BY ARLENE JOHNS
A century ago, a Johnstown businessman drove across the country and into the history books.
Jacob Murdock’s 3,694-mile trip from his winter home in Pasadena, Calif., to New York City was the first family trip across the continent.
When Murdock made his journey, automobiles were more a novelty than a serious mode of transportation. In fact, anyone who purchased a car got his name in the paper.
Back then, undertaking a cross-country trip was contemplated by only the most daring adventurers.
Murdock, who operated a local lumber company, was inspired to make his trek after reading about a Peking-to-Paris ride.
The little band of travelers consisted of Murdock; his wife, Anna; their children, Lillian, Alice and Milton; a mechanic; and a friend.
Their vehicle was a 1908 Packard standard touring car equipped with cape cart top and folding glass windshield. It cost Murdock $4,200 and came with the steering wheel on the right side. Boasting 30 horsepower, the vehicle used 524 gallons of gasoline during the trip.
Although the price of fuel wasn’t a concern, finding it was another matter. There were no service stations, and gas – where it was available – was sold in hardware and drug stores.
Prior to departure, Murdock wrote ahead for fuel – addressing letters to “any automobile garage or gasoline dealer” – along the way.
The entourage left Pasadena on April 24, 1908, with 1,200 pounds of supplies and equipment.
The car was loaded with a winch; two 8-foot hickory levers; shovels; ropes; a compressor tank; a Prest-o-lite tank for the headlights; three tires; nine inner tubes; canvas to be used as a tent or for traction; cooking utensils and food; extra gasoline and water; a camera; and a compass.
Not only were there no road maps: Often, there were no roads.
Many times, the car was driven along old horse paths, dry creek beds and railroad tracks.
The Swigart Museum in Huntingdon is an antique auto museum founded in 1920. The museum has a collection of 150 vehicles from as far back as 1900.
Pat Swigart, wife of the late William Swigart, said early automobile travelers often had to rely on information provided by locals.
“(Drivers) would be told to go down to the red barn and turn right. If, in the meantime, somebody painted the barn, you had problems,” Swigart said.
Often Murdock had to ask for directions.
A resident of Daggett, Calif., gave this helpful advice: “You’ll come to Coyote Lake, a dry lake, which you must cross. On the other side, you will run into deep drift sand. Most cars go that far and turn back. If you keep going ahead, you may get through.”
The sand was as bad as predicted, and the Packard’s wheels spun helplessly.
No amount of pulling or shoveling worked, and even the canvas was useless for traction.
It was only after the men wrapped the rear tires with heavy rope that travel continued – although painstakingly slowly.
Water sometimes was difficult to come by, especially in the desert. At some places, they had to buy water at 15 cents a pan or 50 cents a barrel.
Murdock described a section of highway in Iowa: “This stretch of road is about two miles long, it being graded up about two feet, with water of the Duck Pond Swamp on both sides.
“It is undermined in many places by beavers and muskrats. We struck on one of these holes and the car slid sideways, one front wheel overhanging the bank and the weight of the car resting on the engine pan and fly wheel. Just at that time the right rear tire went flat.”
Swigart said spare parts for early vehicles were difficult to find.
“Most times they would go to a blacksmith shop to get parts made,” she said.
The travelers arrived in Johnstown on May 22. They rested at home for two days and got fresh clothing. Murdock reportedly refused to allow the mud to be washed off the car.
“It proves we’ve been somewhere,” he reportedly said.
For the homestretch, the group was accompanied by newsmen in a four-car escort.
On May 26, the group drove up Broadway to New York’s Central Park.
The new celebrities posed for photographers until a policeman ordered them to get the muddy vehicle out of the park.
The journey had taken 32 days, 5 hours and 25 minutes – devout Methodists, the Murdocks had not traveled on Sundays.
According to mapquest.com, a popular travel Web site, the journey today could be made in 42 hours.
What: The William E. Swigart Jr. Automobile Museum is located along Route 22, three miles east of Huntingdon.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Memorial Day weekend through October.
Admission: $6 for adults; $5.50 for those 60 and older; $3 for children 6 to 12; and free for those younger than 6. Special rates for groups.
A car show will be held this weekend at the museum. Judging will begin at 10:30 a.m. Saturday.
Of 150 automobiles in the collection, 35 are on display. Among the more interesting vehicles in the collection:
• A mint-condition 1908 Studebaker Electric, one of two that belonged to the government. Used in tunnel transport between the House and the Senate buildings in Washington, D.C. The 12-passenger vehicle with two front ends could reverse direction without turning around.
• A 1910 Packard Model 30 limousine once owned by Col. Theodore Boal, great-grandson of the founder of Boalsburg. Boal’s wife was a descendent of Christopher Columbus.
• Two Tuckers – the original “Tin Goose” made in 1947 and the No. 13. Preston Tucker, who made only 51, installed seat belts, shatterproof glass and interchangeable seats. The cars’ single headlight moved with the steering wheel.
• Herbie the Love Bug.