The Good of It All
Thornton Round 1957 243 pages
When autos were new “autoists” were quick to push the limits of their new vehicles as well as themselves. The Good of It All is a book about the reminiscences of Thornton Round whose father decided to take the family across the country from Cleveland to California and back in 1914. It’s a simple book which will take the reader on the same journey, a journey that was difficult at the beginning of the motor age. That’s maybe interesting to Heirloom readers who are interested in what auto travel was like in the old days. On the way back the family did cross Donner Summit so we can see what that was like.
On the one hand there is not much detail about the trip but on the other hand what detail there is is amazing because Thornton wrote the book 42 years after the trip. He’d been fourteen during the crossings and drove one of the two cars the family took.
Beyond the simple story and recounting of hotels, meals, and campsites there are a lot of pictures and auto ads from the time and the beginning starts with the actual letters that Round’s father wrote to the Cleveland Automobile Club recounting the journey.
The family took two cars. One was a Winton 6 which carried people. The other was a Ford which carried the baggage. Thornton drove one car along with one passenger. His brother drove the other carrying other family members.
The real point of the book for us, besides the description of crossing Donner Summit, is what auto travel was like. The family left Cleveland on June 21 It took 19 days of travel to get to Los Angeles during which they traveled 3360 miles. They figured they went 166 miles a day and each day was nine – ten hours of driving. That was averaging 16 mph. The “speed limit in the majority of towns [was] eight miles per hour.” The autos averaged 7.65 mpg. Gasoline cost 12-55 cents. Hotels were $3.00 a night, two to a room, with a bath. They were $1.50 a night for no bath. They were $1.00 a night for single rooms.
There were all kinds of episodes: a disappearing road, being chased by shotgun wielding men, a plank road in the desert sand, dismantling and reassembling the engine one night so they could travel the next day, the ghost town of Goldfield, NV, deluges, wrong turns, skidding off the road, mountain lions, seeing a couple of movies, pouring gas into the carburetor a little at a time so they could travel 1 ½ miles, and using a rope wrapped around the rear tires to provide traction in the sand.
A continual source of irritation were flat tires. They had 175 flats and 17 blow outs. Most of the flat tires were because of horseshoe nails or pieces of horseshoes. One task each night was the to patch the tubes from each day’s flats.
From L.A. the family headed into the Central Valley seeing Bakersfield, Fresno, Sequoia Nat’l Park and then on to San Francisco, up to Eureka, back to S.F. and then back across the country.
Besides the constant flats, Breakdowns were not uncommon.
We’re left to wonder about the comfort given that the cars were not enclosed and they traveled in the constant dust and dirt and then the heat of the desert. Directions were not clear. They had to ask the way from locals because there were no signs. One book they had “told us to look west and note another higher range of mountains - go to the north end, bear left around them, and use a compass. That was it, and according to the book, from there on you were on your own.”
Crossing Donner Summit
"We started off in a gay mood for Reno, and this turned out to be the toughest one-hundred miles I have ever driven… we came to the Donner Pass. The road was narrow, and we had to resort to constant carburetor adjustments… There were dangerous unfenced gaps in the mountains, and no warning signs. We worked out way along very slowly, with our ears attuned to the least noise that might indicate an approaching car. With all our caution we had many narrow escapes.
"We came to Donner Pass without further mishap. I don’t believe I have adequate words to describe the real beauty of Donner pass. It gives on the same sensation as would be felt by doing over it in a plane. As we stood looking down I had a floating sensation… As we stood at Donner Pass and gazed below, I lost all fear as I looked at one of the most beautiful blue lakes I have every seen. Everything below us seemed suspended in shimmering sunlight."
They all reached Truckee and then Lake Tahoe, “one of the playgrounds of California today.” They decided to head off to Reno. Here Thornton Round’s memory got the best of him 42 years after the event. He says they went into the snowsheds after getting to Lake Tahoe. Knowing what we know though, the snowshed crossing had to be on the way to Truckee and not to Tahoe.
"…we met our next challenge in the form of a snow shed through which we had to pass. I stopped the Ford, got out, and walked ahead to do a bit of reconnoitering. By now the Winton had pulled up to the rear. We turned off both motors so that we might have absolute silence. I put my pencil on the railroad track and listened for vibration which would indicate an approaching train. There was none so I figured it would be safe to proceed. I motioned to Ray to go ahead with the Winton. Ray guided the front wheels of the car over the tracks but that was as far as he got. There was a steep downgrade that dropped off directly opposite the railroad tracks. The Winton was too long to make the dip it would have to in order to nose over the track and start downward. The big car was hung in mid air on the edge of the snow tunnel.
Needless to say, a railroad track is no place to tarry, and we were scared stiff. “
Eventually after removing Mrs. Round and the baby from the car they were able to bounce the car free and then over the tracks. The Ford made it easily.
Given the 42 year delay in writing down the episode, we can forgive Mr. Round for his geographical error. That bring up the question though - where did they get stuck? See the next page.
Where Did They Get Stuck?
Thornton Round noted that their cars had to go through the snowsheds to pass through the snowsheds to get across the tracks.
Since that crossing was in the neighborhood of where they could overlook Donner Lake the spot had to be at the east end of Tunnel 6. There travelers paralleled the tunnel until it was time to cross the tracks. Then they opened a barn door on one side of the tracks, went through the snowshed nad across and opened the door on the other side. "Listening" by putting a pencil on the tracks may have been a good idea. No train coming? The driver went back to the auto, drove into and down the snowshed to the opening on the other side. He then emerged above Donner Lake. The picture here is of an auto having crossed the shed and is on the way down to Donner Lake.
Cars did get stuck at the spot the Rounds did and there were accidents. To solve the problem the underpass, a few hundred yards east was built and put to use, according to Oakland Tribune, on August 23, 1914. That was perhaps just after the Rounds went over the pass given the start on June 21, the stay in L.A., the three days to S.F., then to Eureka, back to S.F. and then over the Sierra.