Sunday, June 7, 2020

June 9, 1860: The First Automobile in San Francisco



And on that same date: the first automobile accident in San Francisco


Sectional elevation of Barran's road locomotive, from The Practical Mechanic's Journal, September 1, 1860. This vehicle weighed eleven tons and required two operators, one steering in front, and one in back controlling the engine. (archive.org).


At 11:30 Saturday morning, June 9th, 1860, an automobile—a steam traction engine, or “steam wagon”—embarked on a test journey through San Francisco’s streets. Imported from Leeds, England, and weighing eleven tons, including its necessary water and fuel, it looked “much like a locomotive,” with four rear wheels seven feet in diameter, each with seven-inch wide tires. With an engineer in back controlling the engine, and a “pilot or helmsman” steering in the front, along with a number of (literal) hangers-on, the machine exited the Vulcan Foundry on First street in San Francisco’s industrial district, headed over to the Howard street plank-road, and chugged off to Mission Dolores, arriving in a mere three-quarters of an hour. A Daily Alta California reporter, one of the riders, breathlessly recounted that
the fuel consumed on the outward, as well as the homeward trip, was inconsiderable—a single bag of coal and a few armsfull of firewood sufficing. About two hundred and fifty gallons of water was all that was requisite for the boiler. (Daily Alta California 6/10/1860)

On the return trip, a few stops had to be made, “inasmuch as bolts, nuts and screws had to be tightened, the machinery being new, and heretofore untried.” Back in the city, the steam wagon took a victory lap through downtown, where “throngs of persons, of all ages and both sexes, crowded the streets, and expressed astonishment at the huge machine.” It then returned to south of Market, where history was made yet again—this time, with San Francisco’s first automobile accident.

This 1865 photo by Lawrence & Houseworth shows the incline on First street between Folsom and Harrison, where San Francisco's first automobile accident took place. (Online Archive of California)


Despite the general enthusiasm of the crowds, the steam wagon had encountered some hostility on its trip through the city from several drivers of horse-drawn vehicles, for instance from a bus driver who “kept the middle of the street, refusing to let the engine pass.” While the wagon was descending the steep incline of First street, from Harrison towards Folsom, the driver of a brick cart, coming up the hill and thus having the right-of-way, refused to turn aside for the ponderous locomotive. The Alta reporter described the ensuing crash:
the steersman motioned to the driver to turn out, but he shook his head and positively refused, keeping the middle of the street, and it was with great difficulty that a serious collision was avoided; as it was, there was a slight concussion which sent the bricks flying ten feet in the air.

This “slight concussion”—which sent bricks flying ten feet—appears to have been the first recorded automobile accident in San Francisco (and, possibly, in the United States). The driver of the brick cart did have the right of way, though it seems a bit reckless to have insisted on this technicality when facing down an eleven-ton, barely steerable monstrosity. In any event, the promoters of the steam wagon—much like those of autonomous vehicles today—blamed the accident on the stubbornness of old-fashioned drivers and old-fashioned technology, the Alta even threatening that
if any more gentlemen, driving brick carts, undertake to block the way, they must take the consequences, and if iron and steam gain the day, it will be a fair fight—the hardest stands the best chance of winning.

After giving up on "road locomotives," the Vulcan foundry had more success with regular rail locomotives, such as the Calistoga, produced for the Napa Valley Rail Road in May 1867. (progress-is-fine.blogspot.com)

Another demonstration of the steam wagon was made four days later, when a more skeptical reporter for the Bulletin noted that the start was delayed for over an hour while the engine “got up steam.” It finally departed the Vulcan yard after noon:
To get into the street, from the yard where it stood, the machine had to start directly up a sharp ascent. As soon as the steam was turned on, up it came, without hesitation or demur—making a scream or two, and a contemptuous puff at the difficulty. It then ran rapidly up First street towards Rincon Hill; ascended that street as far as Folsom, though the grade is pretty severe; turned round with ease, and came slowly back to its point of starting and there turned round and backed up its load, consisting of a train of freighted trucks. (Daily Evening Bulletin, 6/13/1860)

These trucks were loaded with pig iron, in order to test the engine’s strength. As soon as they were attached,
there was a scramble among the people to get standing room on the trucks. Not one inch was left unoccupied—and some men and boys were even hanging on to the axles and sides of the conveyance. The Engineer moved his lever, and the wagon started off boldly, and though it evidently felt the immense load—which must have been near 50 tons—it moved along briskly enough for a short way. Then the wheels of the iron laden truck sunk down through the cobble pavement, and soon a heap of sand and stones were piled up in front of those wheels.

