A trip back in time to the beginnings of the automotive industryJun 29, 2022 11:55AM ● By Tricia Hoadley
Take a look at some photographs from the very late 1800s and early 1900s when the transition between horse-led carriages and automobiles was occurring and you may see something … different. Some of these images show proud owners of a contraption called a Stanley Steamer which propelled itself across the landscape in a unique way. The Stanley Steamer holds an important place in the history of the automotive industry- and a hidden “gem” of a museum near Hockessin tells its story.
Technology was changing rapidly in the late 1800s. German mechanical engineer Karl Benz created what is considered the first self-propelled automobile in 1885. On June 4, 1896 Henry Ford took his “quadricycle” out for a spin. Two brothers—Francis E. and Freelan O. Stanley— were not far behind. In 1897 they produced their first car, powered not by gasoline or diesel, but by steam. The Stanleys were not trained engineers, but they had strong mechanical skills as well as design creativity. After first using their talents to produce photographic plates, the patent for which they sold to George Eastman of Eastman Kodak fame- the Stanleys decided that the automobile would be their lifelong focus. The two men sold more than 100 cars between 1898- 1899, making them the largest domestic seller of automobiles for those years. In 1902, the Stanley Motor Carriage Company came to life.
T. Clarence Marshall was a self-taught engineer and served as the sales agent for the local office of the Stanley Motor Carriage Company from 1910 to 1920. His fascination with steam technology led him to begin collecting, operating and restoring these cars. His interest rubbed off on his son Thomas. Clarence constructed a building in 1947 to hold his acquisitions; that structure at Auburn Heights (the Marshall family estate) later became the home of the Marshall Steam Museum. On Clarence’s passing in 1969, Tom continued the family tradition of acquiring and showcasing Stanley Steamers. Tom was dedicated to bringing the cars out in the open for everyone to see. He drove his 1912 30-horsepower Stanley touring car on four transcontinental trips, the furthest of which was an 8,328-mile trek from Yorklyn, Del. to Montreal, Canada, down to Tijuana, Mexico and back in 1972—considered by aficionados to be the longest excursion ever made in a Stanley Steamer.
You don’t have to be a car enthusiast to appreciate the amazing vehicles showcased at the Marshall Steam Museum. Adjacent is the Marshall home, a beautiful 1897 Queen Anne Mansion in what is now Delaware’s Auburn Valley State Park, donated to the state by the Marshall family in 2008. The Museum archives note that the venue (proudly operated by the Friends of Auburn Heights, a 501 (c) (3) charitable organization) owns “the world’s largest operating collection of Stanley steam cars.” It is not limited to steamers; the collection has several classic vehicles from the early days of the automotive industry. Some people today may think that Tesla was the first mass producer of electric cars, but the Museum contains one from 1916- roughly a century before Tesla entered the marketplace. The Museum also holds a 1914 Ford Model T and two 1930s era Packards.
Executive director Susan Randolph knows her Stanley Steamers and talks about them as if they were old friends. A private tour of the Museum allowed this author to get “up close and personal” with several of the automobiles in the collection, which holds cars powered by gasoline, electricity and steam. Their 1932 Packard is exquisite and was considered the premium quality motorcar at the time. Tom Marshall purchased this car in 1956. A maroon 1907 Stanley Model K Semi Racer is quite impressive. It could reach a speed of 75 miles per hour- a remarkable achievement for its day.
Many of the earliest cars produced in the United States had some things “missing”— like a windshield. A 1910 Stanley Touring Model 71 in the collection does have a windshield, making it somewhat unique among the early motorcars. A royal blue 1916 Stanley Touring Model 725 in the Museum is proof that conserving energy did not start in the 1960s. The car has a condenser which allows it to recycle the steam for reuse on trips. The average Stanley Steamer had a tank which held approximately 40 to 45 gallons and could travel roughly 40 miles without “refueling,” which usually meant stopping at a home or farmhouse asking for water. The realization that these vehicles were powered by the same thing that comes out of your kitchen tap gives you a better appreciation for the inventive genius of the Stanley brothers.
So—how did the Stanley Steamers work? Lighting a pilot light underneath the car started a fire in the burner beneath the water tank, using gasoline or kerosene for fuel. It took approximately 45 minutes to get the boiler up and running for “full steam ahead.” Walking around the Museum, you can see numerous well-preserved examples of automotive steam technology. The cars are in pristine condition; they have been ‘road tested’ on several occasions. Executive Director Randolph has been a passenger in nearly all of the Museum’s vehicles and her enthusiasm from those rides shines through as you discuss the motorcars of yesteryear and how they transformed life in America.
The Marshall Steam Museum has something for people of all ages. A 1/8-size miniature train propels itself around the property, giving kids a thrill as they cruise through the landscape on a real locomotive. There’s even a popcorn machine powered by- what else- steam. The various exhibits take you on a trip back in time, to the days when the pace of life was just a bit… slower. You will find out about the Marshall family heritage in the area, including ownership of local mills that produced paper which sourced the nearby National Vulcan Fiber (NVF) plant. Although Tom passed away in 2019, his dedication to maintaining a part of our national heritage is shared by the team and evident everywhere as you walk around the Museum.
The Marshall Steam Museum is committed to highlighting their unique collection in events throughout the year. The first Sunday of each month is Steamin’ Day, where people can ride in one of the cars, on the miniature locomotive, tour the Marshall house and estate and walk on the trails nearby. Auburn Heights After Hours offers a variety of themed games and activities, food and beverages and a tour of the grounds. The website says that Steamin’ Summer Camp gives kids ages 10 to 14 a chance to “fire up a steam-powered locomotive, play interactive games and activities, experience train rides and get a chance to drive our small-scale diesel train…” The camp will run on Friday July 15 and Monday, Aug.1.
So, if you’re wondering what it was like to ride around in an antique car and see the countryside at a more leisurely pace- or simply learn more about the roots of transportation in America, the Marshall Steam Museum will be a treat for you and your entire family.
Gene Pisasale is an historian, author and lecturer based in Kennett Square. His 10 books focus on the history of the Chester County/mid-Atlantic region. His latest work is “Forgotten Founding Fathers: Pennsylvania and Delaware in the American Revolution.” His books are available through his website at www.GenePisasale.com and on www.Amazon.com. Gene can be reached via e-mail at [email protected]