The rumble of traffic is ubiquitous in Princeton today, and everybody complains about congestion. It gets worse when visitors flock to town for Reunions or sporting events. On a single day this month, Nov. 12, major ice hockey, basketball, swimming, and soccer competitions took place on campus, plus the annual football game against Yale: cars everywhere. 

It was on a Yale game weekend 101 years ago that locals first complained about automobiles in Princeton, an ominous start to a troubling trend. “Great congestion,” reported The Prince, clogged Nassau and Prospect streets as New Yorkers motored down to University Field. When the matchup returned to town two years later, the borough’s first traffic regulations were put into place, including a fee of 50 cents to park in a field west of Murray Place. Congestion only would grow: Up to 4,200 cars were expected for the big game in 1914 — in a village of 5,100 people, with just four garages.

Thus began the woeful tale of Princeton and the ­automobile. 

Cars chugged into Tigertown remarkably early. In March 1901, “all men who possess automobiles” were invited to a student meeting in Blair Hall for the founding of the Princeton University Automobile Club. It was only the seventh such club established in the United States, one of nine that formed AAA a year later. 

When the weather turned warm (nobody thought of driving in winter), the fledgling club undertook ambitious trips, even up the Hudson to West Point, braving bottomless mud and frequent breakdowns. There were just 5,000 cars in the whole country, less than 200 miles of pavement. Many Americans never had seen a car. When one sped down dusty Nassau Street in 1902, the druggist’s horse panicked and impaled itself on the fence in front of Nassau Hall. 

Tigers had helped pioneer the motorized revolution. Two years after graduation, Joseph Bunting 1895 imported one of the first gasoline automobiles to America, what he called a French “devil wagon.” Often costing $100,000 in today’s dollars, the first cars were playthings for the ultra-rich. Perhaps the first on campus was the French-built Clement belonging to Childs Frick 1905, son of the Pittsburgh steel magnate. A fancy Locomobile soon followed, beloved toy of Sterling Morton 1906, heir to a salt fortune. 

For a time, cars remained rare: Only three drivers signed up for a 1906 hill climb of Washington Road, which a senior won in his 35-horsepower Pope-Toledo. He roared from Lake Carnegie up to 1879 Hall in under a minute, a considerable violation of the state speed limit of 8 mph. 

Within a few years, though, every young tycoon donned driving goggles, adding splendor to undergraduate life. Lucky car owners could follow the football team, imbibe at roadhouses, and deliver glamorous dates to the prom. Under­graduate Gerard Lambert 1908, son of the inventor of Listerine, had his chauffeur drive him in a $4,600 Peerless Runabout with red leather seats “from my rooms to chapel, a mere few hundred yards. This affectation gave me great delight.” 

But automobiles had their dark side. The most beautiful campus in America was being spoiled by mechanical invaders, critics moaned. By 1919, the Chapel and McCosh Hall were surrounded by parked motor cars, and their thunder upon starting was deafening. Changing classes, students dodged speeding roadsters that took shortcuts across the grass.

Dean Howard McClenahan 1895 blamed “the gasoline motor car” for the Jazz Age, with its steep decline in “moral standards.” Sunday motoring left churches deserted; youth were shamelessly “petting”; speakeasies disguised as hot-dog stands beckoned down country lanes. 

Dean Christian Gauss agreed: Cars were ruining Prince­ton’s “residential tradition” by luring students away from campus, where they got into drunken accidents. Half of all disciplinary cases involved driving.

And some said that automobiles were undemocratic, a boon to “misguided grandees that think to storm the castle of popularity with impressive horsepower,” as one student moaned. A Presbyterian minister, President John Grier Hibben 1882 urged Princetonians to realize the value of “simplicity in living and of the elimination of unnecessary luxuries.” Cars, he said, only widened the “gulf between those who have, and those who have not.” 

One moonlit evening in May 1925, the stillness of the University was shattered as a parade of 50 automobiles swept down the roadways, horns blaring. The undergraduate drivers pulled into Prospect Garden to let Hibben know just what they thought of him and the trustees, who finally had banned cars from campus. 

Then the rumbling caravan headed toward the dormitories in search of a hapless senior named Neilson Abeel. By unfortunate coincidence, the trustees had acted just days after The Daily Princetonian published the studious Abeel’s letter, headlined “Keep Autos Off Campus,” which lambasted drivers for splattering him with mud and interrupting his sleep with “infernal noise.” Every car owner now blamed him personally. They searched everywhere — a nimble Ford even climbed the steps between Campbell and Holder halls — but poor Abeel must have been cowering under his bed.

The ban was stiffened two years later: Students had to leave their cars in their faraway hometowns or face dismissal. The trigger was a shocking series of fatal accidents. Driven on twisting roads and lacking seat belts, early automobiles were extraordinarily dangerous — five undergraduates died in 1926 alone. 

The toughened car ban aroused more student outrage against administrative “paternalism.” In a stunt, another member of the Lambert clan from St. Louis, George Lambert 1927, mocked the rule by buzzing campus in his shiny yellow airplane during Commencement. Three days later, as he flew home with cousin and classmate James Walker, the plane’s engine failed. Lambert survived. The doomed Walker scribbled a brief message to his girlfriend on his checkbook — “Goodbye, Carol” — on the way down. Walker Hall was given in his memory.

Even with the ban, Princeton students continued to die in appalling numbers — at least 21 between 1926 and 1937. Students begged Gauss to lift the car ban just once, for ­junior-prom weekend in 1929. He agreed — and came to regret it. A favorite of his, Francis Meade ’30, driving up from Baltimore with two lady friends in a Chrysler sedan, was plowed into by a drunk driver. Gauss mourned Meade as the “perfect gentleman.” 

Princeton’s car ban had an ironic aftermath. Upon retirement, Hibben was given a Packard sedan by the grateful trustees. Months later he lost control of it on slippery U.S. 1 and ran head-on into a beer truck. He and his wife were killed. 

The tough car ban lasted until 1967, when rules finally were loosened. Lately, new bans have been imposed: No undergraduate cars may be on central campus during business hours, and freshmen and sophomores are forbidden to have them at all. This year, about 430 upperclassmen and 1,100 graduate students registered cars on campus.

Transportation and Parking Services director Kim Jackson and her staff work full time to manage the ceaseless pressure of too many cars, too few places to park. Citing a desire for a walkable campus with improved air quality and a reduced carbon footprint, the University has set a target of eliminating 500 vehicles from campus by 2020. Jackson’s goal, she says, is to convince today’s undergraduates “that you can be at Princeton and not have a car — and not miss it.”

W. Barksdale Maynard ’88 wrote Woodrow Wilson: Princeton to the Presidency and Princeton: America’s Campus, to be published in May by Penn State Press.