Aug. 13, 2004

Commentary by
Roger Martin

Automobile made tourism accessible to Americans

by Roger Martin

The summer the family finally got the car, I was 14. We strapped a johnboat to the roof, threw a five-horsepower motor in the trunk and meandered hundreds of miles over Missouri roads.

The impromptu stops the family made were a surprise. The Martin family wasn't given to improvisation. We were a train that ran on time.

We idled a few days in a cabin by the Lake of the Ozarks. Daddy fished and I pretended to enjoy it too.

One day, we all made a short, quick probe of hot springs country in northwest Arkansas. Another day, we took a guided tour of a heavily advertised cave.

In our trip were elements of what was known to elite Americans in the early 19th century as "the fashionable tour." I found that out by reading a scholarly article on tourism in America before World War II.

The article, by Tom Weiss, University of Kansas professor of economics, appeared in the Journal of Economic History.

The piece helped me fit the first Martin Ozarks tour into the history of American tourism.

That history begins, according to Weiss, with a tiny fraction of wealthy Americans passing time at spas and mineral springs.

Weiss writes that before the early 1800s, "tourism was confined almost entirely to 22 spas scattered around the country."

We Martins took the waters just as they had -- but in lakes and motel swimming pools rather than mineral springs.

In the early 1800s, scenic wonders and sacred places joined spas as part of the fashionable tour, which was the American aristocracy's answer to the European grand tour.

For elite travelers back then, Niagara Falls was the No. 1 attraction. For the Martins it was beautiful and romantic Bridal Cave, with its wondrous year-round temperature of 60 degrees.

After spas and sights, resorts became tourist attractions in places like the Jersey shore and New England's White Mountains.

And as attractions multiplied, so did the tourists, from 10,000 to 40,000 Americans annually at the start of the 1800s to 250,000 to 300,000 by 1855.

If you're wondering about when Florida muscled its way onto the scene, Weiss has an answer: after the Civil War, when Southern states in general viewed tourism as an economic pick-me-up.

Tourists also cast their eyes west around then, spurred by the emergence of national parks.

Yet the middle class still wasn't part of the surge.

It was the automobile that finally made touring more of an equal opportunity experience, Weiss says. With cars came car camping. Cities set up campgrounds in parks hoping to lure travelers.

But they and the private campgrounds that followed never really took off. What did were new institutions termed, variously, "cottage courts," "motor inns," "highway hotels" and then "motels."

The car was king.

In 1916, more visitors came to Yellowstone by train than car. Twenty years later, 20 times more visitors traveled there by car than by train.

Weiss quotes a writer named Foster Rhea Dulles to summarize all this:

"The wealthy could make the fashionable tour in 1825, the well-to-do built up the summer resorts of the 1890s, but every Tom, Dick and Harry toured the country in the 1930s -- thanks to the automobile."

But the Martins, of course, weren't just any Tom, Dick or Harry. Our tour was delayed till 1960. The fact that the Martins even took the tour shows how far out of fashion it had fallen.

But who cares? The freedom of the open road made us feel, ever so briefly, like Rockefellers.


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