Buffalo Bill Cody at the tiller of a 1903 Michigan. Photo Jim Hinckley collection.
A common question asked in interviews is what period of history do I find to be the most exciting and interesting. The answer is 1990 to 2020 and 1890 to 1930. That in turn usually leads to an expression of surprise followed by a series of related questions. The swirl of past, present, and future during the 1890 to 1930 period is an endless source of fascination. As an example, consider this. Buffalo Bill, the legendary frontiersman, purchased a Kalamazoo manufactured Michigan in 1903, and played an important role in the development of the National Old Trails Road, predecessor to Route 66 in the southwest.
Edsel Ford, Emily Post and thousands upon thousands of tourists were discovering the wonders of the great southwest by following the National Old Trails Road to California for the Panama Pacific Exposition in 1915. This was the year that the Dodge brothers launched an automotive empire that would in time challenge the dominance of Henry Ford. And in Europe, for the first time airplanes were being used in combat. Meanwhile, in remote areas of Arizona stagecoaches were still in use.
On this past weeks episode of Coffee With Jim, I referenced Henry Starr, the 6′ 7″ Cherokee that was born in 1873 in the Oklahoma Territory. He was a prolific bank robber and in 1893 killed a U.S. Marshall. While in prison he learned Latin, began studying the law, and developed an educational program for illiterate prisoners. The latter led to President Theodore Roosevelt issuing a pardon. But almost as soon as he was released, Starr resumed his career as a bank robber.
This was followed by another prison stint, another pardon and then a daring attempt to rob two banks simultaneously in Stroud, Oklahoma. This time he was wounded and arrested. Shortly after release from prison his life took a dramatic and unexpected turn, a movie star that played the role of western outlaw and bank robber. His first film was a moderate success, and there was every indication that he was on the cusp of a new career.
Instead he returned to Oklahoma and began making illegal withdrawals from rural banks. His luck ran out in 1921 when in the course of a robbery he was mortally wounded and died four days later. Starr began his career as a bank robber escaping posses on horseback. He ended it with escapes, or attempted escapes, in a Hudson or Studebaker. Changing times.
I reference the current era as it is also a period of dramatic transformation. As a point of reference just consider how dramatically 2020 has forever changed the world. Still, as exciting as it is, to be honest, there are days when I reflect on how nice it would be to read about this era in a history book instead of live through it. As I recall the years 1890 to 1930 opened the door to a pretty tumultuous period of time, and there are ample indications that we could witness a replay of sorts in the not so distant future.
On July 6, 1917, representatives of the Chamber of Commerce and business owners in East St. Louis met with the mayor to demand the resignation of the police chief and for extensive reform in the police department. Newspaper writers, outraged by the rioting, accused the mayor of having allowed a “reign of lawlessness.” The death toll may have been the primary focus of news stories, but the cost of extensive property damage was another cause for outrage. The Southern Railway Company loss claims included a warehouse and more than one hundred carloads of merchandise valued at more than $525,000. A theater valued at more than $100,000 had been burned, and at least 312 homes were destroyed.
The year 2020 with its countless stories of tragedy, political intrigue, and the dawning of a dramatic pandemic induced global shift will provide ample fodder for a generation of historians and authors. More than a few will ponder the Black Lives Matter movement and linked societal unrest and see it as a manifestation of a story that has plagued America since its inception.
In the first decades of the 20th century deeply rooted prejudices and related perceptions were an accepted part of American society. Incidents of this manifesting in violence were long a part of the nations story. But nothing compared to the explosion of turmoil that decimated communities along what would become the Route 66 corridor after 1926. Race riots decimated the Greenwood District of Tulsa, and African American neighborhoods in Springfield, Illinois. But these paled in comparison to the horrors unleashed in East St. Louis, Illinois.
Racial tensions had simmered in East St. Louis in the late nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth century as thousands of African Americans poured into East St. Louis from the states of the former Confederate States of America in search of economic opportunity. By 1910 the African American population in East St. Louis was six thousand, a number that would double by 1917 as factories employed more workers to fill war-contract quotas. In February 1917, the predominately white workforce at the Aluminum Ore Company went on strike. In retaliation and to prevent a decline in production, the company hired African American workers as replacements. The fuse was lit.
On the heels of a fiery city council meeting on May 28 where angry white workers lodged formal complaints, rumor of an attempted robbery of a white man by an armed black man spread through the city. Enraged mobs poured from taverns into the streets, beating any African Americans they encountered. As the violence increased, the governor dispatched the National Guard to restore order. By mid-June, control was returned to the city and the soldiers withdrew. But it was brief respite.
