The first automobile fatality was reported in St. Mary’s County in 1913, as motor vehicles began replacing horse and buggies here and elsewhere in the nation.
In the first decade of the 1900s, cars were a luxury toy for the rich. Owners formed clubs to take excursions on the weekends, exploring other parts of Maryland from the cities of Baltimore and Washington, D.C., as far as the new roads would take them.
Leonardtown became a popular destination.
For decades, local residents had complained about the poor conditions of the muddy roads in St. Mary’s County. W.P. Powell wrote to complain to the St. Mary’s Beacon in January 1908 about the county’s “fearful, miserable, intolerable roads,” and the various kinds of holes in them.
“These are the kind of roads that would be termed bad all over this universe, but in St. Mary’s they are spoken of as ‘fairly good,’” he wrote
Similar conditions in other parts of the state led to the Good Roads Movement, which resulted in the creation of the Maryland Roads Commission in March 1908.
The new commission drew up a system of 1,200 miles of road to connect the county seats to one another and to Baltimore at an initial cost of $6 million. The road that became Route 5 in St. Mary’s County was drawn from Charlotte Hall to Leonardtown and to Point Lookout. The State Roads Commission reported there were 602 miles of local roads in St. Mary’s County in 1908.
Before the new state road was built, the Beacon noted that three automobiles visited Leonardtown on July 11, 1908 from Washington, D.C.
A contractor won the bid on the new state road in September 1909 to start work on the stretch from Mechanicsville to Morganza. That company went out of business and another one picked up the work to continue the road from Loveville to Leonardtown, which was finally finished in September 1911.
In 1910 the Holmes family became the first in St. Mary’s County to own a car — a 1908 Ford, according to The Enterprise of Feb. 25, 1959.
It was 1910 when the state established the office of Commissioner of Motor Vehicles and the rules for operating them. Starting July 1 of that year, an operator’s license was required to drive a motorized vehicle, and a license would not be issued to anyone younger than 16. Speed limits were set for the state: 12 miles an hour “in the thickly settled or business portions of cities, towns or villages,” 18 miles an hour in outlying areas and 25 miles an hour in the open country.
The law decreed that no one should operate a motor vehicle “when intoxicated or under the influence of liquor or drug, or in a race.” Throwing tacks, broken glass and other sharp materials on roads was prohibited.
Vehicles were to have brakes, horns and lights on the front and back, and to display license plates.
Rules for approaching frightened horses on roads were also set. There was an uneasy relationship between the horses still used for transportation and these new automobiles.
On Oct. 19, 1910, a mare owned and driven by W.V. Waters of Leonardtown returning from horse races “was frightened by a passing automobile and reared fell dead. It seems to be a difference of opinion as to whether the mare was frightened to death or broke its neck,” the St. Mary’s Beacon reported on Oct. 27.
As more internal combustion engines traveled to Leonardtown on the new state road, the Beacon announced an automobile run from the nation’s capital to the St. Mary’s County seat on May 18, 1911. “As about 35 or 40 machines will make the run, it will be well for folks with fractious horses to keep off the Mechanicsville-Leonardtown road on that day,” the paper advised. It was part of a three-day, 600-mile race around the region. The Washington Herald reported that only 12 cars of the Four Leaf Clover Automobile Club made the race to Leonardtown.
“All along the route, people turned out en masse and the day had been declared a general holiday. At every little hamlet a crowd gathered to see the cars go by. At Leonardtown the people vied with one another trying to do something to make the stay of the motorists pleasant, while the farmers showed their hospitality by keeping the road free from teams,” the Washington Herald wrote.
The pilot car, which left the capital at 2 a.m. made it to Leonardtown in two hours and 45 minutes, The Washington Post reported on May 19, 1911.
The next month in June, the Beacon noted that several automobiles from the nation’s capital were again in Leonardtown. Starved for any business the county seat could get, the editor wrote, “Our town is fast becoming quite a popular resort for autos. We are glad to see them come.”
And more automobiles continued to arrive that month. On June 24, 1911, J.P. Greenwell of Leonardtown was making his way up a hill in his horse and buggy when an automobile was coming down the hill. Greenwell’s horse started to back when the auto skidded down the hill “and when it stopped the horse was right between its front wheels,” the Beacon reported.
In August the Beacon reported J.D. Cashner of Patuxent had purchased an automobile.
That month the paper advised that Matthews-Howard Co. in Leonardtown became an agent to sell Buicks and had already sold one to Dr. Charles V. Hayden of Leonardtown. Citing Abe Martin, a newspaper cartoon character, the Beacon said, “an automobile is a great thing for comfort, and it never gets the reins under its tail.”
Gov. Austin Lane Crothers was photographed on his visit to Leonardtown on Sept. 19, 1911 to speak of agriculture and the new network of state roads. At that point, there were 9 miles of state road from Mechanicsville to Leonardtown completed, with five additional miles graded, drained and bridged.
“This road, just completed, marks the passing of the ox team, which has been a necessary means of travel and which must now give way to the draft horses, the roadster and the gasoline engine,” The Sun commented on Sept. 26, 1911.
On Nov. 23, 1911, the Beacon reported “the first automobile accident occurred in Leonardtown last Sunday when Max L. Millison’s dog was killed by a machine passing out of town.”
On May 30, 1912, the Beacon noted, “Though our horses are becoming used to the machines, there were two accidents Sunday due to frightened horses.”
More than a year later, the newspaper reported Henry Burroughs and A.C. Welch of Chaptico were injured “on the State Road at Nelson’s corner” when they were thrown out of the vehicle on Aug. 3, 1913. The car was found on its side the next day, and Welch was treated for minor injuries while Burroughs was sent to St. Mary’s Hospital, located then on Fenwick Street in Leonardtown.
The next month would see the first automobile-related fatality in St. Mary’s, which resulted in the death of two women – a mother and daughter.
Emma Clark, 20, and her mother Carrie, 52, were riding in a horse and buggy on Ellenborough Hill, near today’s intersection of Blacksmith Shop Road and Cedar Lane Road, said Leonardtown historian Al Gough.
As reported in the local newspapers and The Sun, the horse became frightened on Sept. 3, 1913 as a motor vehicle carrying state road officials drove past, riding down the hill with its power cut off. The horse bolted and the buggy collided with a truck coming up the hill owned by the Xaverian Brothers of Leonard Hall.
Both women in the buggy were hurled to the ground. Emma Clark was killed immediately and her mother died a few days later on Sept. 8 at St. Mary’s Hospital.
The Beacon commented the next day after the accident, “this is the first serious accident in our county that can be traced directly to automobiles and is deplorable. From what we can gather no blame can be attached to the drivers of either automobile.”
The Enterprise said on Sept. 13, 1913 the accident “should serve as a warning to the reckless operators and reminder to those whose duty it is to enforce the automobile laws, to be more diligent.”
The editors continued, “In our time, as never before, the craze of the human mind is speed. Safety for the public is a secondary consideration. The average automobilist thinks of swiftness of transit first, and if he thinks of safety at all, it is apt to be after he has found himself among the dead and maimed when the accident is over.”