Tuesday, January 27, 2009

HORATIO'S DRIVE: America's First Road Trip (G)

When K was about eight or nine, I found this documentary at our local library and brought it home. We must have watched it in increments, as it’s apparently 106 minutes long! It seems shorter in my recollecting, so take that as a good sign if you’re rolling your eyes and thinking, “An hour and 45 minute-long documentary? For the kids? Oh, sure. No problem.”

I remember thinking it might not hold K’s attention for long, but it absolutely did. It’s a wonderfully engaging (and, shhh, educational!) documentary by Ken Burns, who employes his favorite tools (archival photos, newspaper clippings, re-enactments and talking heads) to tell the story of the first automotive cross-country trip in 1903. The film captures the excitement felt coast to coast over what seemed such a crazy endeavor for the time, and the adventurous spirit of the man who laid down the gauntlet and said it could be done, one Horatio Nelson Jackson.

The “horseless carriage” was viewed at the time as unreliable, and possibly a fad; most people thought Jackson was nuts. There were millions of roads in the U.S. at the time, but only 150 paved ones (and many not signed). Breakdowns and flats were sheer disaster: the local gas station or highway outpost did not exist, let alone the now ubiquitous Grand Auto or V.I.P. auto parts store. The car had no windshield and no roof, but could reach a whopping speed of 30 m.p.h. Jackson and his co-driver and mechanic Sewall K. Crocker had 90 days to drive from San Francisco to New York.

Did they do it? I won’t spoil the fun. If you’re in for a long, rainy or snowy weekend, get Horatio’s Drive and break it into a couple of viewings. Everyone will love it. And the kids will get a great sense of the time, when the America was young and brash and bold, and events like these united people everywhere. There’s a lot of inspiration in these 106 minutes.

From the PBS site, where you can get more info:

[Horatio's] car, which he christened the Vermont in honor of his home state, splashed through streams, got stuck in buffalo wallows, bounced over railroad trestles to cross major rivers, and frightened horses on the dusty trails. And as he moved eastward, his quest slowly became a national sensation, with huge crowds (tipped off by the telegraph of his approach) lining the streets of town as he whizzed through at 20 miles per hour. "It Startled the Natives," one headline proclaimed; another announced "A Real Live Auto!"

Teachers: this would be a great grade school curriculum item!

For other documentary ideas, see the category listed to the right or go here.


  1. Ken Burns made a documentary and it's ONLY 104 minutes?? Wow!!


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