The Stewart Auto Camp Wagon (USA 1906)


The Dorris car and camp wagon of Alfred C. Stewart (Los Angeles Times 8 Sep 1906 from newspapers.com)

Hot on the heels of the discovery of Dr. C.A. Morsman's camping trailer of 1910 comes an even earlier four-wheeled automobile trailer from Los Angeles in 1906. It's one of the earliest ever photos of an American auto-drawn RV.


This is another important discovery in RV history because it forms a 'missing link' in the transition from American horse-drawn camping wagons to automobile camping trailers at the start of the twentieth century. So is this new discovery now the oldest known automobile camping trailer? Read on.


A Camping Trip to Yosemite


The following is an edited version of the article in the Los Angeles Times of 8 Sep 1906 that accompanies the above photo. Some details of Mr. Stewart's itinerary, including the fact that his family did not travel on Sundays, have been omitted for brevity.


SPORTING PAGE.


CART CARRIED BY MOTOR CAR.


A.C. Stewart Completes Camping Trip.


Trailer Behind Wagon With Complete Outfit.


Stiffest Grades Conquered. No Roads Too Bad.


Every day new and more wonderful things are being done with the automobile. A Los Angeles man has just completed a trip to Yosemite in his touring car with a freight wagon drawn behind his machine the whole trip.


Alfred C. Stewart and his family, a party of five, carried a most complete camp outfit on a two-horse express wagon and hauled the wagon as a trailer so as to have all the room of their Dorris car for themselves. This left palace car comfort, and yet everything was carried that the heart could desire, including a baby carriage for the fourteen-months-old boy.


To even the enthusiastic motor car user the idea of attaching a wagon behind the average pleasure vehicle would be scouted (ed. means 'rejected'), but the wagon was seen all along the 1200-mile trip and "somewhat disfigured but still in the ring," is still in the possession of Mr. Stewart. The wheels now dish in instead of out and dust rolls off it at every point. After a close examination by a Times man yesterday the only breakage found on the wagon was a split spoke in one rear wheel, though all four wheels of the freight-wagon were woe-begone and probably would not last a hundred miles more, while the automobile was in perfect shape, except for dust.


The itinerary followed by the Stewart party is interesting as showing how much more ground one can get over on a camping trip by automobile as compared with the camping wagon horse-drawn.


Just a week out from Los Angeles, another seventy-five-mile run brought the odd camping party on to Fresno, via Hanford. The automobile drawing a wagon created considerable excitement in Fresno, which is the biggest auto town in the inland part of the State.


Mr. Stewart traveled leisurely and by daylight only, and not trying to make high speed, as there were two ladies and two small children with him, took probably thirty-six hours of actual driving, spread through a week, and always with the 1400-pound load as a trailer.


At Wawona they went into permanent camp, staying a week. Nearly every day the Dorris car was headed for some interesting point, returning after the sightseeing to the camp again. On these side trips the trailing wagon was of course not needed. On account of the $100 toll, the Stewart party went on down into the Yosemite Valley by stage, taking a tent in the little tent city at "Yosemite Camp."


Mr. Stewart was the first man to drive an automobile into Yosemite Valley from the south, having driven by the old Bakersfield route two years ago with Maj. J. Fulmer of this city.


These long trips eat up tires, but in this late trip of about 1200 miles, Mr. Stewart had no tire troubles at all. In the car itself Mr. Stewart also was lucky, as he had no repairing or adjusting to do at all and the car itself is really worth more than before it left this city more than a month ago, for all the machinery is now well limbered up. In Europe, a big car sells at a premium after a trip of this kind, as the car has then proven its real value and worth or has gone all to pieces.


With A.C. Stewart were Mrs. Stewart, their two small children, and Mrs. T.A. Harding, and the camp outfit consisted of folding chairs, folding beds, folding table, a twelve by twelve tent with fly, complete set of camp dishes and cooking utensils for a party of six, oil stove ready to use instantly, extra automobile tire, tent poles, canned goods and food supply for two months, shovel, axe and tools of every kind and every comfort, including a cape top for the Dorris motor car.


Other motorists who contemplate such a trip as this should inspect if they can the complete outfit Mr. Stewart got together and the compact way it was carried.


In the baggage wagon, cooking utensils, dishes and food were in the cupboards on one side and the bedding and wearing apparel in the cupboards opposite, while a lattice work apartment in the rear housed the tent and furniture.

 

Who Was Alfred C. Stewart?


An advert for Dorris automobiles (Los Angeles Times 16 Sep 1906 from newspapers.com)

Having persuaded the Los Angeles Times reporter to sing the praises of the Dorris vehicle so highly in the above article, it may come as no surprise that Alfred C. Stewart was the Los Angeles distributor for Dorris automobiles, a manufacturer founded in St. Louis earlier that year. A week after the article appeared, the above advertisement for Dorris automobiles appeared with a photo of the automobile and wagon citing its trouble-free journey.


As it turns out Stewart was more than just a car dealer. He was also an inventor with over a dozen patents to his name including a flow carburettor, the Stewart Pisto gas saver, an actinometer and a type of speedometer. Although his obituary of December 1927 generously credited him as the inventor of the speedometer (that honour has a number of much earlier claimants), there is no doubt that the idea of a camping wagon towed behind an automobile came from an inventive mind. It seems Stewart's Yosemite trip was at least in part a promotion for Dorris automobiles, but in the process it became one of the first automobile trips to use a trailer to carry camping equipment.


The Significance of the Stewart Camp Wagon


The Stewart camp wagon was a converted freight wagon towed by an early automobile. It is significant because it shows how campers eager to explore America's national parks were able to do so in automobiles (although Stewart did not actually enter the national park with his auto and trailer combination because of the cost). Most early 'auto camping' was done simply by putting camping equipment inside the automobile itself. The use of a trailer with an automobile was very rare in 1906 because there was little knowledge of how a low-powered automobile would behave when towing, or for that matter whether a trailer and its contents would survive being towed at hitherto unprecedented speeds.


Stewart's wagon had simple cupboards for camping equipment and a wooden cage at the rear for the tents, so it may have been used for other purposes as well as camping. It was not as 'purpose-built' as Dr. Morsman's camping trailer of 1910, so for the time being I don't think it qualifies as the 'earliest' camping trailer so far discovered. Rather it is probably one of the earliest utility trailers adapted for camping use. Nevertheless, I describe it as a 'missing link' because it fills an important gap in early American RV history between horse-drawn camping wagons and automobile-drawn camping trailers. It helps to explain why enclosed travel trailers were not seen in any numbers until 1930 and why the 1915 to 1930 period in American RV history was largely dominated by the camping trailer.


I will explore this transition between horse and horsepower in early American RV history in more detail in a future blog.


Andrew Woodmansey

September 2022