Object of the Month

"I don't think you could beat our mode of travel for seeing a great deal of country": Auto-Camping in the West

Letter from Eleanor `Nora` Saltonstall to Eleanor B. Saltonstall and Muriel Saltonstall, 4 July 1919

Letter from Eleanor "Nora" Saltonstall to Eleanor B. Saltonstall and Muriel Saltonstall, 4 July 1919


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    Eleanor (Nora) Saltonstall describes an "auto-camping" trip through the West in a letter to her mother, Eleanor, and sister, Muriel, written on 4 July 1919. Nora, as she was called by family and friends, had recently returned from service as a volunteer in France during the First World War and she described her trip as "a glorious dream."

    "Don't look upon me as headstrong": Nora Saltonstall in the First World War

    Nora Saltonstall was born in 1894 in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, a daughter of Richard M. and Eleanor Brooks Saltonstall. She grew up in a family that traced its origins back to the founding of New England, but also had a strong tradition of public service: her older brother Leverett later would be elected governor and a United States senator. Nora attended the Winsor School in Boston and Miss Ferris's School in Paris. She was a Boston debutante, but also an athlete and enthusiastic participant in outdoor activities—a rider and sailor who also loved fishing.

    When the First World War began in 1914, Nora Saltonstall started to participate in war preparedness activities and in October 1917 she went back to France as a Red Cross volunteer. She aided refugees in Paris for a few months, but quickly sought service in a more active role closer to the front. In January 1918, she explained her reasons for transferring to the Red Cross staff of a French mobile surgical hospital in a letter to her family, where she had to balance her desire for more important and fulfilling service with the natural concern of her family, especially her father, for her safety:

    Don't look upon me as headstrong & seeking excitement; I'm not, but I have been hunting for a job which is real work & which is a direct help, even if it is the tiniest drop in the bucket, to the ultimate close of the war. I have the necessary physical attributes, young & strong & unattached, & in war time we must not be timorous or worry, we must all go ahead & take a chance.

    Over the following ten months, working as a driver and mechanic, she saw a great deal of active duty, and received the Croix de Guerre in November 1918 for evacuating civilians under fire during the last great German offensive earlier that year. The bronze star affixed to the ribbon of her medal indicates that she was mentioned in dispatches. In March 1919, when she returned to the United States, Nora Saltonstall resumed the active social and outdoor life that she had left behind, and in June she travelled west to join a friend Katherine Thayer Russell and her teenage son Harry on an auto tour of western national parks: from Yosemite north to Crater Lake and the Pacific Northwest, and then east to Glacier National Park, Yellowstone, and Jackson Hole. Nora and her companions intended to complete their trip by driving back across the United States.

    "The Best of All Was Crater Lake"

    Nora Saltonstall's trip was part of an "automotive invasion of the West" by a new generation of tourists that had begun as early as 1901, when early automobiles were prevented from entering Yosemite Park. Car travel soon changed the character of visits to national parks and scenic locations. Although by 1919 Nora Saltonstall was a very experienced driver and auto mechanic, the Pierce-Arrow sedan in which she and her friends travelled was a chauffeur-driven "camper" with tent extensions that extended from both sides of the car. Everyone (the party included Harry Thayer's tutor) pitched in with the cooking and chores and the trip became an idyllic progress from—perhaps for Nora's benefit—one prime fishing location to another:

    The last few days have been almost the best of all. If you look on a map of Oregon you will see Rogue River which we have camped on several times. It is quite renowned for its fishing, runs rapidly mostly through forest & is very beautiful. You know the pictures you see of fishing in the West, broad rivers bounded by big pines, well, that is just the sort of thing we have been enjoying. The best of all however was Crater Lake. I am surprised that you don't hear more about it in the East because it is much more extraordinary & marvelous than the Yosemite. It is 7000 feet in altitude, a lake, the crater of a mountain about 6 miles wide & almost perfectly round.

    At Crater Lake, even though it was July, Nora struggled across snowfields to fish and was photographed proudly holding her catch, writing "never have I enjoyed 3 hours more". 

    Nora Saltonstall's trip took an unhappy turn just as the travelers left Crater Lake. By the time they reached Portland, young Harry Thayer had been feeling "seedy" for more than a week and a blood test indicated that he had contracted typhoid fever. Harry's mother and Nora expected to have to wait through a long period of Harry's convalescence, so they canceled the rest of their trip. Remaining in Portland as Harry slowly recovered, it became clear that Nora also had contracted typhoid. Although her parents were able to reach her side, she died there on 2 August 1919. She was 24.

    A New Exhibition

    Nora Saltonstall's 4 July 1919 letter from Crater Lake is on display at the Massachusetts Historical Society as part of the Society's exhibition, Yankees in the West. Through a selection of letters, diaries, artifacts, photographs, and drawings, the exhibition explores the ways that New Englanders experienced the trans-Mississippi west in the late 19th and early 20th centuries including, through the letters and photographs of Nora Saltonstall, the advent of auto-camping. Yankees in the West is on display until 6 April 2017. The exhibition is open to the public without charge, Monday through Saturday, 10 AM to 4 PM.

    Further Reading

    The Overseas War Record of the Winsor School, 1914-1919. [Boston, 1919]

    Even though Nora Saltonstall survived the war, Winsor School lists her among the four alumni for whom "death crowned the sacrifice" and awards a student scholarship in her name for study in Paris.

    Pomeroy, Earl. In Search of the Golden West: The Tourist in Western America. Second edition. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.

    Saltonstall, Eleanor. Eleanor Saltonstall Papers, 1911-1926 (bulk: 1911-1919), Massachusetts Historical Society.

    ---. Nora Saltonstall Papers and Photographs.

    A sampling of Nora Saltonstall materials held by the Massachusetts Historical Society is available online as part of the Society's Highlights from the Saltonstall Family Collections 

    ---. "Out Here at the Front": the World War I Letters of Nora Saltonstall. Edited by Judith S. Graham. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2004.

    Judith Graham's edition of Nora Saltonstall's war letters also includes extracts from her revealing diary and extremely useful biographical and contextual information about her brief life.