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Washington Welcomes the Automobile: 120-year Romance — Part I,  Anticipation and Local Innovation

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 By Matthew B. Gilmore*

 “… Not calculated to frighten the horses. . . .” That was the condition under which the District of Columbia Commissioners allowed local patent attorney James J. Sheehy to exhibit a horseless carriage during the 1897 presidential inauguration [1] — even the hoariest of clichés have roots in truth! No other mention is made so perhaps the vehicle did frighten the horses. But the Washington Post reporter on April 3, 1897 breathlessly recounted his expedition on “the first horseless carriage ever seen on the streets of Washington.”

This machine was a Hoadley-Knight Compressed Air vehicle. Inventor Alfred H. Hoadley, Joseph H. Hoadley, W. Kesley Schoepf and his wife, and Mr. Todd from the Eckington Railroad, were in the carriage with the reporter on its jaunt around the city. (It’s important to note that Schoepf had several bankrupt transit lines in his charge as receiver and was under heavy pressure to convert from horse cars.)

The horses they passed all had downcast expressions. Bicyclists raced the carriage and taunted the passengers. “The Commissioners and members of the District Committee in the Senate will be given an outing in a few days,” reported the Post. Whether that happened or not, Hoadley’s compressed air vehicles did not prosper. The commissioners, if they took the ride, were not impressed and banned horseless carriages — a position deprecated by the Chicago Journal and reprinted by the Post on August 17, 1897.

Headline from the Washington Post in 1897 about the first “horseless vehicle” on Washington streets.


Slow and Much Anticipated Introduction

This hesitant introduction of the automobile (as it would eventually be named) contrasts markedly with the local enthusiasm for and adoption of the technology — vehicles (and other) mechanization being the equivalent disruptive technology to digitization today.

Reports in the press were sporadic curiosities from elsewhere at first; “It is a Horseless Carriage” headlined a brief report from Kansas City in the Washington Times of December 24, 1894. Six months later, on July 13, 1895, the Evening Star excitedly reported, with the headline “The Horseless Carriage-Common in France and Now About to Be Introduced in America”:

“The estimate is that a three-horse-power petroleum engine can be run in the streets of New York at a cost of 3 cents an hour. It would do the work of two horses that would cost many times that sum in stabling and feeding, Of course, the cost in a city like Washington, paved as it is with asphalt, would be much less than in a roughly paved city like New York, as each engine would make a greater return.”

The news hook on which this story hung was the success of the recent 720-mile Paris to Bordeaux race. In October 1895, Gus Schuldt wrote in the Post’s Amateur Writers section, “It has been a matter of great surprise to us that notwithstanding the general appearance of the horseless carriage (or more properly electrical wagon) in Paris and Boston, they have not yet reached Washington. The cause of this slight is, indeed, a mystery. Is Washington not pre-eminently suited to them? Are our smooth streets not the wonder of nations, and, therefore fitted for these electrical vehicles?”

Precocious Schuldt was yet a young man, a college student at Columbian University, but would become a lawyer, judge, and vitally interested in traffic law obedience and safety in coming years. [2]

Automobiles, motocycles, or horseless carriages, really came to American public attention in late 1895. (“Automobile” was the fancy, new-fangled French name for horseless carriages; “motocycle” was the competing American term.)

The Chicago Times-Herald sponsored a race on Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 1895. Frank Duryea, one half of the Massachusetts inventor team of brothers Frank and Charles Duryea, won, defeating several electric vehicles and German Benz automobiles. The course, from Chicago to Evanston and back, was made more challenging by accumulated slush left from a snowstorm the day before. The Motocycle (Automobile) magazine gave a blow-by-blow account of the race, including a map of the route. [3]

The Duryeas had a Washington, DC connection. They had come to DC in 1888 and worked for bicycle dealer, rider, enthusiast Herbert S. Owen before moving to Massachusetts.  (Click here to read more about Washington’s late 19th century bicycle craze.