The trucks had to be taken off, and the train reassembled some blocks away on the plank road, which was able to support the weight. After pulling the trucks successfully, the locomotive was hitched to a fully-loaded omnibus, which it dragged along at eight miles an hour. The Alta reporter pronounced it a success, while the Bulletin dissented, “for the present, we do not believe that the steam will run horses and mules off of our common roads.”

No collisions were reported during this second trip; however, some houses caught fire on Third street soon after the wagon passed, and some witnesses “averred with great positiveness that it was kindled by a spark from the chimney of the Steam Wagon, but by others this is denied.”

The story of this vehicle, marking San Francisco’s entry into the automotive era, has some resonance with our own time, as autonomous vehicles promise to bring us into a new, third age of the carriage. Although the design of horseless carriages had still to improve dramatically before they would be able to operate effectively in the city, we can already glimpse, with the Vulcan steam wagon, how the city would, in turn, be transformed to accommodate the automobile. Cobble-stone pavement—and even the sturdier planking—would be replaced with asphalt; and rules of street behavior and movement would be rewritten, to prioritize the needs of the heavier, faster vehicles of the auto age.

Ogden & Wilson hoped to sell many more road locomotives, but this was not to be. (Sacramento Daily Union, 1/30/1860).

The fate of the Vulcan steam wagon

Ogden & Wilson, the owners of the Vulcan Iron Works, had caught the auto bug a year earlier, when Wilson, travelling in Europe, had seen an exhbition of Joseph Barran’s new traction engine prototype. He excitedly ordered an engine of this design manufactured, by the Leeds firm of Joseph Witham and Son, and shipped to San Francisco, where it was assembled in the Vulcan foundry. Ogden & Wilson clearly imagined a great future for their import, advertising themselves as “sole agents for the sale of Barran’s Patent Traction Road Locomotive.”

These “road locomotives” were not, in fact, intended for urban use, but for hauling resources extracted from the hinterland, over terrain that animals found difficult. The engine imported from Leeds had been promised to a silver mine in Patagonia, Arizona; another engine, to be built by Vulcan on the same model, was to be sent to the Russian River to haul timber for Alexander Duncan (after whom Duncans Mills is named). This second engine, however, never seems to have been built, and at some point the Patagonia silver mine backed out of the deal for the Leeds engine, which was instead sold to Phineas Banning, impresario of the growing port at San Pedro.

If Banning's name sounds familiar, it is probably because of these dinosaurs near Banning, CA. (Wikimedia)

Banning was a showman, and seems to have bought the steam-wagon as much as a publicity stunt, as for the practical purposes of hauling freight from the port to Los Angeles. Harris Newmark, writing fifty years later, recalled the excitement with which Angele├▒os greeted the news that “The steam-wagon has arrived at San Pedro!” and how they waited, “anxiously, hourly, expecting to see Major Banning heave in sight at the foot of Main Street” in his road locomotive. The enthusiasm was finally punctured with a sad report from San Pedro:
The steam-wagon, we regret to learn, has at last proved a total failure. It was freighted at San Pedro, and on Wednesday morning of this week, set in motion for Los Angeles. The failure took place on the first piece of sandy road encountered. (Los Angeles News, 8/3/1860)

Bannings' base of operations at Wilmington harbor, San Pedro, in 1860. The steam wagon became stuck in the sand only a short distance along the eighteen-mile road to Los Angeles. (California State Library)

In the media, the steam wagon became an object of state-wide ridicule, stranded in the sand near San Pedro. One more attempt appears to have been made to put the engine to use, in the service of agriculture in San Joaquin county; this, however, turned out also to be a failure. In October, 1861, the engine was shipped back to San Francisco and to the Vulcan foundry for a last time, its most likely fate to be scrapped, and its parts used for other machinery.



The Oregon Pony, the oldest West-Coast-built locomotive engine, was manufactured by the Vulcan Iron Works in 1862 for service in Oregon. It can still be seen at the Cascade Locks Historical Museum.