President William McKinley was reported to have been the first U.S. President to ride in an automobile in 1889, though he did so out of the public eye.
On September 6, 1901, President McKinley was shot while at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Initial reports in the succeeding days suggested his condition was improving, so Vice President Teddy Roosevelt embarked on a vacation at Mount Marcy in northeastern New York. He was returning from a climb to the summit on September 13th when a park ranger brought him a telegram informing him that McKinley’s condition had deteriorated, and the President was near death.
Teddy Roosevelt and his family immediately departed for Buffalo. When they reached the nearest train station at North Creek, at 5:22 AM on September 14, he received another telegram informing him that McKinley had died a few hours earlier. Roosevelt arrived in Buffalo that afternoon, and was sworn in there as President at 3:30 pm by U.S. District Judge John R. Hazel at the Ansley Wilcox House.
The first time President Roosevelt rode in an automobile was on August 22, 1902 when his ‘motorcade’ paraded through Hartford, Connecticut.
President Roosevelt chose this ‘ride’ as a very public event while on a swing through New England ahead of the 1902 mid-term elections.
This became the first presidential motorcade in the history of the United States.
His protection detail rode bicycles alongside the car.
The automobile in which President Roosevelt rode was a Columbia Electric Victoria Phaeton, also built in Hartford.
At this early stage in the auto industry’s development, about half of America’s automobiles were electric, with most of the rest running on steam and a small fraction being internal-combustion.
(President McKinley’s first car ride, back in 1899, had been in a steam-driven Locomobile piloted by its inventor, F. O. Stanley, in Washington, D.C.)
Like other early Columbia automobile models, the Victoria Phaeton had an external box for the driver, in this case in the rear overlooking the passengers — a holdover from the days of horse-drawn carriages. It was propelled by two rear electric motors, using power stored in 20 two-volt Exide lead-acid batteries. Together the batteries weighed about 800 pounds, roughly 40 percent of the vehicle’s total weight. They were placed above the front and rear axles.
The tires were solid rubber, and the chauffeur had a choice of four speeds, topping out at a blistering 13 mph, though in this case the car probably crawled along at the minimum 4 mph.
This mode car sold for $3,000 new, about five times the average annual wage of an American citizen.
Soon, the use of cars would be routine for Presidents and Presidential Motorcades.
In 1907, the Secret Service bought a pair of White steam cars to carry visitors between the Oyster Bay train station and the President’s house at Sagamore Hill.
In 1909, President William Howard Taft rode a Pierce-Arrow to and from his inaugural ball. From then on, automobiles have become a staple of presidential appearances.
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