Saturday, September 26, 2015

Crossing Nevada’s Great Basin- Then and Now

The envoys started in San Francisco with a brand new car, as did we, but after that the similarities between our trips are pretty much over.

The Swedes had traveled by boat from their home in Rhode Island to San Francisco to visit the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE), rounding the tip of South America en route. They had planned all along to drive back, buying a car in San Francisco in which to make the trip. So when they stopped by the Congressional Union booth at the PPIE and learned about the petitions and the desire to drive them to DC, they offered the envoys a place in their car. A good thing they did, too, because the departure date was coming up fast and if Alice Paul had another plan no one seemed to know about it.

Ad for the Overland Six that Maria and Ingeborg purchased. 
There were lots of different car companies back then, and in an effort to grab some market share the Willys-Overland company of Cleveland OH had put together a special deal for the PPIE. The deal came with a special price of $750, fully $325 less than the previous year. According to Old Cars Weekly, "The car offered 35 hp, high-tension magneto ignition, five-bearing crankshaft, thermo-siphon cooling, underslung rear springs, demountable rims (with one extra, which was not a common addition back then), electric starting and ignition, headlamp dimmers, a one-man top and cover, magnetic speedometer and left-hand drive…" Whew! Everything you'd need for a cross-country road trip. 

We spent quite a bit more in today’s dollars, but our car has glass windows and a roof that allow us to motor along in air-conditioned comfort, and at far greater speeds than the Overland could achieve. We also have a computer in the dash, Bluetooth capability, GPS, and the ability to lock our gear in the car, all of which add to the ease and comfort of our journey. We like it, except for being one of the 11 million car buyers duped by Volkswagen into thinking the car was less polluting than it is. Not too happy about that.

We also have much better roads. Here is a map of the envoys itinerary, which was put together by Amelia Fry, who did oral histories with Sara Bard Field, Mabel Vernon, and Alice Paul, among others.

Map of the envoys' itinerary created by Amelia Fry

A good chunk of the trip followed what was then called The Lincoln Highway, a pretty grandiose name for what was really no more than a cart track, especially in rural areas. Directions were always a little iffy; these are the ones the envoys followed from Laramie to Cheyenne, for example. They seem pretty specific, but…I wonder how clear they were at night, or in rain or snowstorms? And forget about street signs.  Who needs those when you’ve got an abandoned mine to serve as a guidepost?

Directions the envoys followed from
Laramie to Cheyenne. 

Within larger towns and cities the road beds were pretty solid, but once you left them behind they abandoned all pretense of being anything other than a glorified game trail. Sarah describes jolting along for hours in the Overland, so pummeled that by the end of the day every part of her ached. In some stretches she said they were almost ploughing through deep dust. And while the Overland did sport some sort of top that could be raised, they were mostly exposed to the sun and wind.

This isn't from their trip, but illustrates Sara's "ploughing through dust" comment.
Courtesy of the Churchill County Museum, Fallon, Nevada. 

Their passage east from Reno and through Nevada’s Great Basin, which has been our route the last few days, must have been terribly unpleasant. The so-called Fallon Mud Flats, 12 miles of road through alkali “salt pan”, were considered to be the worst section of the entire Lincoln Highway. Interestingly, the region was also going through a long dry spell, so conditions were very dry and dusty, and hellishly hot during the day. We felt parched sitting in our climate-controlled car; I can’t imagine how they brought enough water to quench their thirst.


Nevada’s Great Basin is a stunning series of vast, sweeping desert valleys punctuated by mountain ranges. You climb up and up through passes and then descend to cross an immense valley floor, only to repeat the process over and over again. We read in a guide book that the Great Basin is the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined, but with only about 21,000 residents. Even on today’s well-engineered roads, as you crawl across a valley floor you feel like a very small speck in the universe, separated from all humanity. It’s hard to convey in a photo. While the Lincoln Highway was gaining in popularity, there might be only a handful of cars crossing that area in any given day; serious car trouble, or losing the way, could potentially be fatal. While they appreciated the beautiful scenery, it must have been a huge relief to get across it safely.

Today Rick and I took a rest day, if by rest you mean hiking to the top of 13,000 foot Wheeler Peak in Great Basin National Park. Such amazing country, and the aspens were at peak color, a stunning gold color against the blue sky and deep green of the pines. It was a magical day. Tomorrow we drive all the way to Salt Lake City; I'm looking forward to being back on the suffrage trail.

1 comment:

  1. Great post! (Loved the picture of the Overland, too.)....An old family friend of ours, now deceased, told me once how when he was a boy in the 1910s, his father used to drive them from Cedar Falls, Iowa down to Southern California every year on vacation. (They would always spend a few days in Goldfield, the gold mining town where Sara lived while she was waiting for her Nevada divorce to come through.) They had to carry their own gas because there were so few filling stations, and if you had a flat in a ravine somewhere, good luck on getting out, because nobody was going to come along to help you. That was in 1919, four years after Sara and the Swedes drove the Lincoln Highway. Hard to imagine now what that must have been like.