The Washington Post

Driven to catalogue Washington’s earliest drivers

Bill DeCosta of Bethesda, Md, a retired librarian, spent the last two years researching the early days of the automobile in Washington. He has 3,800 index cards on which he wrote automobile-related information gleaned from Washington newspapers between 1896 and 1910. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

Archibald Gracie IV survived the sinking of the Titanic by spending the morning of April 15, 1912, sprawled on an overturned lifeboat, watching as other passengers grew fatigued, let go of the frozen keel, and slipped into the icy Atlantic.

That does not interest Bill DeCosta.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

What interests Bill is that four years before that, while living in Washington, Gracie purchased a gasoline-powered Maxwell motor car, a fact that was dutifully noted by the local press.

Bill is a retired D.C. librarian who lives in Bethesda. He is proof of the old maxim — well, the new maxim; I’ve just made it up — that you can take the librarian out of the library but you can’t take the library out of the librarian. Curious about how the horseless carriage went from a novelty of the rich to a ubiquitous presence on D.C. streets, Bill spent a few days each week of the past 21 / 2 years reading old Washington newspapers and scribbling down any reference to automobiles on index cards.

Bill concentrated on the years from 1896 to 1910. He wanted to link Washington’s cars to the people who owned them, the pioneers who saw the future of transportation in the internal combustion engine (or steam engine or electric battery).

Bill estimates that from 1897, when newspapers reported the first appearance of a horseless carriage on the District’s streets, to 1910, when they had become commonplace, the number of licensed drivers in Washington grew to at least 3,800. That’s how many separate people are noted on his index cards.

Bill’s index cards are arranged alphabetically by name in five boxes. He structured his project this way because, he said, “people are interested in people.” He thinks those doing genealogies might want to know whether their ancestors drove cars.

Automobiles were unusual enough around the turn of the 20th century that newspapers would mention each time someone bought one or got a license. If a Washingtonian went on a day trip, that was noted, too. So were accidents.

That’s how we know that in 1899 William Andrews Clark, a mining magnate and Montana senator, imported a Gardner-Serpollet steam car. In 1902, Clark made the papers when his automobile frightened a horse and carriage, “resulting in injury.”

In 1904, Mrs. Georgia V. Drum went to a D.C. police station to report threats from her husband. Why does Bill care? Because the newspaper reported that she drove to the station in an automobile.

In 1908, Abe Cohen of 416 12th St. NW took his Columbia Touring Car to Luray Caverns. That was the same year that St. Elizabeths Hospital was issued licenses for three electric cars, two Columbias and a Pope-

Bill still has fond memories of his first car — a 1956 VW Beetle passed down from his brother — but he isn’t a car collector or enthusiast.

“That’s the oddity,” Bill said. “I am not car crazy. But something was driving me.”

Bill knows his compendium isn’t encyclopedic. Then as now, some people may have worked hard to keep their names out of the paper.

“It would have been wonderful to find D.C. government documents,” he said. “If they exist, I don’t know where they are. That would have been the gold mine right there.”

For now, Bill’s creation will have to do.

He spent $500 of his own money to get the cards microfilmed and last year gave copies to the Washingtoniana room at the MLK Library downtown and to the Kiplinger Library at the Washington Historical Society.

What, I asked, does Bill hope will happen with his index of
auto-related news stories?

“I know this is going to sound histrionic, but it’s like when you build a road out there,” Bill said, gesturing out the window of his fifth-floor condo. “You do not know how many people are going to use it and for what purpose, but the road’s there.”

Wednesday: Who was the first person to die in an automobile accident in Washington? Hard to say, but it wasn’t a 10-year-old girl named Marion Kahlert.

Thank you, Sisters

We wrapped up our Children’s National Medical Center fundraising drive last month, but a very welcome donation came in at the last moment. The Bradburn Sisters of Bradburn Memorial Bible Church in District Heights hoped to raise $500. Instead, with the help of the congregation, friends, families and visitors, they raised $633.09. Thank you, ladies.

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