The advent of the gasoline-powered automobile profoundly changed the landscape of America.
Inventors originally worked with steam and electric to power their horseless carriages and automobiles before perfecting the gasoline combustion engine.
By 1899, Ransom Eli Olds was producing the curved dash Oldsmobile with a single cylinder engine at his Olds Motor Vehicle Company in Detroit. After producing more than 11,000 vehicles, Olds left his company and began mass production of a new vehicle called the Reo, in direct competition with Henry Ford, who was also mass producing cars.
The first automobile dealership in Oregon was opened in 1903 by Fred T. Merrill in Portland. He sold Ford autos alongside bicycles. In 1904, hardware merchant Samuel K. Sykes sold John R. Sutherlin the first automobile in Roseburg, a Ford Tonneau Touring car.
Sykes owned a hardware store at 445 S.E. Jackson St. in downtown Roseburg. The red brick building still stands today and is currently occupied by Northwest Lifestyles. At one time, Sykes also operated a popular roller skating rink in the building’s upper story floor.
Elsewhere in Douglas County, Jack Durfee and George Sanders had the first two privately owned autos in Drain while Wilson F. Jewett brought the first car to Gardiner.
The first roads in the county often followed the old stage routes. The rutted wagon tracks made the surface rough and bumpy. During the rainy season, the dirt roads became a sticky, muddy mess.
Speed limits ranged from 8 to 10 mph. With a lack of service stations, drivers traveled with extra gas and what was known as an “emergency bucket” of water to cool the engines that often overheated.
By 1905, with 218 registered vehicles, the state of Oregon enacted a onetime registration fee of $3 per vehicle for use in the road-building general fund. Vehicle license renewal fees of $10 per auto and $3 per motorcycle were adopted in 1911.
Oregon was the first state to enact a gasoline tax, one cent per gallon in 1919, adding a tidy sum of $342 to the state coffers. The next year some interesting regulations were set for obtaining a driver’s license in the state. The license itself only set you back a quarter, but it required a minimum of five days’ driving experience. It was not until 1931 that an examination on road rules and a vision test became a requirement.
The development of the State Highway Department and the campaign, “Bring Oregon out of the mud,” began in 1913. By year’s end, 25 miles of roadways had been paved. In this same year, Marjorie Hunt Pettit, a child, recalled a family trip in a Model T Ford. They visited Crater Lake and Bandon and Crescent City, Calif.
Before starting, “Dad got a set of tire protectors — pieces of metal about two inches wide which clamped around the tire … a metal armor,” Marjorie explained.
As the family and car rolled along, a few pieces of metal shed every day on the two-week adventure, but there was only one tire puncture. Outside Myrtle Creek their car passed a covered wagon. What a dichotomy!
Soon the Pacific Highway was built, extending through Oregon from Portland to Ashland and the California border by 1923. The completion of the highway marked the first paved highway stretching the entire length of a state west of the Mississippi.
Auto camps began to spring up along the routes, reaching their peak in Oregon between 1915 and 1922. The auto campers were known as auto “nomads” or “gypsies.” Grants Pass opened the first camp adjacent to Riverside Park in 1914, followed closely by the Lithia Auto Camp in Ashland, which opened on July 22, 1915. Douglas County had popular camps near Myrtle Creek and Canyonville. Today, Lithia Park displays an interesting historical exhibit about its camp.
Graffiti Weekend offers a great opportunity to reminisce about the advent of automobiles in Douglas County. Young and old can enjoy watching history as it rolls down the road.
R.J. Guyer is a freelance writer who lives and works in Roseburg. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As the family and car rolled along, a few pieces of metal shed every day on the two-week adventure, but there was only one tire puncture. Outside Myrtle Creek their car passed a covered wagon.