Jitney Jane

A hundred years before Uber

1916 Ford Model T jitney bus
  • 1916 Ford Model T jitney bus
  • Wikimedia Commons, sv1ambo

I always chase a runaway

The setting sun was an inch above Point Loma. As a delivery wagon from the Crown Meat Market headed west on Kalmia, something spooked the horse. Its forelegs punched the air. Then it made a hard left at the corner of Fourth and Kalmia. Too hard. The driver jumped clear just as the front wheels slammed the curb. The wagon cracked into a chaos of flying boxes, chips, and splinters. The horse dragged the remains of the shaft down Fourth at panic speed.

Alice Clark watched the demolition from her buckskin pony. She was riding on Fourth, hoping to meet her friend, Helen Tulloch, for a pre-supper jaunt. Alice click-clicked her tongue, snapped the reins, and urged her horse to chase the runaway.

Twenty-year-old Helen Tulloch was waiting at Ash Street to meet Alice. She heard shouts and saw a two-horse stampede. Helen swung her mount, Chappie Lee, around. She caught up with Alice, and they made a mad, neck-and-neck dash down Fourth.

Chappie Lee was no ordinary horse, and Helen Tulloch no ordinary rider. Her father Stephen said, “She was raised in the saddle.” In 1931, when she married William Bowles, the entire wedding was on horseback.

Chappie Lee was so spirited that the first time Helen tried to ride him, he snorted and kicked so wildly, two men couldn’t put the saddle on him. “A week afterwards,” wrote the San Diego Union, the horse “would eat out of her hand” and was always ready “to join his daring mistress” in a headlong sprint.

The incident took place around 5 pm, the worst possible time for downtown San Diego. Pedestrians, bundled up in black or gray woolen overcoats, clogged the streets and sidewalks. They were thickest at D Street (now Broadway), the busiest thoroughfare in town. Amid screams and scattering humanity, the three horses blazed through. Hooves slammed the street — cudda-klock, cudda-klock. The remains of the wagon bounded and scraped the asphalt. Astonished witnesses saw two young women in hot pursuit.

Across from the Grant Hotel at Fourth and D, Alice’s horse slipped. Her saddle caved and she almost went down. “The plucky girl would have been killed had she fallen,” wrote the Union, “but stuck to her seat and resumed the chase.”

Crouched above the saddle, her weight forward, her nose nudging his flowing mane, Helen urged Chappie Lee to storm the havoc ahead.

When she caught up with the horse, Helen reached across and grabbed the reins. Alice rode up on the other side. When they tied it to a hitching post, the runaway “trembled like a leaf.”

The horse was calming down when the crowd closed in and erupted with hoots and whistles and hats in the air. All three horses spooked. The women and their mounts snaked through a tangle of outstretched arms.

“What a crazy stunt,” said a spectator.

Helen disagreed. “It was just fine,” she told a reporter. “I always chase a runaway… even if I have to jump on my pony without saddling him.”

She recalled the heroic effort, wrote the reporter, as if it were routine. He added, “She said she didn’t know what fear meant when riding a horse.”

A hundred years before Uber

The chase happened on December 9, 1910. Helen Tulloch was born in 1890. While her older sister Ethel became a spiritual healer — she co-founded the International Order of St. Luke — Helen was drawn to physical movement, the faster the better.

For several years, she worked as a draftsman in the office of Richard Requa and Frank Mead, architects. When World War I broke out, construction all but ceased. Helen was laid off. She said she’d “work anywhere, just not in an office... I like to be outdoors better.” She ditched her senior year of high school do to just that.

Early in 1913, a man named Clark was out of work. He had a used Model T Ford and an idea: since the streetcars and taxis couldn’t handle all the traffic, he might make some money by hauling them his car. He got a Chauffeur’s License and called his service the “Jitney Bus.”

Clark did pretty well. So did others. “They often took the place of a taxi,” Helen recalled, “but with a more personal approach.” For five cents, they delivered people to their door. “On rainy nights they’d drive folks way out of town for a few extra pennies.”

With her life savings of $60, Helen bought a second-hand Model T Ford in Los Angeles. She’d never driven a car, so she took lessons and practiced in Balboa Park. Eucalyptus trees became potential fares. “I would drive along the roads and stop and pretend I was picking up passengers.”

She became, in her words, “an auto bug.”

When Helen applied for a Chauffeur’s license, an astonished Inspector William Patrick said, “She’s got more control over a machine than any of the men who applied.”

Helen began by transporting sightseers from Balboa Park to downtown. She became a sensation as the first and only woman driver of a jitney bus. “I used to make more in a day than in a week at Requa and Mead”— $12.00.

