On This Day

Theodore Roosevelt car, Theodore Roosevelt automobile, teddy roosevelt car
Library of Congress National Photo Company Collection
Theodore Roosevelt waves to a crowd from his car.

On This Day: Theodore Roosevelt Becomes First US President to Ride in a Car

August 22, 2011 06:00 AM
by James Sullivan
On Aug. 22, 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt kicked off a tour of New England with a car ride through Connecticut. His journey marked the first time a U.S. president made a public appearance by automobile while in office.

A Presidential Promenade

After landing by yacht in New Haven, Roosevelt began his historic car ride with a tour of the “slums, the factory quarters, and the centre of the city,” before speaking to a crowd of 5,000 at New Haven’s Coliseum. He then proceeded to Meriden, Conn., driving on streets lined with as many as 20,000 people eager to catch a glimpse of their president.

According to a contemporary account of the event in The New York Times, cheering supporters greeted Roosevelt at all points along his parade route, which he traversed in “a handsome victoria automobile, in charge of two expert New York chauffeurs.”

Roosevelt’s tour through the state culminated with a stop in Hartford’s Pope Park, where he spoke to 10,000 enthusiastic workingmen about the value of their labor, and his appreciation for their work. Roosevelt said, “I should, of course, be wholly unfit for the position I occupy if I did not give my best thoughts and best purpose to trying to serve the interests of the toiler of America—the man who works with his hands, and, of course, also the man who works with his head.”

For a trip with the goal of connecting the president with the country’s common man, the automobile proved to be an ideal mode of transportation—allowing him to see more of each city and its people in less time. The Times noted that driving the president around the city “seems to have given the people the opportunity desired of seeing him.”

Other Presidential Firsts

A bold, adventurous and progressive person, Roosevelt was always on the cutting edge. The impressive “firsts” he accumulated over time are a testament to this. According to the Theodore Roosevelt Association, a historical and cultural organization founded after the president’s death in 1919, Roosevelt was the first President to be submerged in a submarine; the first president to own a car; the first to have a telephone in his home; and the first to entertain an African-American in the White House—Booker T. Washington. Although Roosevelt was the first president to ride in a car while in office, the first president to ever ride in a car was William McKinley.

Also notable is that in 1910 Theodore Roosevelt became the first U.S. president to fly in an airplane. The first president to do so while in office was his cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In 1943 FDR flew to Casablanca in North Africa for a strategy meeting with Allies during World War II. German U-boat activity in the Atlantic made a trip by boat too risky.

The first president to ride on a locomotive was Andrew Jackson, who on June 6, 1833, took a Baltimore & Ohio Railroad train to Baltimore, Md. In the years that followed, use of the “Iron Horse” would be so widespread in the United States that by 1860 there were more than 300,000 miles of railroad tracks across the United States.

The Roots of the Automobile Industry

In 1908, only a few years after Roosevelt’s ride through Connecticut, William “Billy” Crapo Durant incorporated future automotive manufacturing giant General Motors of New Jersey.

Durant transitioned from his role as the head of a successful horse-drawn carriage manufacturer to running fledgling automaker Buick. With Durant at the helm, Buick became the most productive automobile manufacturer in the country.

On Sept. 16, 1908, he incorporated General Motors in New Jersey. Within 12 days of its founding, General Motors had issued $12 million in stock. On Sept. 29, it purchased Buick, Oldsmobile, Cadillac and Oakland (later known as Pontiac).

With the strategy of “a car for every purse and purpose,” GM sought to take cars beyond a luxury item to an irreplaceable household staple.

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