The Long & Winding Road – The Transition from the Horse & Buggy to the Automobile

Part One of the Historical Society of Easton’s Series on Transportation in Easton.

In the beginning, when man needed to move about the landscape, he walked. Everywhere. All the time.

By the time our ancestors arrived in Easton and Redding, they had either horses or oxen to aid in their transportation from the towns along the coast out to their newly acquired farms in the hills. Horses had first been domesticated on the plains of northern Kazakhstan some 5,200 years before the first settlers had arrived in the colony of Connecticut in the late 1600’s and little had changed since.

When steam power was adapted to power the locomotives of the first railroads late in the first half of the 19th century, inland transportation took a major leap forward. With fast and reliable means to transport goods then available in many communities, industry began to flourish. The 1852 opening of the Danbury & Norwalk Railroad that ran along the western edge of Redding allowed the Gilbert & Bennett Manufacturing Company in Georgetown to grow and produce more wire products. It also provided the lime quarry in West Redding a better way to get its product to market. While the western part of Redding flourished, growth of the businesses along the Aspetuck in both Redding and Easton was hampered due to the lack of rail lines that would have made transporting finished goods to the seaports along Long Island Sound more economical and faster.

By the late 19th century, steam power was a proven commodity. It was considered relatively safe, extremely reliable, and by then, very familiar.

The first mechanized modes of personal transportation began appearing on America’s roads in the late 1890’s. The earliest motorcycles were not much more than motorized bicycles, and the first automobiles were powered by a variety of methods ranging from steam to electric to gasoline. Most early builders were located in small shops that produced only a handful of vehicles that were engineered and designed by the men who built them. Some of the earliest models changed with each subsequent build as the makers experimented with different engines, gearing, suspensions, steering, and brakes.

By the turn of the century, there were hundreds of different brands being built throughout America. Very few would survive more than a few years at best. Building an automobile that could withstand the rigors of traversing a patchwork of cart paths originally meant for horse and ox drawn wagons was much more challenging than most entrepreneurs with dreams of speed and utility could handle.

Many of the earliest automobiles were powered by steam. Steam powered autos could deliver massive amounts of torque without the need for additional gearing. Maintaining a constant speed on varied terrain was not an issue. Steam power was also extremely quiet. And steam powered automobiles were capable of obtaining speeds that far exceeded the capability of early roads to handle it. In 1906, a Stanley set a record for steam powered automobiles by covering a one-mile run in only 28.2 seconds. That record would stand until 2009!

While not all states had passed legislation requiring the registration of automobiles by 1902, those that had recorded 485 out of the 902 vehicles registered that year were powered by steam. During the years of 1898 and 1899, twin brothers, Francis and Freelan Stanley built and sold 200 steam powered automobiles in New England. After selling the rights to build their steam powered vehicle to Bridgeport’s Locomobile Company in 1899, the Stanley brothers re-entered the automobile business a few years later with a larger and more powerful steam powered vehicle – the well known Stanley Steamer. Locomobile built steam powered vehicles until it switched to the gasoline powered internal combustion engine in 1903.

1899 Locomobile Steam Car

Also a major producer and seller of steam powered vehicles during the early years of the 20th century was the White Motor Company. In 2019, Redding resident Mitch Gross ran his 109-year old White MM  Pullman steam powered touring car in the famed Peking to Paris Motor Challenge. There were a total of 106 crews that competed in the 8,500 mile 36 day event. It was perhaps the longest journey ever completed by a steam car and owner/driver Gross offered this assessment of the achievement: “We set a world distance record for steam powered cars but had to have three engine rebuilds on the way. We also almost ran out of fire extinguishers. But, with the help of our great support crew we made it.”

Redding resident Mitch Gross’ 1910 White Steam Car during the 2019 Peking to Paris Challenge. The 109 year-old automobile completed the 8,500 mile journey despite its age!

While steam power certainly had some major advantages, it also had one major drawback – one that would eventually knock it out of contention for long-term use. In order to build enough steam to power an automobile, the boiler needed to be fired about thirty minutes prior to driving away. Early steamers mainly used gasoline to fire the boiler until about 1910 when most switched to the less expensive, easier to obtain, and far less volatile kerosene. There were more than a few steamers over the years that caught fire while their boilers were heating up the water to produce enough steam.

Electric vehicles were perfect for city use. By the turn of the last century, most major cities had a good power grid and electricity was readily available. Electric cabs dominated early horseless taxis in New York and London. They were quiet – so they didn’t spook the horses that most folks still used through the early years of the twentieth century. Like steam powered automobiles, they also didn’t require transmissions that needed shifting between gears, and they were exceedingly easy to start – no cranking needed! Simply turn on the switch and use the throttle to accelerate.

