Ah, what must it have been like in Utah before the advent of the motor car? Do you realize the prospect of discovering a pearl in a bowl of oyster stew is more likely than locating someone who has never seen an automobile or can claim to having lived before its invention? Cars have been part of our lives forever, you say? It only seems so.
For instance, the first horseless carriage in Salt Lake City made its appearance under a century ago. On April 12, 1899, to be precise, George E. Airis, son of a well-known mining family, unveiled his new purchase in the downtown area. According to an account in the Salt Lake Herald of that memorable and historic occasion, the machine was a "Winton Motor Carriage," manufactured by the Winton Carriage Works in Cleveland.
There were no car dealerships as we know them in those bucolic bygone days, so Mr. Airis found it necessary to order the contraption through Salt Lake Hardware Co. The Herald account described the machine thusly: "The body of the carriage resembles many of the family vehicles seen upon the streets, and differs from them in appearance by being without a tongue and by having heavy bicycle wheels, with the pneumatic rubber tires.
The machinery that drives the automobile is entirely hidden from view by the box back of the seat, and consists of a gasoline engine for motive power, which drives a shaft placed near the center of the carriage. From this shaft a sprocket chain connects with the back axle of the carriage, causing it to revolve.
The machinery is under perfect control of the operator from the seat, by the means of levers, one of which is used to go ahead and the other to reverse the engine. The speed is regulated by levers at the bottom of the carriage, which are pressed by the foot."
Our scribe neglected to venture a guess as to the speed of this "horseless carriage," but since it was the first of its breed, the concerns of rules of the road and right-of-way apparently posed no immediate obstacle. He did, however, provide his readers with the bottom line: The price tag. A Winton was $1,500 prepaid in Salt Lake City. "This figure is remarkably low for a horseless carriage," he opined, "the Columbia carriage costing from $2,000 up."
How did the Winton perform? The Herald's observations came in the final paragraph. "After the engine was tried at the hardware warehouse, Mr. Airis and a friend ventured out upon the street, and took a spin over Main, State and West Temple, to the great delight of the small boy, who was out in numbers to follow them."
There would be more "horseless carriages" in Utah, to be sure, but the next important newspaper coverage from the Herald would not come for more than a year. Lorenzo Snow, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, known to have a "natural love for novelty" had been buzzing the streets in an automobile that was giving Salt Lake horses "the blind staggers." President Snow was no stranger to motor carriages, for it was reported that he had challenged Joseph F. Smith, his second counselor, to a 15-mile race over the prairie near Cove Creek in southcentral Utah. "That race had its hair-raising features," reported the Herald, but President Snow won it. In this latest episode, the newspaper failed to mention the make of the vehicle, but it must have been a brute. Its owner was one Hyrum Silver, and his knowledge that the church leader was partial to "fast locomotion" led him to extend an invitation.
Promptly at 2:30 on the afternoon of May 15, 1900, a chuff, chuff, chuff and puff of exhaust smoke announced the machine had sputtered up to the door of the Beehive House on South Temple. President Snow appeared, walked around the "carriage" once or twice on an inspection of the "critter," stepped aboard, pulled his hat firmly down over his head, gripped the seat, and, gave the word, "All ready!" Zip! The machine turned its bow toward the Brigham Young Monument, cutting a half-moon in the road, and was off. "It took the right-of-way from all street cars, because it went faster. The butcher boy forgot where he was to deliver the meat, while his horse stood paralyzed, and the general populace just stood and stared with wonder and admiration at the sight of the venerable old man flying down Main Street at 30 miles an hour, sublimely content, but a trifle worried, if the expression on his face indicated anything."
It was a half-hour before the automobile drove up at the president's office again, and a group of interested spectators gathered to be convinced that one could actually ride in the thing and come out alive, the Herald explained. A comment was sought, and President Snow, collecting his thoughts, brushed the road dust from his clothes and offered an endorsement: "It is glorious to ride in. We went all down Main Street and around Liberty Park and back up State and around here, and oh, I cannot begin to tell you what a ride we had. I didn't know what minute we might upset a street car, but the first fear soon passed.
It's quite different from driving an ox cart. That's the way I saw Salt Lake City first. But 50 years makes a great difference in most everything. In 1849 when we first came here I drove one of the ox teams over these same roads, but we made on an average of 100 miles a week. I believe that carriage," he said, pointing to the auto, "would have no difficulty covering about 35 miles an hour on good roads. The next time we go through Dixie [southern Utah] we can take the automobiles and do away with carrying oats in the bottom of the buggy."