Then, on the first day of July, groups of white men drove through neighborhoods and indiscriminately fired guns at the houses of African Americans. Armed African Americans, some military veterans, took to the street, and in one incident shots were fired into an oncoming car in what was believed to be self-defense. Tragically, the two men killed during the brief melee were police officers, Detective Sergeant Samuel Coppedge and Detective Frank Wadley, who had been called out to investigate the drive-by shootings. The following morning, after a meeting in the Labor Temple where crowds were whipped into a frenzy of anger and hatred by labor leaders and politicians. Attendees of the meeting swarmed onto the streets where they savagely beat African Americans with guns, rocks, and pipes. Homes were firebombed, residents and business owners fleeing for their lives were shot, and several impromptu lynchings were documented.
Carlos F. Hurd, a reporter who had gained notoriety in 1912 for his heart-wrenching interviews with survivors of the RMS Titanic sinking, wrote a detailed eyewitness account. Published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on July 3, the article was also quoted in The Crisis, an NAACP publication. He opened his feature with, “For an hour and a half last evening I saw the massacre of helpless Negroes at Broadway and 4th Street, in downtown East St. Louis, where black skin was a death warrant.”
His account continued, “The East St. Louis affair, as I saw it, was a man hunt, conducted on a sporting basis, though with anything but the fair play which is the principle of sport,” he wrote. “There was a horribly cool deliberateness and a spirit of fun about it. ‘Get a nigger’ was the slogan, and it was varied by the recurrent cry, ‘Get another!’” The Crisis featured additional articles that provided details of mayhem, brutality, and outright horror: a person beheaded with a butcher knife, a twelve-year-old African American girl pulled from a trolley bus, and the girl’s mother attacked and left for dead with a gaping hole in her head.
As reports of the incident spread, there were manifestations of national outrage and investigations at the city, state, and federal level. An article published in the Post-Dispatch of St. Louis noted, “All the impartial witnesses agree that the police were either indifferent or encouraged the barbarities, and that the major part of the National Guard was indifferent or inactive. No organized effort was made to protect the Negroes or disperse the murdering groups. The lack of frenzy and of a large infuriated mob made the task easy. Ten determined officers could have prevented most of the outrages. One hundred men acting with authority and vigor might have prevented any outrage.”
In Washington D.C., hearings before the Committee on Rules in the House of Representatives began on August 3, 1917, which led to a federal investigation. Among those brought to trial to account for the tragic events was Dr. Leroy Bundy, a dentist and prominent leader in the East St. Louis African American community. In the rush to judgment, he was formally charged with inciting a riot. Bundy was given prison time in connection to the riot, along with thirty-four other defendants, ten of whom were white.
I was aware of this story, as well as the one about the Tulsa Race Riot, but only vaguely. While conducting research for my latest book, Murder & Mayhem on The Main Street of America: Tales From Bloody 66, I had this overwhelming conviction to include these stories even though they predated the certification of Route 66. These horrendous incidents had an effect on the evolution of that highway, and of the nation as we can see by the racial strife in 2020.
On June 28, 1945, the Detroit Free Press, New York Times and other leading newspapers throughout the world noted the death of Benjamin Briscoe. “BENJAMIN BRISCOE, President of First Maxwell Company, Financier That Launched David Buick’s Automotive Endeavors and Founder of United States Motor Company Dies.” So, who was Benjamin Briscoe, “the founder of the domestic American automobile industry” and the man behind numerous pioneering automobile manufacturers?
Briscoe was born in 1867 to a family of successful entrepreneurs and inventors. His grandfather was a railroad mechanic that was attributed with numerous innovations, and his father was the founder of Michigan Nut and Bolt, a company that produced an array of products using machines of his design. At age eighteen, Benjamin Briscoe using his own money established Benjamin Briscoe & Company that used metal stamping to manufacture buckets, barrels, a variety of cans and even bathtubs. And that led to an association with David Dunbar Buick that would later prove pivotal to the development of a pioneering automotive endeavor.
Buick was an innovative manufacturer of plumbing fixtures with more than a dozen patents to his credit, but profit remained elusive until Briscoe began supplying a wide array of related stamped metal supplies on credit. And then Buick perfected and patented a successful process for affixing porcelain to metal, expanded his endeavors, and began manufacturing toilets, sinks, bathtubs and related goods. Success was imminent.
