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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Washington touring car in Frederick, Md., May 1910.

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Close image of road sign identifying the road and distance to Gettysburg, Pa.On May 1, 1910, Mr. Edwin B. Terry and a friend took a trip from the District of Columbia to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and Mr. Fisk and his camera were apparently along for the ride. In this scene the travelers have just turned off of North Market St. in Frederick, Md., in order to head north towards the Pennsylvania town in which occurred, less than 50 years earlier, a pivitol battle in the Civil War. Long before the days of uniform signs erected by states and municipalities, the ornate marker affixed to the fence may have been posted by the owner of the adjacent home in order to assist wayward travelers.

Close image of license plates from scene above.The touring car used for this journey is identified in the photographer's notes as a Washington, and it may be the same vehicle pictured on our introduction page at a Potomac River toll bridge later in the year (link). Displayed on the back of the car are District of Columbia plate no. 4824 and Maryland plate no. 5182. Both numbers appear on different vehicles in various images in this section of DCplates.com. D.C. plate 4824 is displayed on a different touring car stopped at a toll barrier at the D.C.-Md. border in gallery 10-2 (link), and Md. registration 5182 was used on a number of vehicles owned by Mr. Terry as discussed on the introduction page to this section (link).

Speaking of toll barriers, their abundance in this era deserves mention. One-half mile before Mr. Terry's travelling party made the turn towards Gettysburg they paid a 5-cent toll at the edge of Frederick. The toll would not have come as a surprise, however, for it was just one of nine encountered on the trip, all between Emmitsburg and Clarksburg, Md., and most in rural areas where the option of alternative routes was limited or non-existent. According to the 1912 edition of the Automobile Blue Book that covers Maryland, these nine tolls ranged in price from four to twelve cents.

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Detroit Electric car on Baltimore St. in Baltimore, Md.

This July 25, 1913, photograh shows a Detroit Electric on a record-breaking journey. Driven by Mr. Bruce Emerson of the Emerson and Orme Co., a Washington automobile dealer, the coupe set a record by being driven from the District of Columbia to Baltimore and back, a total of 82 miles, on a single charge of its battery. A yellow-on-black 1913 Maryland plate (no. 10325) and an undated white-on-black District of Columbia plate indicate that vehicle was properly registered in both jurisdictions.

Baltimore Street, in its namesake city, is the locale. The roadway appears to be macadam whereas the trolley tracks on the left, upon which Mr. Emerson may have driven in order to overtake the horse-drawn vehicle in front of him, are set in cobblestones. In addition to the ornate brackets supporting the trolley electric supply lines, note also the equally picturesque gas lamps that line the street.

No vehicle manufacturer produced electric cars for a longer period than did the Anderson Electric Car Co., of Detroit, which produced the Detroit Electric. In fact, new vehicles are thought to have been available until about 1939, long after the era of the electric had otherwise passed. Annual production peaked in 1914 at 4,669 units, and about 35,000 Detroit Electrics are thought to have been manufactured between 1907 and c.1939.

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Sept. 1909 view of 17th St. in Washington

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Ahhh, the joys of motoring through the wide open spaces of... downtown Washington, D.C.! A century ago the view on 17th Street SW was far different than it is today, including that motorcars are operated on the left side of the road. The right side of this apparently one-way thoroughfare was reserved for horse-drawn carriages, one of which may be seen in the distance. The decayed building on the right, which has been restored, was the lock keeper's house during the nineteenth century when the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal terminated at this point.

This Sept. 9, 1909, view is looking southbound on 17th St. just south of Constitution Ave. We will assume that the driver, shown at right below peering over his shoulder at the photographer, is Mr. Abe Cohen, of Washington, to whom D.C. registration no. 1970 was assigned. Note that he is seated on the right side of his vehicle, not the left-hand position adopted by most auto manufacturers for 1910 models. The car is a Speedway, manufactured in Morris Heights, N.Y., only for the 1904 and 1905 model years.

Perhaps most interesting about this photograph, aside from the three license plates (required due to a lack of reciprocity between the three adjacent jurisdictions at the time), is the locale. Were we able to look beyond the image we would see the Washington Monument on our left. If Mr. Cohen turned to peer over his left shoulder he would have a fine view of the White House. A glance to the right, however, would not reveal the Lincoln Memorial, for its construction did not commence until 1914.

Speedway touring car

  Speedway touring car on 17th St., Washington

Closer photos of the Speedway touring car are shown here. The front view was taken at a different, unidentified location than the 17th St. locale on the right and above.

License plates displayed on this vehicle on 09-09-09 are pictured below. On the left is a homemade Maryland plate swinging from the front axle and to the right is the collection of three plates displayed at the back. The Virginia and District of Columbia plates, examples of the first uniform plates provided by those jurisdictions, are both white-on-black porcelain enamel. Uniform, state-issued plates would not be provided to Maryland motorists until the following year.

Maryland license plate on front of Speedway automobile

  Maryland, Virginia, and District of Columbia license plates on rear of Speedway automobile


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1909 Buick roadster parked on a country road

"New" may not be the first adjective that comes to mind when considering this1909 Buick roadster, but it was barely out of the showroom when this photograph was taken on the Rockville Pike in Maryland on April 4, 1909. These were the days in which motorists drove purely for the enjoyment and adventure of driving and seeing the countryside, and organized day-long tours were common. This excursion, which began and ended in the District of Columbia, took participants north to Westminster, then east to Baltimore before returning to the capital. The 125-mile journey took nine hours and fifteen minutes whereas today the same route could easily be covered within three hours (if traffic conditions allowed). This particular roadway is in surprisingly good condition compared to those in many early spring motoring scenes of the era.

Close image of license plates from scene above.This Buick is believed to be a Model 10, a popular model introduced in 1908 that many say secured the success of the marque. Most Model 10s, including this one, were finished in "Buick Grey," an off-white shade, earning them the nickname "the little white Buicks." A total of 8,100 Buicks of 1909, or 55% of production, were Model 10s. One year earlier the company's namesake, David Dunbar Buick, had left the company, and he never again had the success in business that he had with Buick. Ironically, after 1908 he was never able to afford one of the cars that since 1903 had carried his name.

Registered in both the District of Columbia and Maryland, the Maryland plate (number 5182) fastened to this little white Buick is of the homemade variety required before uniform plates were supplied by the state in 1910. Although the spare tire of this new car has never been unwrapped, it may have been pressed into service shortly after this photo was taken, there being two large areas of tire wear on the left rear tire. Perhaps this stop was made to inspect the tire's condition.


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This page last updated on December 31, 2017

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