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Princeton’s Summer Trips Across North America

Although traveling significant distances is routine for many Princetonians these days, traversing North America was not always as easy as it is now. Our records reveal a variety of both academic and pleasure trips over the years that have used horses, trains, cars, and bicycles to reach their destinations.

Most of the lengthy North American journeys Princetonians took in the 19th century were scientific expeditions, starting with the astronomical expeditions of the early part of century. Most of those were along the east coast, but in July and August 1869, with help from institutional and federal funding, a group of Princetonians took trains to Ottumwa, Iowa, to view a total solar eclipse. It took nearly five days to reach Ottumwa and three days to return. One student later wrote that aside from the spectacular event of the eclipse itself, “The great impression I received was concerning the magnitude of our country. We had passed through very varied scenery for nights and days, travelling over a country large enough to comprise all the kingdoms of Europe, all teeming with life and prosperity, and yet had only passed over about one-third of the extent…”

The first Geological Expedition took its participants (18 students and two professors) further into the American west on an 11-week trek to Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah in the summer of 1877. Three Princeton juniors (William Berryman Scott, Henry Fairfield Osborn, and Francis Speir) had taken a geology course with Arnold Guyot and had read reports about fossil-collection trips Yale had taken. They were determined that Princeton should not be left out of these types of adventures and convinced others to join them.

They took a train to Denver. Princeton had two cars of its own, one for baggage and one for passengers. The expedition party boarded at the Dinky station at about 8:00PM on June 21 and arrived in Denver on June 25 after a few stops along the way, including Chicago and Kansas City. In his memoir, Some Memories of a Palaeontologist, Scott described the journey this way:

Of our journey, novel to most of us though it was, there was not much to be said. The Middle West was not then the busy, prosperous region it has since become, and the principal impression which it made upon me then was one of crudeness and shabbiness. The roads were quagmires of black mud; the towns were chiefly of wood and sadly in need of paint and, though there were a great many fine-looking farms, the journey was a depressing experience. (p. 60-61)

In Denver, the faculty secured horses and wagons and the group set up camp just outside the city, then a town of about 25,000 people, for a few days, where one traveler wrote that they “slept soundly in our blankets using our saddles as pillows.”

The Princeton Scientific Expedition camping out at Fairplay, Colorado, in the summer of 1877. Princeton Scientific Expeditions Collection (AC012), Box 3, Folder 2.

One group then headed south 75 miles to Colorado Springs. Traversing the Great Plains, they recorded their impressions of buffalo and prairie dogs. The other went north to Utah and Wyoming and collected fossils for Princeton’s E. M. Museum of Natural History. There were no major discoveries, and by Scott’s account they battled disorganization, arguments between the faculty, and severe sunburns, but enough enthusiasm remained to prompt future excursions. Summer trips into the American west continued for decades, and the publications the trips generated helped establish prominent scientific careers.

Princeton’s geologists took advantage of easier transcontinental travel in the late 1920s and 1930s. Princeton purchased the “Princeton Pullman” for these trips. The customized train car was set up to allow for lectures on board during the annual adventures (“Princeton Summer School”). Students hunted fossils in remote locations accessible via day trips from the railroad and returned to their train at night. After reaching the west coast of Canada, the train returned east via another route. We plan to tell you more about the Princeton Pullman in a future blog.

The Princeton Pullman, undated. (Click to enlarge.) Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box MP24, Image No. 24126.

Not all trips were strictly educational. Newly affordable technology made it possible for three Princetonians to take a cross-country road trip in the summer of 1921. Gordon H. Curtis (Class of 1921) and his brother, B. Strang Curtis (Class of 1922), and their friend, R. Edward Conover, Jr. (Class of 1921), pooled their money to buy a Ford Model T Touring Car for $493.28 (about $7,000 today). Their three-month trek took them along the coast of California and back, prevailing on farmers along the way to allow them to set up camp in their pastures at time before interstate highways and motels. Most roads west of St. Louis were unpaved.

