Steam Starts the 1899 Auto Industry

Most people that have lived in Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown remember the long-standing influence General Motors had on our economy, population, and traffic throughout the Villages.

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Note: postcard; although labeled Maxwell-Briscoe, this was the original Mobile factory.

However, did you know that the auto industry in North Tarrytown began at a beautiful turn-of-the-century factory near Kingsland Point? It began when a man named John Walker became interested in steam cars. He was quite a financial investor in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In fact he was the founder and owner of Cosmopolitan Magazine. In the spring of 1896, someone at Cosmopolitan came up with the idea to have an automobile race. It was, at that time, only the second auto race in the United States. The race began at New York City Hall and ran to the Cosmopolitan Building in Irvington, New York. This race seemed to have sparked an interest in Walker to invest in the emerging auto industry.

In 1896, the twin brothers Francis and Freeling Stanley were manufacturing steam cars in Newton, Massachusetts known as Stanley Steamers. The Stanleys had been manufacturing for about three years when they were approached by John Walker. The Stanley Steamer was very popular and sales were growing at a rapid rate, so, when John Walker approached them to sell, they were quite reluctant. But Walker made them an offer that astonished them. He offered the brothers $250,000 for the works. The only trouble was that Walker did not have the complete sum of money. Therefore, he made contact with A. L. Barber of the Barber Asphalt Paving Company. After Barber test drove the Steamer, he was very impressed. He came up with the money to go into partnership with Walker to completely buy out the Stanley brothers. The partnership only lasted two weeks, however, due to a disagreement between the investment partners. Although both partners would continue to manufacture what was essentially the Stanley Steamer, Barber changed the name of the Stanleys’ former company to the Locomobile Company. He wanted to remain in Massachusetts. Walker, on the other hand, was determined to return to Westchester and decided to call his company, the Mobile Company of America. On July 6, 1899 he bought the old Ambrose Kingsland estate for $185,000.

Only eight days after acquiring the property, Walker retained noted architect Stanford White to design a factory at the Kingsland Point site. The designed structure was to be constructed of brick and steel, 300 feet long, by 50 feet wide. The structure was unusual for several reasons. First of all, there were 700 windows spread over three stories to allow for maximum daylight. Secondly, the smokestack, usually a simple cylindrical structure, was designed as a square clock tower. In less than a month, 125 men began to build the factory. When completed, the structure was considered one of the finest factories in the country. The Mobile Company of America was almost ready to begin production.

In November 1899, the building was occupied and approximately 40 men began to organize machinery, materials, and tools for production. Several months later, on March 7, 1900, the first Mobile was completed with approximately 180 men working in the new factory. The new Mobile was called the Westchester County model, and was sold for $650.

The concept was simple. A small steam boiler, initially fueled by gasoline, and later by kerosene, produced steam at 160 pounds pressure to power a two- cylinder engine. The engine activated the rear axle by a single chain drive. A safety valve rated at 170 pounds pressure was installed to relieve pressure as needed. The Mobile could achieve 20 mph with its 12 horse-power engine. The gas tank had a range between 60 to 75 miles, and the water tank had to be refilled about every 35 miles. In addition, the water also had to be mineral free or else it would clog the pipes.

Production of the steamer peaked in the summer of 1900, but declined in the fall. By February 1902, although the employees had been increased to 200 men, only five Steamers were being produced per week. Walker began a great effort to promote sales and put on a successful exhibit at the Automobile Show at Madison Square Garden; and sales increased for a while. Hoping to further promote sales, Walker reduced the Mobile to $550 and advertised it as, "Improved over last year’s." However, the little Mobile was difficult to start and took a while to build up steam. In addition, the internal combustion engine was starting to become more popular and more widely used in the emerging auto industry. The Mobile Company of America’s days were numbered. The North Tarrytown factory closed its doors in the beginning of 1903, having manufactured over 500 vehicles. John Brisben Walker had promised the village to make it a great manufacturing town. He did not quite succeed, but he certainly paved the way for Maxwell-Briscoe who took over the factory, and later for the General Motors assembly plant, which greatly affected Sleepy Hollow until 1996.

Richard Miller is the Tarrytown Village Historian

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