By December 7, 1895, the Star could proclaim that the “horseless carriage has come, and evidently to stay” as a side comment in an article primarily about bicycles headlined, “Everything A-Wheel: The Wonderful Changes Made in Bicycle Construction; For Business Purposes; The Horse Superseded by Modern Rapid Transit Methods; A Tricycle Built for Two.”

Dr. Louis D. Bliss, founder of the Bliss Electrical School, was quoted in the September 14, 1896 Post as eng excited about the imminent prospect of Montgomery Ward electrical vehicles coming to Washington: “There is no city in the country so well adapted to the use of an electric carriage as Washington, with its many miles of asphalt streets.”

Washington’s Morning Times a little more than two months later, on November 29th, illustrated the curious “Automobile Pleasure Chair” which was a tricycle propelled by a gas motor. Inventor Reuben H. Plass of Brooklyn had ambitious plans to bring out multiple sizes and styles but died just a few years later; the plans failed.

The April 17, 1897 edition of the Star had a special report from Paris on the potential of the “automobile” for the 1900 Great Paris Exposition. The correspondent looked forward to the replacement by then of the current “15,000 broken-hearted and anaemic horses” with “swift and tireless automobile cabs — at 20 cents an hour.” This could be the most memorable, signature feature of the Paris exposition, just as Chicago’s Ferris Wheel and the Eiffel Tower had been for previous expositions.

Anticipation had been building for a few years by the time the District Commissioners granted James J. Sheehy his permit for his horseless carriage in the 1897 presidential inauguration festivities. Next, Playwright Elmer E. Vance road-tested his vehicle in September of 1897 — and did not disturb the horses, as reported by the Post on September 19th of that year. How serious he was is open to question; the vehicle was partly a promotion for his play Patent Applied For, about an automobile inventor [4]. Nothing more is recorded about Vance’s invention.

Pope Manufacturing was soon exhibiting its electric vehicles at its 14th Street, NW store in 1898, as reported on March 8th by the Post. On June 25th of 1899 the Post set about articulating the promise and dispelling the myths of automobiles (and also prescient):

“Of course, no one needs to be told these days what an automobile is. They know it is a recently invented motor carriage, which is going to immediately work man’s best friend, the horse, out of a job; which will make traffic in our streets clean and noiseless, replace bicycles, and checkmate the railroads, making every man his own transpiration company, either for pleasure or profit. All of this is quite in accordance with popular conception and none of it quite true.”

In 1899 the Washington Automobile Company incorporated, according to the March 25th Washington Post — but not with plans to build automobiles but to run buses and cabs. On April 29th a bit of a puff piece appeared in the Post headlined, “Good City for Autos,” and mentioned Oscar T. Crosby’s electric private phaeton, Crosby being an incorporator of the Washington Automobile Company. In May, he took the French ambassador for a spin in his Columbia motor.

Crosby had acquired the city’s streetcar lines, except those of Capital Traction, and consolidated them under Washington Traction and Electric Company. Much of the resonance and irony of this is lost on us today — Crosby was the first president of the Potomac Electric Power Company and the street cars were being converted to electricity, and he was running an electric bus company.[5]

Oscar T. Crosby. undated photo–Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div.

The Post, always the enthusiastic supporter of automobiles, on February 13, 1900 published the account of a driving instruction session (or two), making  the observation, “Provided he [the person operating these vehicles] is reasonably intelligent and quick-witted, anyone can master the tricks of the various levers within four or five lessons. . . . “One mere woman found it an exciting sport.”

One did, however, need to overcome doubts:

“Is the automobile a practical means of conveyance? If I should attempt to fulfill an engagement in one, instead of riding out to the links, wouldn’t it balk at the hills out Chevy Chase way, or muss my bones in a runaway down one of those slopes? . . . Will it be as reliable as the time-tried horse?”

Nevertheless,  the lesson was a success. And other notable automobile owners were noted, including Congressman Joseph Sibley, Senator Edward Wolcott, Chinese Ambassador Wu Ting-Fang, and even ex-Queen Liliuokalani of Hawaii. The horse dealers weren’t worried, however, according to the May 14, 1900 Washington Post. In story headlined “Horse market active,” the reporter continued with observations that automobiles were seen as a passing fad, just as bicycles had been popular and then declined.

