Greetings Fellow Travelers,
I have been along the Great Road many times in my journeys, traversing in all manners of transport and even walking along it a few times. I have not, however, done anything quite like the story I bring to you today.
The Lincoln Highway runs along the heart of this great country from East to West, as you all are well aware. From San Francisco to New York City, the terrain is as varying as the people you meet along the long road, ranging from deserts to mountains to everything in between. Now back when the Great Road was new, there were many people who wanted to leave their imprint on the history of the road. Some people went for a long walk, others chose to grab a bicycle and set out. Now one gentleman, a Mr. Gustave Petzel, decided he wanted to stand out among these fellow travelers. In 1915, Mr. Petzel built himself a metal ball to roll from California to New York. This ball was four and a half feet in diameter, weighed 180 pounds, and made of steel. Gustave did do himself the favor of making it a hollow globe, with the steel rim measuring at a thickness a sixteenth of an inch . His goal was to make it to New York in six months time, where he would be rewarded with a thousand dollars from some folks in San Francisco.
While I have spoken before about the state of the Lincoln Highway in those early days, where parts of the road were little more than a nice dirt path. I do not know about you, but it is hard for me to imagine pushing a ball that large along not only along the nicer parts of the road, but up and then back down the Sierra Nevadas, the Rockies, and the Appalachians. After the mountains, Mr. Petzel would also have the joy of pushing that great steel globe across the open deserts and plains under the hot summer sun. One thousand dollars was a large amount back in 1915, but I cannot say whether that would be incentive enough for me to undertake such a journey.
Mr. Gustave Petzel set out with his great steel ball on June 3, 1915, with the goal to work his ball and his way along the road to arrive in New York in six months. While I have looked far and wide for more details of this impressive journey, I have not been able to find any word that Mr. Petzel accomplished his lofty goal. Whether the mountains, the ball or or the journey defeated his steely resolve, Mr Petzel disappears for a time to resurface with details of another attempt of crossing the country along the Lincoln Highway ten years later.
As we know, Gustave was quite the skilled craftsman after building that great steel ball. In 1925, Mr. Petzel decided to make his journey again, but since I would assume he had enough of large balls, he built himself a baby car, touted at the time as the “smallest car in the world.” Gustave and his four cylinder, 560 pound little car set out along the road, travelling the Lincoln Highway by way of Yosemite National Park. Instead of working his way along the Great Road, this time Mr. Petzel sold postcards to fund his trip. This trip was a successful one, as Mr. Petzel is recorded to have made his way to Washington, D.C. in February of 1926, where he showed off his baby car’s ability to go 52 miles on a single gallon of gas and speed up to 80mph.
Mr. Gustave Petzel was a fellow traveler who set his sights on leaving his name in the history of the Lincoln Highway. While I cannot say I would be one to make such a trip as his first attempt, I do admire his resolve to set out along that journey when the road was young.
If you find yourself making the same journey one day, keep Mr. Petzel and his great globe in mind as you drive from the shining coast into the great mountains of our county. Perhaps you may even spot the ball somewhere along the way, maybe standing as relic along the road in the Truckee River.
From the Open Road,
Lincoln Highway Johnny