Portion of a porcelain enamel Washington, D.C. license plate; link to site home page.

Early Motoring in the District of Columbia

Photographs by Howard S. Fisk, Automotive Editor of The Washington Star

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Woods Dual Power car in Occoquan, Va.

Extant photographs of early vehicles in motion are unusual, but this 1916 image of a Woods traveling on a fairly well-maintained Virginia country road is one of several preserved in the Fisk collection. The locale is Occoquan, Va., about 25 miles south of the District of Columbia. The car, registered to Mr. Bruce Emerson, also a co-owner of the Emerson and Orme Co. (see caption to image above), is identified by D.C. registration no. 45459, and fastened below the white-on-black porcelain enamel plate is 1916 Maryland plate no. 43194, which is embossed steel and painted yellow on black.

Woods, of Chicago, was one of the most long-lived (1899-1918) and successful U.S. electric car manufacturers. Around 1915, by which time the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine was outdistancing steam- and electric-powered machines on the basis of reliability (and therefore popularity), Woods introduced its Dual Power car. Although sometimes referenced in its day and today as the Woods Dual Electric, this name is a misnomer because the idea behind the revolutionary design was, as the true name implies, that the car was powered by both electricity and gasoline.

Like today's Toyota Prius, the Woods Dual Power got under way powered by electricity. At about 15 miles per hour it deferred to a conventional four-cylinder gasoline-powered engine that took the vehicle to its top speed of about 35 miles per hour. Mr. Emerson's car is a Dual Power of an unknown model year, although because he owned the dealership from which it was sold and based upon the D.C. registration number it is presumably a new 1916 model. Nineteen sixteen was the last model year for which Woods offered a wholly electric car; from 1917 until the end two years later all Woods models were dual powered. The company's demise was due in part to costs incurred on warranty repairs on 1916 and 1917 Dual Power cars, which were unreliable.

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Vehicles and individuals that participated in the 1910 Washington Post Touring Test Run

When pre-1930 cars are seen today they are almost always restored, well-maintained, and spotlessly clean. In their day, however, they were used (and sometimes abused) just as vehicles are today. The grime covering these touring cars indicates that they've been logging some road miles, and the occasion for their use was the Washington Post Touring Test Run of May 27-31, 1910.

As discussed in gallery 10-1 (link), newspapers often sponsored events for vehicle owners in order to promote the automotive industry and generate industry-related advertising revenue. As noted on pennants affixed to vehicles pictured, the Post sponsored this event, which took participants on a 473-mile northern Virginia course. In addition to visiting Richmond, the travelers also called at Winchester, Staunton, Charlottesville, Orange, Culpeper, Warrenton, and Fairfax.

District of Columbia registration number 375, evidenced with a white-on-black porcelain enamel license plate on the vehicle in the foreground, was assigned to the Carter Motor Car Company. The Carter agency was located in the Munsey Building in Washington.

At least one of the vehicles pictured was apparently used in other regional tours, perhaps being operated and sponsored by its manufacturer or local agent for exposure to potential customers. Scratched into the dirt on the back of the light-colored car, in addition to several names, are names of two Pennsylvania communities, Norristown and Scranton, suggesting that it had recently passed through those places.

1910 Washington Post Touring Test Run participants

It is noteworthy that all of the several cars visible in these images are true open tourers: none have a windshield or top assembly, effectively requiring that participants wear heavy, full-length coats and goggles in order to protect them from gravel and other road debris. Note also that all of the cars are operated from the right side, indicating that they are likely 1909 or earlier model year vehicles.

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Early vehicle involved in an accident.


Close image of license plates from scene above.Although motor vehicles traveled at slower speeds 100 years ago, accidents usually had worse consequences than they do today due to the open construction and complete lack of safety equipment of the early cars. Based upon the damage to this vehicle it probably rolled over in a ditch after leaving the roadway, a relatively common type of accident that occurred on early dirt and gravel rural roads, most of which had poor sight lines at hills and curves, and none of which were lined with guard rails. This image was taken on March 23, 1910.

District of Columbia registration no. 3209 was assigned to J.F. Bell, who listed The War Department as his address. Mr. Bell apparently had occasion to travel into Virginia from time to time, for he has also registered his vehicle in that state. Both undated license plates are white on black and made of porcelain enamel on steel.

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Click here to see an image of this location today

Close image of license plates from scene above.It was on a journey to Sligo, Maryland, on the final day of March 1912 when these photographs were taken. The locale is believed to be at the D.C.-Maryland border in what today is Takoma Park. (Click on the image for a modern view of the scene.) Although the assumption is that this is a typical toll house, it may have also served as a State of Maryland installation where vehicle registrations were checked in the days before reciprocity was established between the neighboring jurisdictions. The diagonal beam, the toll barrier, is raised and lowered manually with a cable that runs through a pulley at the top of the vertical post.

Whether the two gentlemen are part of the travelling party or bystanders, or perhaps at least one is the toll taker, is unknown. Long before a reciprocity agreement was reached, the touring car is properly registered in both Maryland and Washington, D.C. Both plates are porcelain. The undated, white-on-black D.C. plate is probably representative of the vehicle's home jurisdiction, it having been securely fastened to a bracket adjacent to the lantern. The blue-on-white Maryland plate appears to be an afterthought, lashed with rope to an empty trunk rack.

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Mayrland toll station, 1912.

This is the first photograph taken after the image above, but whether both show the same toll house is uncertain. Although the type of siding on the building(s) is different, it is nevertheless a reasonable assumption that, because they were taken consecutively, both images depict the either the same structure or, perhaps more likely, a separate structure at the same locale. The sign reads "NOTICE: The Maryland law governing speeds of automobiles will be enforced on this road. By order of the Board. Asa M. Statler, Supt."


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Michigan touring car crossing a wooden bridge in Sept. 1913.

Close image of license plates from scene above.Bridges constructed entirely of wood were common early in the twentieth century, and many were built with roofs simply in order to lengthen the useful life of the wooden deck and underpinings. This uncovered bridge was encountered on a journey from the District of Columbia to Annapolis, Md., on September 28, 1913.

The traveling party consists of four, and possibly five individuals, including women adorned with fancy hats in the fashion of the day. The Michigan touring car, meanwhile, is adorned with porcelain enamel District of Columbia and Maryland license plates, the Maryland one being the yellow-on-black dated 1913 issue. As for the vehicle, five separate companies manufactured an automobile named Michigan between 1900 and 1920. The example shown was made by one of two of them, both of which were headquartered in Kalamazoo.


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This page last updated on December 31, 2017

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