Shortly after entering into the arrangement with Buick, Briscoe sold his business for a tidy profit and established the Detroit Galvanizing and Sheet Metal Works, and using a machine of his invention, began manufacturing corrugated pipe as well as sheet metal components for stoves, ranges and furnaces. In 1900, Briscoe’s brother Frank joined the company that was then reorganized as the Briscoe Manufacturing Company, and the product line was expanded to include cast iron radiators and copper units used to facilitate the cooling of industrial engines. It was the later which led to a project for Ransom E. Olds.
First, however, Briscoe had to overcome a major hurdle. The Detroit bank used by Briscoe had failed which in turn left Briscoe’s company facing bankruptcy. Undaunted by this potential disaster Briscoe brazenly, without introduction or endorsement, traveled to New York City, and talked his way into a meeting with financiers at J.P. Morgan and Company that included J.P. Morgan himself. Briscoe returned to Detroit with a commitment of a $100,000 investment in his company.
The arrangement with Olds was rooted in disaster. R.E. Olds chief engineer Jonathan Maxwell had perfected an improved cooling system for the Oldsmobile. However, a devastating factory fire in 1901 had decimated the company forcing Olds to seek an outside supplier for a radiator and so he approached Briscoe to negotiate the purchase of 4,500 radiators. Briscoe quickly closed the deal but, in the process, had negotiated for the manufacture of gas tanks as well.
In 1899, David Buick answered the Siren’s call that was the infant auto industry, sold the plumbing supply company and turned his attentions to the development of a valve in head engine, the first step in what he envisioned would become an automobile manufacturing company. By late 1902, Buick had exhausted his funds and yet his prototype being built in partnership with Walter Marr was not ready for display. As a result, there was little hope of attracting investors. Fortuitously Buick turned to Briscoe who agreed to forgive an outstanding loan, to pay off Buick’s other outstanding debts, and to provide the funds needed to finish the prototype. As per their agreement, Briscoe would become the owner of the completed vehicle, but Buick would use it to solicit for investors to initiate manufacturing.
Briscoe would eventually loan Buick an additional $1500. To protect his investment this arrangement included the stipulation that if the loan were not repaid within twelve months, Briscoe would become the sole owner of Buick Motor Company.
As Buick focused on development of the fledgling automobile company, Briscoe met with Jonathan Maxwell, the former Olds engineer that was now planning to launch a company of his own, and asked that he evaluate Buick’s project. Sensing an opportunity Maxwell noted the various flaws in the Buick design and presented Briscoe with a business plan for the establishment of a company to manufacture Maxwell’s automobile.
This partnership would lead to the building of two automotive empires, one of which would become the foundation for Chrysler. It would also lead to the establishment of two companies that forever transformed the international auto industry, the founding of an automobile company with a quirky claim to fame, and Briscoe’s diversification into an array of endeavors that would underpin many aspects of the infant auto industry.
The eccentricity of Julian Brown made manifest in the Julian. Photo authors collection.
The infancy of the auto industry was an era of swashbuckling entrepreneurs, dreamers and swindlers. It was a period of unprecedented societal evolution and technological advancement. And it was an almost magical opportunity for eccentrics and visionaries to craft their vision of transportations future.
Alexander T. Brown made a fortune as an inventor, an industrialist and as an investor in a diverse array of automotive endeavors including Brown-Lipe Gear Company and H.H. Franklin, a leading manufacturer of air-cooled automobiles. His son Julian benefitted greatly from his father’s wealth and enjoyed the best automobiles available. And, in spite of time invested in development of a reputation for being a leading New York playboy, he also obtained a first-class education with a focus on mechanical engineering.
In 1911, with backing from his father and his father’s friends as investors he launched the Julian Motor Company. There are scant details about the six-cylinder engine that he developed for use in trucks, automobiles and boats but it was billed as the most expensive engine in America. Needless to say, this was not a suitable basis for the launching of a successful marketing campaign and within one year the company had closed its doors.
In 1918, Julian launched a new endeavor, a company organized to manufacture “an exciting and revolutionary automobile.” It was truly a manifestation of his eccentricity. First, there was the engine, a “Twin Three” that he had designed. This V6 was set in a specially designed chassis that allowed for a 21-inch ground clearance, not overly practical in an era of deeply rutted roads. Incredibly the entire car weighed a mere 300-pounds (136 kilograms).
