Studebaker-Garford Trail to Sunset Tour: NY to LA

It was a daring idea in 1911. Take 10 seven-passenger Studebaker-Garford Touring cars, add 50 passengers, and follow it with another Garford, decked out as a covered wagon, that was used to carry the baggage. Next, head out from New York, bound for Los Angeles, with stops at all the amazing desert landmarks along the way.

Indianapolis Star 02 Oct 1911 (Indiana)

According to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on August 10, 1911, promoters had the assistance and cooperation of the American Automobile Association. The 4,000 miles novel transcontinental tour was slated to begin on October 2, 1911, to take advantage of good weather. Noted pathfinder, A.L. Westgard, had officially surveyed the trails twice in the past 8 months, was to lead the expedition. Mrs. Westgard and several other women would also accompany the tour.

The daily runs would be on average less than 100 miles and every Sunday would be a day of rest. Great caution was planned to prevent accident or delay. A Garford motor truck would carry automobile spare parts and most of the hand baggage to prevent the cars being overloaded. Guests were to stay in first class hotels. A commissary and camping kit would be carried in New Mexico and Arizona, since hotels were lacking. On some parts along the Santa Fe, the party would be housed in Pullman sleeping cars. By the end of October, the party planned to have reached warmer weather.

Studebaker-Garford automobiles were produced and distributed jointly by the Garford Company in Ohio, and the Studebaker Corporation in Indiana from 1904 through 1911. Touring Car, photo courtesy A.Savin, WikiCommons

The Trail to Sunset from New York to Chicago would follow the conventional path, which afforded mostly macadam, good gravel roads and numerous cities of interest. From Chicago, it would cross the state of Illinois on a gravel road all the way to the Mississippi River into Davenport, Iowa. From this point to Omaha it would traverse the now famous river-to-river road, graded and marked throughout its length.

At Omaha the route swings southward through the valley of the Missouri River to Kansas City, where it enters the historic Santa Fe trail, which it follows through the entire length in the state of Kansas. The way was marked at frequent intervals with granite monuments erected by the Dames of the American Revolution, and for a great portion of its length follows the Arkansas River, transversing a rich agricultural country and numerous thriving towns.

A.L. Westgard, photo courtesy Federal Highway Administration

From La Junta, the route strikes South West across the South East corner of the state of Colorado, still by the Santa Fe trail to Trinidad, then crossing the beautiful Raton Pass into New Mexico. Here, the tourist enters a foreign country, where language, customs and costumes differ from the rest of the United States.

The Santa Fe trail continued into Las Vegas (New Mexico) to the state’s capital of the territory, Santa Fe, as it lies miles off the Santa Fe Railroad, and has never received the attention of tourists for its rich history it deserved. It traversed tremendously large cattle ranges, Mexican adobe houses and Indian pueblos. The newspaper continued by saying Santa Fe is the most interesting town in the United States.

Photo courtesy NYPL Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division (Public Domain)

From Santa Fe to Albuquerque, the route swings west and leaves the railroad for several hundred miles and enters a territory not often seen. After crossing mountain ranges, Apache Indian villages, Fort Apache and Globe, Arizona to Phoenix, the group planned to visit the Grand Canyon for four days. It was said that the Arizona desert provided fine gravel roads under towering cacti all the way to the Colorado River, which would be crossed by a power ferry into California.

The route continued into Chuckawalla Valley 100 miles into Mecca, located on the Northern end of the Salton Sea, 194 feet below sea level and skirted the base of the San Jacinto Mountain range. Climbing the gradual grade of the San Gorgonio Pass to Beaumont on beautiful boulevards past orange groves and palms to Riverside then Los Angles would complete the journey. (Westgard Pass between the White and Inyo mountain ranges in California is named after Westgard. He also mapped Motor Routes to California Expositions in 1915 and the National Park to Park Highway for the Automobile Association of America in 1920.)

Chicago Tribune 3 April 1910

On September 27, 1911, The Emporia Times (Kansas) reported Emporia would serve as the night control for the cars for this first commercial transcontinental automobile tour on October 26, 1911. The cars would come to Emporia from Kansas City from Omaha. The article said two Garlock trucks would carry baggage and each automobile would carry four passengers. The Trail to Sunset tour planned to cover over 4,000 miles and be of seven weeks duration. There would be opportunities for tourists to meet the caravan on the way which would at times be met with a local escorting party for the historic event.

A newspaper article on October 22, 1911, in The Nebraska State Journal, stated many touring club representatives placed sign boards along the route and secured various appropriations for keeping the roads in repair, has enhanced its popularity among motorists planning long distance journeys in America. A special agent was hired and planned to give an exhausting report of road conditions throughout the far west. On November 5, 1911, The New York Times commented the impetus for automobile touring to California from the eastern states had increased in the past two years and by the successful mapping of the Trail to Sunset by the Touring Club of America a year ago.

The official scout was British journalist, Thomas W. Wilby, who wrote for the Christian Science Monitor prior to returning to England. The paper continued by saying indications were that the coming winter would be the most popular for touring motorists than ever before. (Thomas W. Wilby would go on to complete the first Trans Canada road trip by car in 1912, commencing from Halifax on August 27 and write books about both experiences.)

Courtesy of the National Archives, this photo was taken by the leader of the caravan, A.L. Westgard, 1911.

Despite careful trip planning, mishaps often make the best stories. Somewhere between Fort Yuma, Arizona, and Blythe, California, the wagon got stuck in the sand. As you can see, horses saved the day. The caravan continued on to Los Angeles.

The Trail to Sunset became a popular trip for automobile tourists, predating the federal highway system known as Route 66, which began its formative years from 1926 to 1932. By 1911, Studebaker and Garford ended their tenuous business relationship. In 1913, Garford was purchased by John North Willys and merged into Willys-Overland.

Covered wagon with jackrabbit mules encounters an automobile on the trail near Big Springs, Nebraska by A. L. Westgard, 1912.

Cover Photo: Five Studebaker-Garford vehicles completed the Trail to Sunset transcontinental tour from New York City to Pasadena, California from October 2, 1911 to November 23, 1911. Shown here is their stopover at the Garford factory in Elyria, Ohio. Courtesy Lorain County Historical Society.

Recommended Resources

On the Trail to Sunset (hardcover, 592 pages) and Tales of a Pathfinder (published 1920, paperback)

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