Kenneth Balcomb’s Model T

From 1919 to 1923 Kenneth Balcomb worked as an engineer for the United States Bureau of Public Roads in New Mexico. He was assigned a WWI Army surplus Model T to travel over 63,000 miles to survey, inspect, and construct highways. Told in the form of his actual letters to his wife Katharine and brother John, an engineer, these tales chronicle an era in the United States when the country was experiencing the birth and growth of its National Highway System.

Below is a letter that he wrote to his wife Katharine from Raton, New Mexico, on April 17, 1921.

Dear Katharine,

Today for the first time I can feel grateful to the Model T’s right-hind tire for its affinity for pieces of metal.  It is only about 84 miles from Clayton to Raton, and there is no active project to be inspected on the way to take up time, but there was nevertheless a time during the day when I wondered if I was to make it.

We had no difficulty as far as Capulin.  Just outside this attractive little town occurs what is claimed is the most symmetrical volcanic cone in the United States.  It rises several hundred feet in a perfect conical shape, and the enterprising people of Capulin have carved out a road which climbs it by circling round and round the peak, to where they flattened space at the top.  I tested the climbing qualities of the Model T, and both the performance of the car and the wonderful view at the top were inspiring.  My appreciation of the view was short lived, however, when I saw a formidable-looking cloud bearing down on us from the northeast.  We hastened down again to try to get well on the road to Raton before the storm hit.

I now realize I should have spent the night in Capulin, but I did not foresee what was to develop.  When we had gone about ten miles, the storm hit us, first bringing dust and then rain and snow and a freezing wind.  I had put up the curtains, but found they give scant shelter in such a storm.  The sky had darkened and the heavy snow cut visibility to where I could hardly see the road.  In spite of having on my heavy army overcoat I began to chill.  The cold seemed to penetrate to my very bones and I began to feel still and helpless.  Then I noticed I was getting a feeling of warmth and became so drowsy I wondered if I should try to keep on driving or stop.  Suddenly the sharp report of a tire blowout roused me.  I stopped to investigate and found the right-hind tire completely ruined.  It was indeed fortunate I had the spare tire and tube, and by the time I had put them on the wheel and pumped it up I became really warmed.  The added effort to crank and crank the Ford to get its chilled motor started made me surprisingly alert and able to drive on in spite of the storm.

When I got to Raton we had to fight the collected snow on the principal paved street to finally reach the Swastika Hotel and a steam-heated room and hot bath.

In later discussing the experience with the hotel manager I realized what a close call I had had and how much I was indebted to that right-hind tire for putting on its last performance at the appropriate time.  He said that undoubtably the warm drowsy feeling was the first stage experienced when a person freezes.  When the body temperature is reduced to a certain point, the slowing of blood circulation causes one to go into a stupor called accidental hypothermia, accidental because it occurs without conscious motivation, which results ultimately in freezing to death.  So you see, there are compensating features in the habits of Mr. Ford’s over-taxed little tires.

I will be here tomorrow, and if the storm abates, will inspect a road that has been built to the top of Raton Pass to meet one that Colorado has built from the other side.  From here I head south towards home, and if the weather does not interfere I should be with you by the ninth and we can have a delayed celebration of your birthday and our anniversary.

Love, Kenneth