The automobile era in Washington may truly be considered launched by the opening of the first Washington Automobile Show on December 10, 1900. A highlight was the parade, and the organizers had “enlisted the co-operation of a number of leading society people . . .” to compete for best decorated vehicle. But more importantly, as the Washington Times reported on the 9th, the day prior to the opening, “The show will give intending purchases a chance to see every known style of vehicle in operation, and by comparison make a choice. The general public will be given some idea of the extent of this new industry and the stability of the new conveyance and the new means of propulsion, which is destined to displace nearly all others.”

Scenes from the Washington Auto Show of 1900. photo montage–“Electrical World and Engineer,” Dec. 22, 1900.

In 1901 the first “Automobile Stables” appears in the City Directory, located in the alley north of K Street, NW between 13th and 14th. The 1903 City Directory shows a number of entries under “Automobiles” — quite an increase over 1900 which had just the one, Pennsylvania Horseless Carriage Co.

On August 27, 1902 the Star was reporting that automobilists were speeding in Rock Creek Park and startling the horses. The Automobile Club of Washington, organized in 1905-’06, built its clubhouse on Brightwood Avenue (now Georgia Avenue). By 1907 the Post could report on substantial automotive progress in the District, though President Roosevelt had not adopted the automobile despite occasionally hitching rides with Assistant Secretary of State Robert Bacon or Pennsylvania Senator Philander Knox.

Local Automotive Invention and Innovation

Washington is generally mischaracterized as historically entirely lacking in industry, but the Patent Office drew inventors and manufacturers to the city. Motorized vehicle inventions in Washington paralleled those across the country. Men had been inventing mechanized vehicular contraptions in Washington for several years previous to the first appearance in 1897. Contraptions they were — two wheels, three wheels, four wheels, and some kind of motor—steam, electric, gasoline.

L.M. (Louis M.) Aspinwall (living at 17 Dupont Circle) may have been the first in Washington; he created a three-wheel electric vehicle in 1892. Aspinwall was not your average tinkerer but was a member of the renowned New York mercantile Aspinwall family. His energies soon turned to electric railways, but he would reminisce about the heady days of early automobile invention. [6]

Aspinwall home at 17 Dupont Circle, NW (center), as seen looking across the Circle.

Local eminences took part in inventing and innovating as well. Prominent hotelier Col. O.G. (Orrin G.) Staples, along with architect T.F. (Franklin) Schneider and brother William E. Schneider, [7] was involved in the ill-starred “Autocarette” project in 1900. Not small vehicles, as the “-ette” implies, these electric-powered vehicles were what we could consider buses designed for 20 passengers.

Mechanical, aesthetic, and noise issues quickly ended this experiment. “A Chariot of Fire” was the Post’s headline on September 5, 1900 article recounting the fiery demise of an Autocarette on 16th Street. Two weeks later the September 18th Star reported the suspension of Autocarette service on Connecticut Avenue. And in October an Autocarette collided with a streetcar on Pennsylvania Avenue. By 1902 Autocarette was being sued for non-payment of rent for the Metropolitan Railway P Street barns. [8]

Major Richard W. Sylvester, circa 1901. (Major Sylvester held the position now called Chief of Police.) photo–Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Div., C.M. Bell Studio Collection.

Francis Jenkins, associated today with the development of early motion pictures and television, developed several varieties of steam-powered vehicles in 1900. Jenkins was the most prolific of Washington’s automotive inventors. In 1898 he rolled out a steam-powered vehicle for two or four passengers, referred to as the “Trap” or “Steam Trap.” Back then, “trap” was a familiar term; horse-drawn traps were light-weight, elegant vehicles — what one would use to impress friends, neighbors, and the opposite sex. The Steam Trap was elegantly upholstered, expensive, and hit speeds up to eight miles an hour. This was succeeded by a sportier “runabout.”

Jenkins also manufactured larger vehicles — a freight truck and a tour bus (or what we would today consider a tour bus), the Observation Automobile.