The drawbacks to electric power were basically the same as they are in today’s world: a short range (back then approximately 25 to 30 miles), a lengthy recharging time, and a price that sometimes ran as much as three times their gasoline counterparts. In 1912, Ford sold its Model T for $650, while the average price of an electrically powered automobile that year was $1,750. As prices of gasoline powered automobiles declined, sales of electric powered cars followed suit.

However, the largest obstacle to high sales volumes of electric vehicles was the fact that other than in the cities, there were very few electrical transmission lines in rural America. Living in the country was not at all conducive to owning an electric vehicle. Redding summer resident, Walther Luttgen, had the rare distinction of owning and operating an electric vehicle in the country. Luttgen’s Detroit Electric’s batteries were recharged by the electricity his windmill driven generator provided, as Sunset Hill wouldn’t be fully electrified until well into the 1930’s.

Walther Luttgen on his Villa Linta Estate on Sunset Hill in his Detroit Electric runabout. He recharged his car’s batteries using a wind powered generator.

The early internal combustion engine presented major challenges to those wishing to use it as their source of power. The first gasoline engines were small with limited amounts of power that required a geared transmission that would allow the engine to build enough momentum and torque to move an automobile loaded with passengers.

Gasoline engines were also difficult to start. They needed to be cranked by hand to turn the crankshaft enough to compress a mixture of air and fuel to the point where it would explode when the magneto provided each cylinder with its “spark” at just the right moment. Just starting the engine required moving the spark lever to advance or delay the timing of the firing of the spark plugs, ensuring that the engine would start and then run smoothly. If the fuel & air mixture wasn’t adjusted to the proper level and the spark timing set just right, the cranking motion could suddenly be reversed if the engine backfired – causing many drivers to experience broken thumbs, wrists or even arms. In addition, depending on driving conditions, adjustments of the timing were often necessary throughout the drive.  It wasn’t until 1911 that electric starters began appearing on some of the more expensive automobiles, but by 1914, those starters were available on just about every model made in America.

Unlike their electric and steam counterparts, internal combustion engines were noisy and produced noxious fumes. While not a huge problem out in the country, it was a definite nuisance to both city dwellers and their poor horses. Many a horse spooked by an early encounter with a gasoline powered automobile bolted and either threw its rider or caused the driver of the wagon it was pulling to lose control. Almost as soon as gasoline powered cars began selling in numbers, mufflers began appearing on the vehicles to alleviate much of the noise issue.

Another major drawback to the gasoline engine was the lack of infrastructure for supplying the fuel it needed to operate. While it could go many miles on a tank of fuel, when that fuel ran low, it needed to be refilled. It would take a number of years before enough places began pumping and selling gasoline to make automobiles with internal combustion engines a viable commodity.

But by 1905, gasoline powered automobiles began to dominate. The discovery of large deposits of oil in Texas made fuel extremely cheap. In addition, the price to build a gasoline powered car made it affordable to a growing number of middle-class Americans. Gasoline pumps began appearing in front of just about every general store in the country. Making refueling easy and cheap gave the internal combustion engine the advantage it had needed to make it the power plant of choice of just about every automaker in the world.

Automobiles in Easton & Redding

Today, we all think of Easton and Redding as rather affluent communities. Audi’s, BMW’s, and pricy Jeeps seem to dominate the automotive landscape. 110 years ago, that wouldn’t have been the case.

Many Easton’s wealthiest farmers continued to prefer their elegant carriages to the noisy new automobile. Pictured here with his custom built carriage is Sylvanus Mallett, owner of the Sweetbriar farm on Sport Hill Road.

Both towns were dominated by agriculture – hardly a lucrative venture. The average farmer couldn’t have afforded to purchase a newfangled horseless carriage even if he had wanted to. And quite frankly, most had not the desire to own something so limited in its capabilities. And neither did some of the more wealthy industrialists who had summer residences in Easton and Redding. One of the directors of Standard Oil – a company that by 1910 was making millions of dollars refining oil and making gasoline – Frederick Sturges, who lived on Burr Street detested automobiles, “The only time I ride in a car is in a taxicab in New York, and then I take my heart in my hand every time I do it.” Hardly a ringing endorsement for the product that used all that gasoline his company was refining.

Not all Easton residents were interested in transitioning from the horse and buggy to the automobile. 1909 photo taken just before the Sport Hill Races that year.

