Harmon’s Histories: cars continue to dazzle and bewilder after more than a century


By Jim Harmon

My wife and I are approaching fossil-dom.

Oops! Sorry, dear. My mistake.

That was a colossal kerfuffle. I am a fossil. You, my love, are a sweet young thing of, at most, teenage-or-30-something-vintage; a young flower of timeless beauty.

Anyway, we’re car shopping – something we haven’t done for a long, long while. We tend to buy new, or lightly used, then keep the car until its death. We haven’t been on a car lot for a decade or more.

How might I describe our car-shopping experience? Shocking? Mind numbing? Certainly that, and more. We’re in tech-induced comas. I mean, cars these days can parallel park themselves!

I suspect our reaction today is not unlike folks back at the turn of the century, as they encountered strange new horseless-carriage-contraptions.

A bit of research shows the actual “first automobile” can be traced back to 1769 and Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot (steam powered), then to Robert Anderson (electric) and Karl Friedrich Benz (gasoline). Of course, serious mass-production of cars had to wait until about 1900.

I remember hearing stories of my grandfather’s first car experience in the 1920s. He had no idea how to operate the thing. It was a “novelty.” Turns out that was a commonly used phrase back then.

The Western News of Hamilton wrote about “novel automobiles,” in June of 1900. They described the new electric ambulance and police patrol wagon being used back east, but added, “the predictions about the passing of the horse and the universal employment of the automobile are slow of fulfillment.”

A couple of years later (1902) the Billings Gazette described another “novel automobile,” this one a 12-foot-long racing machine being built by a retired Cincinnati millionaire tobacco merchant.

A few well-to-do western Montanans managed to acquire these novelties very early on, only to find their car-karma was not so fine.

In July, 1902, E. L. Bonner, one of the area’s “oldest and most respected” residents, went out for a drive in his new automobile, only to collapse and die from a heart attack, falling on the gear lever and tumbling out of the buggy, hitting the ground “with his full weight.”

In 1903 the Butte Inter Mountain newspaper reported on an auto-versus-horse and buggy crash in Missoula: “Frank Simon’s new gasoline automobile ran away this morning, and when the smoke cleared up a stout farm wagon had been broken to bits, Dr. Buckley was out a buggy and an unknown man had been precipitated into the river.”

If it wasn’t accidents, it was vandalism. In 1904, F. H. Drinkenberg’s new automobile was dynamited one Saturday night in Hamilton, presumably by some spiteful person. No one was hurt. Drinkenberg and his wife were at a Daniel Bandmann performance at the Lucas Opera House at the time.

In 1908, E. W. Stetson of Missoula, a passenger in a car, was seriously injured when the auto crashed into a telegraph pole at a high rate of speed in Helena.

Despite all this, the car was morphing from “novelty” to “normalcy.” Only a decade after the Hamilton newspaper described the slow pace with which these motorized contraptions were replacing the horse, Montanans were demanding improved roadways to accommodate their autos.

In 1909, members of the Missoula County Automobile club helped improve the road between Missoula and Florence, then turned their attention to the span between Missoula and Evaro, filling “ruts in the roads and (reducing) the rough places technically termed ‘Thankyemarms.'”

In 1912, the Ekalaka Eagle reported that an “official auto from New York city arrived in this place… en route to Seattle. This machine will establish the transcontinental road which will be a two weeks auto ride from New York to Seattle.”

At the same time, the Libby Herald reported the Tobacco Valley Development association in Eureka was pushing for an auto highway to connect the area with Flathead county, then tying in with the national “Northwest Trail.”

Automobile owners were proud of their acquisitions and wanted to show them off. Tom Thibodeau told the Missoulian, as his brand new 1914 Reo arrived at the Garden City garage, “…we want every automobile expert in town to see this car, it is worth the inspection.”

Purveyors of the “Metz 22” proudly touted a new gearless transmission, “No clutch to slip, no gears to strip.”

H.O. Albert, a distributor of the new “Cartercar,” demonstrated the “prowess” of that fine auto by loading it up with “five fully grown men” and “from a standing start, ascended the steps of the Missoula county courthouse, and, held there by its own braking power, paused a while to enable its photograph to be taken.”

Amid all this exuberance, there was growing alarm on the streets of Missoula. Unskilled drivers and mechanical failures had pedestrians diving for safety.novel-veh-western-news-hamilton-6-6-1900

A car lost a wheel, crashing into the railing of the Higgins avenue bridge, sending a couple of passengers airborne. “At the same time, almost to the minute,” reported the Missoulian, a car “came chugging around the corner of East Cedar street (now, Broadway) and started South on Higgins avenue (when) Alec Simpson, 7 years of age, suddenly dodged across the street from the west sidewalk. He was thrown in front of the machine, which passed completely over him. The lad raised his head just in time to have it struck by the rear axle. This gave him a hard bump, but it was his only injury.”

The Missoulian declared some drivers were, “a menace to society,” and quoted a local businessman who called for, “…some law in this state which would relieve the public from the danger in which it stands from this sort of men.”

The cops began a crackdown. The first driver they nabbed was Roy Stover who worked for the Northern Pacific Express company. Stover claimed he couldn’t do his work without speeding. Police court judge Von Platen disagreed, fining him $10 and lecturing him, “That seems to be the trouble everywhere… these drivers all give the same excuse. If it’s true, their employers ought to be forced to put on extra drivers. Anyhow, we’re going to stop this.”

Sorry, judge Von Platten, your crackdown may have helped a bit, but it didn’t stop the problem. A lot of today’s drivers are still “a menace to society.”

Technology, however, may finally offer a solution. Soon, our cars will be “driver-less.”

What could possibly go wrong?

Jim Harmon is a retired journalist whose 50-year career included nearly three decades at KECI-TV, Missoula in roles ranging from news anchor to weather forecaster. In retirement, Jim is a landscape gardener and history buff who’s spent years reading historical micro-film newspapers. You can read his weekly history column at the Missoula Current.