough mountain roads.
While coming down the road from the pass to Donner Lake they had an accident. They were speeding down the mountain road at 30 mph when the brakes failed. As they realized they were at the mercy of the machine, they guided it against the mountainside. The auto hit a rock and turned on its side. The three men were thrown from the seats. The front wheels were smashed and the rear axle was broken. Other parts were also badly damaged. They walked back up to the hotel at Donner Pass and telegraphed for new parts to be delivered. The men were bruised, but not seriously injured. Truckee resident Jack Blaney witnessed the crash and said that he didn’t see how they escaped being killed. At the time of the accident, the men were ahead of their planned schedule by about four hours. Repairs were made and the auto and crew made there way east. Due to the accident, they did not break the record.On June 17, 1908, Paul Doyle made a “record run” from Truckee to Hobart Mills, back to Truckee, then to the head of Donner Lake and back in one hour and one minute. The trek included a stop in Truckee for a seven-minute gasoline fill up.A few days later, on June 23, Doyle and six passengers left Truckee at six in the morning. By 7:40 a.m. they were having breakfast at Sierraville. Leaving there at 8:50 a.m., they made a fast dash to Reno via Loyalton, Chilcoot and Long Valley. After spending day in Reno, they arrived back in Truckee at 11 p.m.Truckee blacksmith James Laity, with six other Truckee residents, was the first driver to drive to Meadow Lake via Webber Lake in August of 1910. Laity and his son, Harold, drove a Rambler up grades as steep as 30 percent to get to the 7,200-foot high lake northwest of Truckee.In 1909, an informal race was won by H.W. Smith of Sacramento, who crowned himself with glory by motoring an EFM3 roadster from Sacramento to Lake Tahoe. In 1910, Smith drove a Flanders “20” in the early part of May over Donner Pass. He was the first to make it over that spring.In 1910 and 1911, Valvoline Oil sponsored an auto race from Sacramento to Tallac on the southwest shore of Lake Tahoe. The prize, besides bragging rights, was a 55-pound, 40-inch-high trophy. The race attracted a wild bunch of auto enthusiasts who were racing to put in the best time from Sacramento to Tallac and back. Foothill constables were out enforcing the twenty mile an hour speed limit through their towns, while race drivers were jockeying for position on the long stretches between towns.A spring trip over the passIn June of 1911, a well-documented trip took nine days to travel from Grass Valley to Truckee. George Starr and Arthur Foote and four passengers drove and pulled and pushed a Ford Model T roadster over a torturous route.
With the help of a local miner, they had to build a block and tackle ferry over the Yuba River at Cisco. That alone took three hours. Most other drivers who had made the start up the mountain were stopped at this river crossing.Several members of the group went back to Grass Valley to get skis to put on the front wheels to get across soft snowdrifts west of Donner Pass. The rough snow caused the car to almost fall apart. The steering rods were frequently bent and straightened and one set was replaced. The tires were wrapped with rope, one of the first attempts to chain up a car.When they made it to the summit, they had to lower the car with ropes down the side of the snow covered railroad snowsheds.With all that effort, the first auto of the season to cross the Sierra Nevada had come over on May 31. It required 27 hours for a group led by S.M. Gray to make the run from Sacramento to Tallac. The Maxwell Jr. auto was a two cylinder, four horsepower car, and made it without any adjustments or repairs. Cray, Foote and their fellow adventurers were competing in a Tahoe Tavern Silver Cup race that gave a three foot high silver cup that cost $300. It awarded the cup to the first car to make it from Sacramento to Tahoe City each spring.By September of 1911, the road over Donner Pass had been improved enough so that auto enthusiasts were able to make better time than the passenger trains on the Southern Pacific Railroad, although the trains were still far more comfortable than the bouncing autos. Auto clubs were lobbying local and state governments for improved roads. A 1911 endurance run of thirty cars made the run from San Francisco to Tahoe Tavern, with all of them making it with no incidents. The adventure of summertime travel by auto over the Sierra had become a commonplace, almost routine, experience. Winter would come and autos were parked, stored or moved to the lower elevations for another three decades, until modern snow removal would allow winter driving.Gordon Richards is the research historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Comments, story ideas, guest articles, and history information are always welcome. Please visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society web site at http://www.truckeehistory.tripod.com. The e-mail address is email@example.com. You may leave a message at 582-0893.