Automobiles were fair-weather, summer and autumn only vehicles. Early canvas tops were more for keeping the sun off the occupants of an automobile than keeping the rain out. Many cars of the day weren’t even available with side curtains. Cabin heaters didn’t exist. A man or woman operating a horse drawn sleigh could have kept themselves wrapped up in a heavy blanket – they needed only to have their arms and hands free to hold the reins that guided the horse. It would have been difficult for the driver of an automobile to keep warm in the same manner. Constant movement of the legs and feet were needed to use the clutch and brakes, and it took both hands to steer when one hand wasn’t being used to shift the gears or adjust the throttle that was mounted at the center of the steering wheel.

Bridgeport Businessman Jesse B. Cornwall in his 1906 Locomobile at his summer residence “Oak Knoll” in Redding. Like many summer residents of Redding and Easton, this automobile didn’t appear in the official Connecticut Registry of Motor Vehicles as being registered in Redding. Instead, it was registered at his winter residence in Bridgeport. Cornwall drove one of his other automobiles, a De Dion Bouton, in the 1908 Sport Hill Race to win in the Light Gasoline Class.

Early autos required tire chains for traction – not for driving in the snow, but rather for driving in the mud. Prior to WWI, local roads would have never seen a snowplow during the winter. Instead, the snow would have been packed by stone laden runner-less wooden sleds or rolled with horse drawn heavy rollers. This allowed horses to pull sleighs and oxen to pull heavy wagons. The narrow tires on early automobiles were mostly useless in making it up area hills covered with snow and ice. If you owned an automobile in 1910 Easton or Redding, you parked it in the barn sometime around Thanksgiving and left it there until sometime after Easter.

Early 20th century Easton and Redding roads were not conducive to the operation of most early automobiles. In addition to the mud, they were extremely dusty during the summer months. All those early motoring photos you’ve seen show both drivers and passengers wearing long coats, hats, and goggles even in the best of weather. That was to keep their suits, skirts, shirts, and blouses from becoming caked in dirt and dust as they merrily traversed the countryside. Imagine wearing that many clothes when the summer temperatures approached 90 degrees.

Most will recall the famous Sport Hill Races of the early 20th century. The first race was held in 1902 and only attracted a handful of spectators and a like number of racers. But by 1908, the crowds were enormous, and the race drew a record entry of fifty-nine automobiles. That was over seven times the total number of automobiles that were properly registered with the State of Connecticut in Easton and Redding combined!!! The official Connecticut registry of motor vehicles for Easton and Redding that year was 8 automobiles and one motorcycle.

1908 Sport Hill Race Winner Al Poole in his Isotta

Undoubtedly, one of the reasons those early races drew such a large crowd was the opportunity for many local residents to see makes such as Peerless, Winton, and Isotta that almost none of them could have afforded to purchase. In 1908, the automobile was still a rare commodity in both towns. Even someone as wealthy and famous as Samuel Clemens hadn’t yet embraced the idea of owning an automobile. Only one individual, Senator Lester O. Peck who resided on Sunset Hill in Redding owned two registered automobiles.

In 1916, prior to WWI, the lower prices attributed to the assembly line mass production that began in 1913 with Henry Ford’s venerable Model T led to a total of 16 vehicles being registered in the Town of Easton. Nine of them were Ford T-Models. Emily Disbrow of Sport Hill Road owned the town’s most powerful automobile rated at 32 HP – a 1909 Inter-State Touring car. Ezra Seeley owned a 27 HP Overland and future Town Clerk Arthur Wheeler had given up his motorcycle after his marriage to Mary Ferris and bought himself a 22 HP Buick.

When answering the 1917 Military Census, the majority of the young men living in Easton and Redding answered “Yes” to the questions about their ability to ride a horse and handle a team, but “No” to the query about their ability to drive an automobile. While automobiles had then been around in significant numbers since the middle of the first decade of the 20th century, they were still a long way from becoming common in much of rural Fairfield County.

Vehicle ownership increased rapidly after WWI. As the automobile became more affordable and Americans prospered during the roaring ‘20’s, the better managed and more successful manufacturers began to merge and improvements in both engineering and assembly made automobiles inexpensive and reliable enough for most folks in Easton and Redding to own.

Coming soon: What if the railroad had come to the Aspetuck Valley? How much different might Easton look today?

Author’s note: Welcome Redding readers. As part of the Courier’s History Corner, we will now be including historical events that pertain to Redding as well as Easton. Until someone is willing and able to revive some form of the old Redding Pilot, we will supply historical information & stories as they relate to both towns.