The jitneys cued up at Fifth and Broadway. Like today’s taxis, the first in line took the next fare. Soon they were drawing business away from the taxis and John D. Spreckels’ monopoly on streetcars.

“He didn’t like us,” said Helen, “and you can’t altogether blame him. We were taking quite a bit of his money, and he had a lot invested.”

Once her reputation as “the jitneyette” spread, Helen became a target. Almost daily, the police pulled her over for minor infractions. “Yes, the police,” she says, “for just any little violation.” Each time, they threatened to revoke her license.

“Everyone knew Spreckels encouraged them. His San Diego Transit began crowding us… they didn’t like the competition.” Bankers and store owners ordered employees not to ride jitneys. If seen in one, they’d lose their job.

When San Diego Transit had enough vehicles to cover the demand, Helen recalled, “they just ran the jitney’s off.“

“Jitneys finally died a living death,” wrote the San Diego Union. “They were cuffed around by the city council at the direction of the car corporation.” Urban jitneys were okay, but Helen preferred longer hauls on an “auto stage” — a large touring car that could carry six or seven passengers with luggage. Helen asked for a job with United Stage, which made long distance runs. At first, Tom Morgan, company head, refused an interview. When he told Helen “a woman couldn’t drive a stage,” she replied: “All the world’s a stage — and the women drive it.” Morgan hired her for runs from San Diego to Los Angeles, and, “even though it was no run for a woman,” from San Diego to the Imperial Valley. Needing a more durable, stage-like auto, Helen bought a seven-passenger Dodge Touring Car Model 30 — four cylinder, 35 horsepower — and became a regular. Five feet six, well-tanned with brown hair and vital blue eyes, Helen adopted a special uniform: Khaki trousers, flannel shirt, thick boots, and an ankle-length driving coat. Instead of a hat, she donned a velvet headband that she wore, wrote Sunset Magazine, “much as another woman would a tiara.”

“Because I was a woman driving a stage coach, they nicknamed me ‘Jitney Jane.’” It stuck. She called her Dodge “Mud Hen,” because “it made no difference how muddy the valleys and dirt roads were between El Centro and San Diego — and they were a riot in the rain — the old car always used to get through somehow.”

Just months after she made that statement, nature put “Jitney Jane” and “Mud Hen” to the test.

The Mud Hen’s damp and dandy four-day drive

By late 1915, San Diego County had suffered a four-year drought. Fearing it would curb attendance at the Panama-California Exposition, the Wide Awake Improvement Club wanted to hire Thomas Hatfield, the legendary “Rainmaker.” His “cloud bombardment” method could bring rain, they hoped.

Hatfield said he didn’t create a downpour. The 23 chemicals in his “smell method” released “vast stores of moisture in the atmosphere.” He told the City Council he would fill Morena Reservoir — 60 miles east of San Diego and near empty at the time — to capacity. He would build a tower just south of the reservoir, launch the chemicals, and make rain fall like San Diego had never seen — for $10,000.

Whether Hatfield or nature brought it about, San Diego County had two perfect storms in 1916: January 14-18, and January 24-29. A large low pressure system from the north carved a channel for three others. They all joined above Morena Reservoir and, witnesses said, “spun like a pinwheel.”

Between January 14 and January 29, 1916, Morena Reservoir rose 35 inches. Across the county, bridges either warped into S-shapes or collapsed altogether. Telephone poles blew down, creeks became rivers and then torrents. Houses, chicken coops, tree trunks, animals — all sped west on the surge. Since the county had no paved roads, wrote the San Diego Sun, “everything was mud.”

Helen Tulloch was in El Centro when the storm hit. “It rained from the [Imperial] valley right across to the coast.”

Five passengers who were eager to reach San Diego said if Helen would drive the 100-plus miles to San Diego, they would help push when trouble arose. “I didn’t know what I was getting into,” she laughed years later. “So I said ‘sure,’ and we loaded up three Hindus and a banker and a salesman.”

The “very strong and willing” Hindus, a father and his sons, piled large bags of clothing onto the roof, and strapped their three bicycles to the spare tire on the back.

As Mud Hen left El Centro, the drivers of two grime-caked cars, chugging east, urged Helen to be smart and turn around, as they had done. Conditions were impossible: bridges down, boulders and telephone poles blocking the way, every road washed out.

“We kept going.”

She did catch a break. She left the morning of January 19. The first storm ended on the 18th. The second began the 24th. On the 19th, the wind was steady to the northwest, the barometer rising. Because of the window, Helen didn’t have to combat deluges. Nonetheless, the rain-blasted road to San Diego was hell enough.

