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America by Car


Wealthy Americans and those who wanted to be near them flocked to Miami Beach during the 1920's and 30's. Others chose alternative vacation spots. Beckoned by a growing tourism industry, families from New York and Chicago, Dallas and Dubuque set out on adventures to destinations both local and distant. And many of them traveled by means of the vehicle which had brought Carl Fisher his first fortune -- the automobile.

In the 1920's, railroads and steamship cruise lines still dominated the travel industry, providing comfortable, reliable transportation to millions of American vacationers. Railroad companies urged travelers to hitch a ride on the Los Angeles Limited, "the Select Train for Southern California" or hop a coach to Atlantic City. Steamship companies pitched luxury cruises to exotic locales such as Havana and the Mediterranean.

At the same time, the automobile was coming into its own. By 1921, the number of motor vehicles in the US topped the ten million mark. President Warren G. Harding approved a $75 million appropriation to improve the nation's roads. Photograph of a Ford Model TCompanies with names like Moon, Chrysler, Hupmobile, and Ford cranked out shiny new cars, and consumers snapped them up. More and more Americans chose to travel by automobile while vacationing.

In part, the auto vacation was a response to the pomp and circumstance of high-class resort life. The palatial hotels in places like Miami Beach stretched the budgets of many middle class Americans, and exotic practices like table manners and formal dining dress impinged on vacationers' sense of fun. And while trains and steamships offered an elegant journey, they forced travelers to conform to a rigid time schedule and a limited selection of destinations.

In contrast, the automobile vacation promised a low-cost, high-freedom itinerary. Autocamping, or "gypsying," became popular almost as soon as cars hit the roads, and four-wheeling vagabonds journeyed to destinations as close as the farm down the road or as distant as the great park at Yellowstone, carrying everything they needed on board their faithful jitneys. They slept in tents or rapidly constructed lean-tos. They cooked fresh-caught trout and cans of soup over open fires.

Plebeian as it sounded, autocamping took hold among even wealthy Americans. Gypsying aficionados included Henry Ford, who undoubtedly hoped that an autocamping boom would increase his sales, and President Harding himself. Yet no matter what their social status, vacationers who traveled by car faced a universal menace -- the abysmal condition of American roads.

Photograph of a carOnce they left the security of major cities, drivers discovered roadways that were often little better than the buggy paths which preceded them. Mud holes, boulders, unbridged streams and other hazards often slowed or temporarily halted travel. The wise autocamper carried an on-board repair kit and even cans of gasoline, as service stations were few and far between. Rand McNally printed its first auto guide in 1908, but many roads went unmapped or featured dubious signage.

Across the nation, automotive industry tycoons, car dealers, motorists, and local chambers of commerce banded together to form trail associations, which worked to improve auto roads. Among the most significant of the early groups was the Lincoln Highway Association. Formed in 1913 and backed by Carl Fisher, the group succeeded in paving or otherwise improving the nation's first transcontinental highway, which ran from New York to San Francisco.

Other trail associations followed. They gave highways attention-getting names such as the National Old Trails Highway, the Mohawk Trail, and the Old Spanish Trail. They put up road signs and mileage markers, printed trail maps and promotional brochures, and lobbied for funds to improve their pet roads.

The efforts paid off. In 1921, Washington State built 200 miles of concrete road, including stretches of the Pacific Highway, a favorite of auto tourists. That same year, New York paved 530 miles. Pennsylvania added 640 miles, more than any other state in the nation. But as improved travel conditions drew more tourists to the highway, the autocamping boom began to self-destruct.

As autocampers' numbers grew, so did problems. Landowners complained of trespassers. Gypsying vacationers fouled streams with sewage, blighted fields with trash, and helped themselves to farmers' fruits and vegetables without bothering to pay.

Meanwhile, communities began to draw motorists into town centers by setting up auto camps on public lands. Campers could get a hot meal, a shower, and a tent site in a safe, secure environment. And hopefully, they took time to spend some money at local businesses during their stay.

By the mid-twenties, entrepreneurs had pushed the auto camp concept further, building tiny cabins where a weary traveler could bunk for the night protected from the elements--for a reasonable fee, of course. So-called tourist courts proved enormously popular, and as competition grew, operators used gimmicks to draw travelers in. They modeled their shelters on teepees, rustic log homes, or southwestern-style adobes. They offered amenities such as cookstoves and hot showers. Illustration of the Flamingo HotelAnd eventually, they linked their cabins together, creating the incarnation now recognized as the motel.

As time passed, motorists grew more accustomed to luxury; what they really wanted, it seemed, was not altogether different from the amenities that hotels like Carl Fisher's Flamingo offered to their guests. Motels grew more and more hotel-like, as owners added dining rooms, swimming pools, and air conditioning. And as auto vacationing grew more luxurious and the car more ubiquitous, more and more families hit the road.

The train companies and the steamship lines continued to advertise their luxury vacations, but Americans had grown to love the freedom and convenience of the automobile, and there was no turning back. To the Rocky Mountains they drove, and to New Orleans, to Hollywood and Atlantic City, the Grand Canyon and Miami Beach, until the automobile and the vacation became inseparable, and a car full of family vacationers became an icon of the American Good Life.

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