1916 Ford Model T jitney bus
  • 1916 Ford Model T jitney bus
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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.

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