As they crossed the desert they passed flattened cacti, overflowing creeks, and broken down autos mired in sludge. After what is now Ocotillo, the road rises almost 3000 feet to Jacumba. With its steep pitches and badly contoured sections, the old Devil’s Canyon Grade was a hazard on a clear day. The fairly new Mountain Springs Grade to the south zig-zagged up to Jacumba with narrow passes and deep drop-offs. It wasn’t paved. A crushed granite surface assured traction in dry weather.

Not far up the grade, as the auto averaged “about one mile an hour,” a wedge-shaped landslide sealed off the road. The three Hindus cleared away sharp rocks and boulders. The road still tilted toward a cliff, so they dug a trench for the front tires: two wagon-like indentations. Helen drove the Dodge “at an angle,” leaning her weight away from the precipitous fall. The tires spun and slid in the slippery muck. But she made it.

By the fourth landslide, clearing debris became routine. After plowing through “19 miles of the worst kind of road,” they reached Jacumba. The road was a river, swollen to 100-200 feet wide and at least four feet deep. The rains had warped the bridge.

The exhausted adventurers had had enough for one day and decided to stay overnight. The men slept in the old hotel, Helen in the car.

The next morning, Tom Morgan drove up in a brand new Maxwell. He followed Helen’s trail, rut for rut, up the grade. “He wanted to prove a Maxwell could go up that far,” Helen remembered. When he saw the bridge twisting in the current, “He decided the Maxwell could go no farther.” He warned Helen she’d never make it.

When she said they were going on, Morgan gave her ropes and shovels, block and tackle — then joined the group. Even though the stream lowered overnight, the current still flowed swiftly. A little knoll rose near the far side of the chestnut-colored spume. They waded with ropes to the knoll. “By the aid of block and tackle,” says Helen, “they built a little piece of new road,” and Helen made the crossing.

The Dodge crawled northwest to Boulevard. Whenever it struck dry land, the stripped soil crackled like a gravel bed.

Helen picked up a passenger in Boulevard. He’d been stuck two days in his car. He rode on the running board; they assumed he would give the car more ballast. Sometimes, he was just dead weight, as when Mud Hen got bogged “right down to the axles.” At the end of the second day, they stayed outside Campo — not far from Hatfield’s tower.

Along the way, Morgan counted at least 20 abandoned vehicles, stuck and broken down, some quite expensive.

Much of the worst flooding took place at Campo. The creek was an impassable stream, so Helen detoured to higher ground. The men hacked down fence posts, barbed wire, and wooden rails to blaze a new trail.

The bridge near Potrero was no more. Helen took the old Cottonwood Grade. About halfway up, the road collapsed down a hill. As at the Mountain Springs Grade, the Hindus dug a trench along the upper part of the incline. “I hoped it would hold as I went across that slide.” The others walked.

Late that evening, they stayed at the Dulzura Hotel. The next day, the bridge at Dulzura Creek was gone. The men found two large planks at a pump house and spread them across the current. As Helen drove, they arm-signaled where the front wheels were on the planks: too far left, too far right, or thumbs up.

In the Jamul Mountains, the road was a lake. Helen took an old trail she remembered, trampling bushes and avoiding jagged rocks — and the car sank into quicksand up to the differential. When prying didn’t work, they tied a rope to the Dodge and pulled it “like a team of mules.” They yanked so hard the rope snapped. Everyone toppled backwards. The Hindus’ turbans fell off. Ten-dollar pieces of gold sparkled in the mud.

When they reached Sweetwater, the dam had burst. The flow carried the bridge to San Diego Bay (four days later, Otay Dam “opened like a gate” and drained in two and a half hours). Helen drove south to Otay, then up the strand to Coronado.

Around 4:00 pm, January 24, they took the ferry across the bay to San Diego.

Mud Hen wasn’t the only auto to make it. C.E. Brumley and A.L. Nelson followed Helen’s makeshift route. But she was first. And though she and the other passengers looked like they had lost a tug-of-war in a pigpen, Helen delivered eight passengers, baggage, rolls of bedding, three bicycles, and the U.S. Mail — all unharmed.

Morgan was impressed. “Helen’s the best driver I’ve got. She made the [Mud Hen] do tricks I didn’t think was in it.”

Helen told the San Diego Sun: “All in all, it took the best part of four days to make the trip from El Centro. I had the car washed and it was as good as new. I don’t know when I’ve had such a dandy time.”

“She gave a hearty, wholesome, outdoor sort of laugh,” the reporter added, “of a kind that’s good to hear.”


1.) San Diego Union: “The days of the jitneys were troublous and few.”

2.) Popular refrain: “I’ll give a nickel for a kiss,/Said Cholly to a pretty miss./“Skiddo,” she cried, “you stingy cuss,/You’re looking for a jitney bus.”

3.) Helen Tulloch: “It was slow transportation, but they were glad to get there in those days.

People weren’t as choosey as they are now.”

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