Photo:  LOC, ca. 1910 to 1930.

For those who have read my posts on the Van Buren sisters, I want to elaborate just a bit on what conditions were like when they made their cross-country motorcycle trip in 1916. 

Before the Lincoln Highway connected East and West, only the very wealthy traveled any way other than wagons or bicycles for short distances, and by train for long distance.  There were two railway systems that could convey passengers from the east to California.  Those were the Southern Pacific and the Western Pacific.  Routes either went through Chicago, or those who did not want to go through Chicago could take the longer route through St. Louis. 

The Southern Pacific route took passengers across Donner Pass.  Remember the story of the Donner Party? 

The Lincoln Highway was the first effort to combine segmented highways into one significant route.  It was also the first to use concrete to show the advantages of paved roads in making them passable year-round.  Prior to paving, most roads were so muddy they were virtually unusable during wet months.  Even in New York City only about half the roads were paved, and those were covered either in asphalt, cobblestones, bricks, or wooden boards. 

The Lincoln Highway followed pioneer trails and Native American trails, and was built after the passage of the Federal Aid to Highways Act created in 1925, some 9 years after the Van Buren sisters arrived in California on their motorcycles. 

As if the muddy roads weren’t enough of a hindrance, consider that until the invention of the automobile gasoline was considered a worthless by-product of distilling petroleum to get kerosene for lighting.  Given the unreliable road system at the time and the rarity of the automobile, how did these women manage to find enough places where they could keep their fuel tanks filled?

The answer to that may be that they used kerosene when they couldn’t find gasoline.

Early during the competition for Carburants, at present in progress in Paris, experiments were made with ordinary lamp oil or kerosene, and these are said to have shown a greater efficiency than petrol.  There is, of course, nothing new about this, though it has been hailed in the daily papers as a great discovery.  – The Motor Way, Vol. 8-9.  Sept. 1, 1903. 

The problem with using kerosene as motor fuel seems to have been the tendency of forming tar or carbon in the cylinder and that the exhaust was, “…smoky and [would] stink unbearably.”  The Motor Way, Vol. 8-9.  Sept. 1, 1903

There is disagreement as to which was actually “the” first gas station, but whichever version of the story you prefer, it dates from about 1905 – only 11 years prior to the Van Burens’ departure from New York. 

When they did find fuel, it was pumped by a hand-operated crank into a five-gallon bucket and then poured through a funnel into the tank. 

I hope this trip down memory lane has impressed the reader with the difficulties of those first cross-country trips and with the strong constitutions of the women who made them. 

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