By JIM ZBICK
Automobile travel was changing the American landscape a century ago.
The sights and sounds of puttering gas engine vehicles became so popular that motorists formed their own auto clubs, traveling from town to town much like the motorcycle clubs of today. In the summer of 1912, The Schuylkill County Motor Club, comprised of about 15 automobiles and 50 members, was typical of the new wave of outdoor traveler.
In a typical excursion in early June, club members took a ride through the Lizard Creek Valley and West Penn, stopping at Mantz's Hotel for dinner. The group made another stop in Tamaqua before embarking for Pottsville and the final leg of the trip.
These organized group trips by auto clubs were certainly the safest way to travel for the motorist in 1912. The new mode of transportation often created right-of-way confrontations between the motorist and the horse-drawn vehicle, which had dominated the American landscape since its founding.
That summer, The Mauch Chunk Daily Times reported on some new highway laws.
"It is generally through confusion that a driver turns to the wrong side of the road after being warned by an approaching auto from the rear," it stated. "It is the duty of a driver of any kind of a vehicle to keep to the right of the middle of the road."
Accident reports were also appearing more frequently in the local newspapers. In late April of 1912, Tamaqua Evening Courier readers read about a fatal crash when a car belonging to the Nolan Contracting Co. of Reading skidded off the road and rolled down an embankment between Frackville and St. Clair.
Rain and the fact that the driver, William Nolan, was unfamiliar with the road, increased the driving risk that day. The skidding car broke through a guard rail and plunged over the bank, overturning and pinning Nolan underneath. A passenger who escaped injury by jumping to safety went to the office of the Darkwater Coal Company, and telephoned St. Clair for help.
Rescuers found Nolan unconscious, suffering from a fractured skull. He later died in Pottsville Hospital.
Some of the reported vehicle fatalities were work-related. In mid-July, Fred Weatherhold, 23, fell from a Mack truck at Crader's lime kilns after being struck by several boxes that had fallen from the truck. He also suffered a fractured skull and later died in the hospital.
The summer months brought a rash of other accidents in the area and throughout the region. In mid-July, Charles Lewis, a Shamokin businessman and his Philadelphia chauffeur were badly injured after being thrown from their vehicle on Broad Mountain. The car was descending when the steering failed and a tire exploded. The vehicle struck a rock, hurling the men out of the car and onto the road. Shaken but alive, they were treated in a nearby building.
There was danger whenever the engine of an early gas-powered vehicle fired up. In Atlantic City, a man named Zale Wilsky of Philadelphia was turning the crank over to start his machine when it suddenly started and lurched forward, knocking him to the pavement.
The driverless vehicle provided quite a wild scene.
"Women screamed and ran for safety," one reporter said, while the car careened to both sides of Atlantic Ave., smashed into a trolley car and rebounded into a wagon hitched in front of a store. The wagon was smashed into kindling wood and the car continued its mad course until it hit a steel electric light standard and stopped after it had snapped off the light post."
Then, as today, speed was a big concern among motorists.
"Complaint is made daily of the speeding of automobiles up and down Mauch Chunk and Pine streets, endangering the lives of people who cross those thoroughfares," the Courier reported on June 28, 1912. "It is charged that not only do the autoists speed up to a dangerous clip but approach the turn at Mauch Chunk and Pine street without sounding any warning of their horns or whistles."
In one instance, a woman carrying a baby across the street was nearly struck by "a big touring car."
"The dangerous speeding is bad enough in town but it is practiced along the country roads day and night," the Courier stated.
One group returning from a chicken and waffle supper at a local hotel, had to ditch their horse-drawn wagon to avoid hitting "two big cars going at a high rate of speed" just below Hometown. The first motorist managed to avoid colliding with the carriage but the second sent the wagon into the gutter along the road.
"Luckily, it did not overturn and no one was hurt," the reporter stated. "The leading span of horses on the second team backed out of danger as the auto whizzed by."
Elsewhere, a Harrisburg motorist was not so lucky as his speeding vehicle struck a trolley car near Norristown during a rainstorm. The motorman on the trolley reportedly stopped his car when he saw the auto approaching a curve, leaving room for the vehicle to pass.
The auto struck the trolley car with such force that both the driver and his passenger were ejected. The driver died immediately. His passenger, who survived, later admitted the car was going about 60 mph as it descended the hill just before impacting the trolley car.