The Julian Motor Car Company had been organized with the goal being manufacture of the radical vehicle. However, the project never progressed beyond construction of one prototype and this company also closed within one year. This did not deter Julian Brown. He had money and he was a dreamer, an eccentric visionary.
In 1925 he unveiled another vehicle and launched the Julian Brown Development Company. This car was unlike anything else on the road and the June 4, 1925 issue of The Automobile / Automotive Industries devoted several pages to the vehicle.
After extensive study of radial aeronautical engines, and the Adams-Farwell automobile that had been produced with a radial engine around 1905, he developed an engine of his own design. “The engine is a six-cylinder fixed radial air-cooled type mounted at the rear of the chassis; it drives through a combination sliding pinion and planetary type of transmission giving four forward and two reverse speeds. Each of the rear axle shafts is connected through a universal joint to one of the side gears of the differential. The wheel bearings are mounted on tubes which terminate in a ball joint over the universal joint, which is fastened to the housing of the powerplant and differential.” Another unusual feature was four-wheel brakes that could be adjusted with thumb screws on the brake pedal.
Styling was somewhat antiquated. Fleetwood developed the custom body designed by Brown using aluminum panels over wood framing. The interior also was a reflection of his eccentricity. The drivers’ seat was centered in front and immediately behind was a bench for two passengers. Additionally, there were two folding seats on the sides behind the driver.
This venture proved to be far more successful than previous endeavors in that six vehicles were hand built and sold before the company declared bankruptcy. As with previous enterprises the last of Julian Brown’s attempt to build an automobile ended with extensive, costly and lengthy lawsuits.
Exactly why the Aluminum Company of America decided to diversify and initiate plans for the development of an automobile is a mystery. The timing is equally curious as in late 1919 the world was gripped by an intense post war economic recession. Another fascinating aspect of the project is the fact that the company retained the services of Laurence H. Pomeroy to oversee development.
Born in London, England, Pomeroy had apprenticed as an engineer with the North London Railway Company. In 1905 he accepted a position with Vauxhall Ironworks Company and in late 1907 was tasked with a project to redesign one of the company’s engines to allow for Vauxhall to compete in the 1908 RAC 2000-mile trial run. The cars modified by Pomeroy won several classes and as a result he was promoted to the post of Works Manager. In 1910 he modified a 20hp Vauxhall that reached speeds of 100 miles per hour at Brooklands.
This was also the year that he designed a car to participate in the German Prince Henry Tours that were held from 1905 to 1911. This would become the basis for the now legendary Vauxhall “Prince Henry” models manufactured by Vauxhall from 1911 to 1914. These limited production models were internationally acclaimed for speed as well as durability. In 1914, H. Massac Buist, a leading automotive journalist noted that, “Of the three Vauxhalls which ran in the Prince Henry Tour, two got full marks for reliability, and all did about 65 miles an hour in the speed trial, which was really quite good for that engine with a four-seated body and a full complement of passengers. So many people desired cars of this special type that in 1911 it was made a regular product of the Vauxhall works, and, during the last year or so a new style has sprung up. In this the engine dimensions are 95 by 140 mm., the old bore-stroke ratio having penalized the car under many hill-climbing formulae. All such formulae which do not involve the cubic capacity of the engine are by common acceptance considered advantageous to engines with small bore and long stroke. The chassis follows the lines of the original Prince Henry but has rather a longer wheelbase.”
Pomeroy was also an early proponent for the use of aluminum in automobiles. However, in this he was not alone. Numerous automobile manufacturing companies, most notably Franklin of Syracuse, New York, were pioneering the use of the lightweight metal to enhance the performance of their durable air-cooled vehicles. Still, the car envisioned by the Aluminum Company of America, was to be a true industry leader. The Pomeroy, as the car was named, was to utilize aluminum in eighty-five percent of its construction including body panels, crankcase, transmission case and dashboard.
Purportedly several hundred thousand dollars was spent on the top-secret project before six cars were completed in Cleveland, Ohio in 1921. The four-cylinder cars were vigorously tested before their introduction to the public the following year. Then arrangement was made with the luxury automobile manufacturer Pierce-Arrow to develop an extended wheelbase, 133-inches versus 126-inches, model powered by a 75-horsepower, aluminum six-cylinder engine. It was a logical partnership as Pierce-Arrow was another early proponent of aluminum having made extensive use of the metal in the 1916 Model 66.