Map of trip taken by Gordon H. Curtis (Class of 1921), B. Strang Curtis (Class of 1922), and R. Conover, Jr. (Class of 1921) in the summer of 1921. Arrows indicate campsites. (Click to enlarge.) Scrapbook, Princeton University Class Records (AC130).

The scrapbook they kept of their summer tells the story with humor: They “drew a little language from a wrathy cop” in Milwaukee, ate “prairie chicken” in South Dakota, and had to trust the “deepest ruts” to take them back to a road after getting lost in Wyoming. In fledgling Hollywood, they unknowingly conversed with a major star and director of the silent film era, Jack O’Brien, who wrote a pass to get them into Universal City. There they took photos of the set of Foolish Wives, the first film with a budget in excess of one million dollars.

Page from the scrapbook of a trip taken by Gordon H. Curtis (Class of 1921), B. Strang Curtis (Class of 1922), and R. Conover, Jr. (Class of 1921) in the summer of 1921. (Click to enlarge.) Scrapbook, Princeton University Class Records (AC130).

Their return trip was more challenging, with flat tires, a stalled car on a flooded road, and a disastrous broken spindle arm in the desert 15 miles outside Las Vegas. The scrapbook says, “Strang got a lift back for the new part and walked out again in the middle of the night. Fifteen miles, thru the desert on a black night. That was one thrill he put over on us—and he was welcome to it.”

They left us with these statistics:

  • Total expenses (including the car): $1,183.39
  • Gasoline mileage: 17 miles/gallon
  • Average cost of gasoline: 26.8 cents/gallon
  • Average cost per meal: 19 cents
  • Total number of tires used: 15
  • States visited: 29
  • Distance traveled: 11,455 miles

In the decades closer to our own, several adventurous students cycled across the continent. In 1994, Bill Pugh ’96, Doug Krakower ’96, and Paul Fontana, a friend from Colby College, rode from the coast of Oregon to the western tip of Long Island, New York. Eleanor Aversa ’01 and Alex Day ’01 rode from Puget Sound to the New Jersey coast in 1999.

Brian Anthony Romanzo ’02 mixed his summer transcontinental bike trip with his academic pursuits. In the summer of 2001, Romanzo and friends Kalle Crafton ’03 and Seton Marshall ’02 spent 50 days biking on the open road. Romanzo chronicled their journey in a piece of creative non-fiction for his senior thesis, “America at Ten Miles an Hour.” In their 3,856 miles, the cyclists mingled with people in small towns from their starting point, when they dipped their wheels in the Atlantic Ocean on the beach in Seaside Heights, New Jersey, to their finish line, the Pacific shore of Anacortas, Washington. They battled rainstorms, heat waves, cold fronts, steep mountain inclines, and motorists who didn’t share the road. Romanzo said that along the way he had a mystical sense of the loss of his sense of self, as well as the more mundane loss of the feeling in his hands.

We look forward to the return of 2018’s summer travelers, wherever their trips have taken them. Perhaps they’ll be inclined to leave the records of their own journeys in the University Archives.


Department of Geological and Geophysical Sciences Records (AC139)

Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112)

Papers of Princeton

Princeton Scientific Expeditions Collection (AC012)

Princeton University Class Records (AC130)

Romanzo, Brian Anthony. “America at Ten Miles an Hour” (AC104). Princeton  University Undergraduate Senior Thesis Collection (AC102).

For further reading:

Jepsen, Glenn L. “Allah Pickles Tiger Bones,” Princeton Alumni Weekly, December 16, 1932: 275-276.

Osborn, Henry Fairfield, William Berryman Scott, and Francis Speir. Palaeontological Report of the Princeton Scientific Expedition of 1877. New York: S. W. Green, 1878.

Princeton University Archaeological Expeditions Collection (C0562).

Scott, William Berryman. Some Memories of a Palaeontologist. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1939.

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