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First automobile trip to the Grand Canyon

Indispensable horses rescue a vehicle in northern Arizona.

First automobile trip to the Grand Canyon People eager to see the Grand Canyon’s South Rim in 1901 traveled however they could — by foot, wagon, horse, a rollicking stage ride and railroad. Just four months after the train arrived at the South Rim, the first automobile departed Flagstaff on Saturday afternoon Jan. 4, 1902, with many townspeople present to watch, cheer and jeer.

The destination was Grandview Hotel at the South Rim.

The participants were driver (and trip instigator) Oliver Lippincott, journalists Winfield Hogaboom and Tom Chapman, all from Los Angeles, and Flagstaff guide Al Doyle. They intended to make the approximately 60-mile trip in about three hours and therefore, packed no food or water, but they did carry a trailer filled with gasoline and oil and brought along smoking tobacco and matches. They purchased extra gasoline in Flagstaff to augment the gasoline brought in from California. Their route headed northwest from Flagstaff and traveled cross-country as roads designed for automobiles had yet to be constructed.

The automobile was a specially-built Toledo Steamer — a two-ton touring car with a raised chassis to allow for a high clearance of the rocks and arroyos. It had 10-horse power engines and could travel about 40 miles an hour. It, ironically enough, arrived in Flagstaff via the Santa Fe railroad.

They broke down a few miles out, and much to their relief, away from the crowds. Repairs cost valuable daylight time and it was dusk as they passed through Fort Valley, only about
10 miles from town. They sped on through the dark forest until Doyle suggested they stop for the night, without food or water, and hike to a homestead cabin he knew about. The other three were disappointed that they would not reach their goal, but with no moon to guide them through the thick forest, they agreed to stop. They left the car and walked toward a dim light at a cabin where three cowboys shared their food with the intrepid motorists.

Next morning, they found the Toledo’s boilers had frozen overnight, so they used a lot of spare gasoline to thaw them. Once underway, they traveled gleefully through the ponderosa pine forest with the horses of the cowboys snorting and spinning at the vehicle’s steam, and seeing herds of antelope and wild horses. After a descent down a short hill, the next calamity: a broken water gauge. Hours later, they were on their way again, still without food or water, and discovered the Flagstaff gasoline was contaminated and caused the Steamer to emit black smoke. The vehicle crept along at three miles an hour. Next, the sprocket chain broke. Hogaboom wrote later, “An automobile always gets discouraged and quits when its sprocket chain parts.” By now it was midnight, they were out in the open and winter weather. Doyle knew of a juniper grove a couple of miles ahead they drove slowly toward, shivering while holding a dim kerosene lantern to guide them. Two of the men walked ahead of the vehicle to scout a trail. A huge campfire warmed them up and they pretended their smoking tobacco was food and water.

At dawn, they coaxed the vehicle along for a couple of miles then abandoned it to walk the last 18 miles to the Grand Canyon. A few hours later, they had again reached the ponderosa pines and Doyle knew the Grand Canyon was near. They came upon a cabin that had a sign reading: “6 3/8 miles to Grand Canyon.” About noon, Lippincott and Chapman were exhausted and had to rest, so Hogaboom and Doyle went on.

Doyle stopped an hour later, and an hour after that, around 2 p.m., Hogaboom reached their destination. Fortunately, the Grandview was located 12 miles east from today’s South Rim, or else they would have had even farther to travel. A wagon pulled by reliable horses went out to retrieve the people, vehicle, and trailer and haul the entourage in to food, water and rest. A call to Flagstaff requested more gasoline be sent. They men recovered by eating most of the food in the Grandview’s pantry for a few days before Doyle, Chapman, and Hogaboom returned via the Santa Fe railroad to Williams. Lippincott and his Toledo Steamer drove back to Flagstaff taking seven hours instead of the three-day outbound expedition. Lippincott used the successful return trip to encourage automobile travel to see the Grand Canyon.

Journalist Hogaboom wrote of the adventure in a delightful article published in the Los Angeles Herald a month later. He took issue with the “6 3/8 mile” sign and swore to find the sign writer, as he knew it was further than six miles from the cabin. He hallucinated during his ordeal, thinking a bear was about to pounce upon him when it was only a pine cone. He stopped to rest and dreamt of turkey and cranberry sauce at home. Finally, he reached the top of a crest and gazed upon the magnificent Grand Canyon: “I stood there upon the rim and forgot who I was and why I came there for. Before me lay the sublimest panorama in the world.” His suffering ebbed as his spirit revived.

— S.D. Olberding. Photo courtesy of the Museum of Northern Arizona.

3 comments

  1. Great trip and this year my brother and I intend to do it again in the same car! It has taken eight years, off and on, to restore but we hope to be in Flagstaff in late August.

  2. Will you be notifying the AZ Daily Sun about your arrival in August? I think a great many people, myself included, would like to see the car as you begin the trip.

    Thank you,

    Mike Gulvin
    Flagstaff AZ

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