But as an early innovator, Jenkins faced opposition from entrenched interests and he opposed new regulations for motor vehicles. Perhaps due to simple frustration, and lack of funding, he moved on to new fields of invention — aeronautics and later radio. [9]

Chicagoan Charles H. Peck developed and sold a kit to convert a horseless carriage to steam. His DC-based Peerless Long-Distance Steam Carriage Company in 1901 developed its own complete vehicle. It seems to have disappeared after its initial year.

Peerless Long-Distance Steam Carriage Company advertisement from “The Hub (Devoted to The Domestic and Foreign Interests of Carriage, Wagon nnd Automobile Manufacturer and Dealers, and The Accessory Trades),” Sep. 1900.

The Pennsylvania Horseless Carriage Company of Washington also developed a horse-drawn to horseless conversion package. Their initial offering was a motorized vehicle running on coal oil and getting a phenomenal 30 miles to the gallon. Manager Thomas C. Poe announced its price at a phenomenally low $450. Despite this, the company soon disappeared.

Rock Creek Auto and Wagon Works produced a few vehicles at 2613 Pennsylvania Ave, NW during 1907-‘08. Their factory sat right on the edge of Rock Creek in the industrial valley, just upstream from the Easby-Godey lime kilns.

Story about, and photograph of, Rock Creek Auto and Wagon Works. Washington Times, Jan. 21, 1906, page 32 (“Real Estate News of Washington” section).

In 1906 the eccentric Dr. (John) Shakespeare Penn devised his Penn motor vehicle, resembling nothing more than an over-sized baby carriage with a canopy. His real name was John Gashorne (perhaps) – and he had escaped from a Pennsylvania lunatic asylum, though DC declared him sane. The story has a sad ending. As reported on December 19, 1912 by the Washington Herald, Penn was found asphyxiated by gas.

Shakespeare Penn’s vehicle as shown on page 85 of the Jan. 1908 issue of Motor. Another image was published in the Nov. 25, 1906 Washington Post illustrating a story headlined, “Says He Is Judea’s Prophet Who Will One Day Reunite Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.”

Numerous automobile companies or enterprises were announced in Washington and produced little or nothing.[10] Across the river in Virginia there were some automotive operations in Alexandria. And in Maryland there was one notable local, short-term success in Hyattsville, where members of the Carter family had built cars under a variety of corporate names from 1909 until the 1920s.

Washington’s Earl French designed his own diminutive gasoline-powered “cycle car” and proudly showed it off in front of the District’s Municipal Building in 1913. [11] French worked for an auto dealer and raced at the Benning track.

Interview with cyclecar inventor Earl French as reported in the Oct. 26, 1913 Washington Post story, “Cycle Car Is Latest: Local Automobile Man Has Recently Built One.”

The wild and woolly experimental days of motor vehicles drew to a close with the 1910s. An irresistible exception was Constantios Vlahos’ “Tri-Phibian” of 1935. Utterly bizarre in appearance, the Tri-Phibian did have a triple ambition – travel on land, water, and in the air. After constructing his contraption, Vlahos had a press demonstration on the grounds of the Library of Congress. It was a disaster when the Tri-Phibian immediately caught fire, which was captured on newsreel. Despite that setback, as the Star headlined the next day, “Burned inventor to continue work.” [12]

NEXT MONTH: Washington Welcomes the Automobile: 120-year Romance – Part II


Zachary Schrag, Professor of History, George Mason University; Grant Quertermous, Tudor Place; Isabelle Gournay, University of Maryland; John De Ferrari, Streets of Washington blog; historian Stephen A. Hansen; and h/t to Ghosts of DC, particularly the one about the reactions of the horse dealers.


Available by clicking here.

References and Resources

See resource list published on author’s Washington DC History blog.

Matthew B. Gilmore is the editor of the H-DC discussion list and blogs on Washington history and related subjects at Previously, he was a reference librarian at the Washingtoniana Division of the DC Public Library for a number of years and chaired the Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies for four years.

© 2019 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Matthew B. Gilmore. All rights reserved.