A Ride in a Stanley Steamer

From 1902 to 1924, the Stanley Motor Carriage Company built what were colloquially known as Stanley Steamers. The automobiles earned this nickname because, like a locomotive, the propelling motion was produced by burners boiling water which produced steam. The engine was essentially a hot water heater. There was nothing electric on the Steamers. Everything was steam-powered, even the headlights which were lit by a match. They were eventually rendered obsolete when the internal combustion engine increased fuel efficiency and power delivery. Nowadays, most Stanley Steamers are in museums or are owned by wealthy private collectors. Jay Leno, long-time host of the Tonight Show, has a collection of them. You rarely see one being driven on the road. When people are lucky enough to see a Stanley Steamer on the roadway, most cannot help but stop and stare.

Willie was on summer vacation. His job required him to spend most of his time in our nation’s capital, about 400 miles from his home in Canton, Ohio. When vacation time came up, he and his wife escaped the busy streets of Washington for the relaxation of their home in Canton. Each day, Willie took long walks to take in the fresh air and clear his mind. On July 13, Willie was enjoying his usual walk when something caught his eye. It caught everyone’s eye. His pace slowed as he focused his eyes. An automobile puffing white steam was driving in his direction. Almost no sounds came from the car. Just an occasional hiss, like a steam train on a much smaller scale. It approached Willie and slowed. “Willie,” the man yelled with a wave. He blew the car’s steam whistle. Willie’s old hometown friend, Zebulon Davis, was driving a Stanley Steamer.

Zebulon pulled alongside Willie and the two exchanged pleasantries. They took turns speaking about their work, their families, and made other small talk. All the while, Willie peered uneasily at the Stanley Steamer. He was cautious but curious. As with a steam train, Willie understood that the boiler in a steam-powered car could explode if the steam built up too much pressure. Naturally, the focus of their conversation turned entirely to the rare car. Finally, partly out of politeness and partly to give Willie the rare opportunity to ride in a Stanley Steamer, Zebulon offered Willie a ride.

Willie smiled uncomfortably, thanked Zebulon, but politely declined. Maybe another time. Zebulon could see that Willie was still curious. He asked again. This time, Willie was slower to say no. Willie walked around the car and asked what this part did and how that part worked – questions any of us might ask if we saw one in person. Zebulon knew Willie was hooked. He asked Willie again and, this time, Willie accepted. Willie stepped into the passenger seat and the two men set off.

The car hissed away from the curb. Willie was uptight and nervous as the Stanley Steamer gained speed. His whole body, like his grip on the seat, tightened each time the car’s narrow tires hit a bump. The longer they rode, the more relaxed Willie became. Finally, Willie was enjoying the ride. Well, until someone on a bicycle pulled directly into the path of the Stanley Steamer. The brakes on the Stanley Steamer lacked the stopping power of a modern car. Zebulon jerked the wheel. Willie’s grip tightened once more. Onlookers gasped in expectation of a serious accident. To everyone’s relief, especially the bicycle rider’s, the Stanley Steamer narrowly missed the bicycle. A short time later, Zebulon dropped Willie off to continue his walk. They said their goodbyes and Zebulon’s car hissed as it sped away.

At 58 years old, Willie finally rode in his first Stanley Steamer automobile. For the entirety of his life to that point, Willie had avoided riding in any automobile. Willie’s first ride in an automobile made history, and not just for him personally. The date was July 13, 1901… the date William “Willie” McKinley became the first President of the United States to ride in an automobile.


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