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Exclusive – Maker of the Gray’s Harbor Double Deck Steam Wagon Identified

By Ace Zenek:  The Gray’s Harbor Automobile & Omnibus Co. vehicle was a 1901 Saxton Steam Wagon built in San Francisco, California by Joseph C. Saxton. Through a series of over 30 newspaper articles found in the last couple of months I have been able to confirm the manufacturer and the history of this vehicle from the time it was built until the time that it left Gray’s Harbor, Washington area.

  • Lead photo – The Gray’s Harbor Automobile & Omnibus Company bus that was built by Joseph Saxton’s company in San Francisco, California in 1901. Photo © Jones Photo Historical Collection, All Rights Reserved.

The Saxton Steam Wagon and Automobile Company 

If an article has been written about the Saxton Steam Wagon since 1903 I have not found it anywhere. The marque does not appear in any of the better standard car and truck reference books. I finally found the name in “The Antique Automobile” (Vol. 23, No. 1, February 1959). This issue of the magazine was a “Special Truck Issue”. The listing for Saxton shows that the firm existed from 1900 – 1903 and that at some point they also made an automobile. I have yet to find anything regarding a steam car from Saxton.

Saxton Steam Truck

  • An enlargement of the photo from the “Journal of Electricity, Power and Gas” January 1901, showing the earliest known photo of a Saxton.

Although Saxton started working on his steam truck, also called a steam dray or steam wagon, in 1900, it was not until March of 1901, that it was reported he finally had one running sufficiently well that he could start to fulfill the orders he had previously received. The incorporation of the Saxton Steam Wagon and Automobile Company took place the previous month with initial capital of $100,000 and premises at 515 6th Street, San Francisco. In May the firm had secured a shop to construct his trucks at 626-628 Bryant Street. Saxton also had a separate office at 134 Sutter Street.

Joseph Saxton was well known in automobile circles by 1901. In 1900 he was already driving an automobile around the San Francisco area, he was one of the founding members of  The Automobile Club in San Francisco, and he was on the Executive Committee that helped to draft the original resolutions and by-laws of the club. He also served as one of the judges at a September 1900 two-mile race at the one-mile long Ingleside racetrack in San Francisco. Ingleside existed as a racetrack from 1895-1905, and it was used as a refugee camp after the great San Francisco earthquake in 1906.

Ingleside Race Track - San Francisco

  • An early auto race at the Ingleside Race Track in San Francisco. The course of the track still exists even though it closed 110 years ago, and you can still drive around the course.

In April 1901 Saxton bought a Locomobile, and during the same month he was issued Permit Number 36 by the (San Francisco) Park Commissioners to drive his vehicle through City parks. One noteworthy story tells of a soldier near the Presidio on April 20th who tried to jump in and take his Locomobile for a joy ride. He promptly pulled him out of the car and quickly knocked him out. Several other soldiers accompanying the first soldier then attacked Saxton. They were similarly dealt with. Saxton then sped off before any of the others nearby could also attack him. Apparently 15 years’ experience as a circus promoter had given him the quick reactions he needed that day.

The Earliest Saxton’s

Evidence for ascribing a 1900 date for Saxton’s enterprise includes the accompanying article in the January 1901 issue of “The Journal of Electricity, Power and Gas” written by George P. Low. He briefly describes how Saxton had made other vehicles propelled by gasoline, but found them too complicated and not easily understood like the steam engine. Repairs of a steam powered heavy hauler could also be easily made by a local blacksmith.

1901 Saxton Steam Dray

  • “The Journal of Electricity, Power and Gas” January 1901, showing the earliest known photo of a Saxton.

Low states the early Saxton pictured used a simple donkey boiler, 30-inches in diameter and 36-inches high, which sent the heat of the fire up through 140 1¼ inch vertical tubes that were 2-feet long to create steam. This then created the power to move the two single-cylinder engines similar to that used on steam locomotives. Final drive was by chains. Fluids were carried in a 42-gallon fuel tank and a-125 gallon water tank. The engines were rated for 400 rpm, but up to 700 rpm had been tested, the vehicle could go 25 mph, and could climb an 11 percent grade. No brakes were installed on the earliest models. Instead, by reversing the engines the operator was able to either stop the vehicle’s progress or slow the descent down a hill.

The Gray’s Harbor bus was definitely not the only Saxton vehicle. Newspapers reported that Saxton’s first order was for a coal wagon for the Beaver Hill Coal Company, and his second order was for a fancy truck for chocolate maker Ghirardelli. There were also orders for a brewer, a stage company, and an enormous wagon for the United Crude Oil Company.

Saxton Steam Wagon

  • This is the earlier of two advertisements for Saxton’s Steam Wagon – “Journal of Electricity, Power & Gas”, March 1901.

The Gray’s Harbor Automobile & Omnibus Company

This Hoquiam, Washington company was the partnership of E. Vernon Smith and Charles H. Kuhn. Oregon born Smith (1871 – ?) was a purser on a steamship in Hoquiam, Washington who apparently made regular trips to San Francisco. Wisconsin born Kuhn (1869 – 1937) was the proprietor of a livery and transfer company also in Hoquiam. It seems likely the two met on the docks of Gray’s Harbor, and that Smith heard about the Saxton during a voyage to San Francisco.

By March 21, 1901 the Aberdeen [Washington] Herald was already reporting that Smith & Kuhn were planning a bus route from Hoquiam to Aberdeen. Originally they were to use a naphtha propelled vehicle, but this was later changed to an electric powered truck, and finally to the steam power of the Saxton. The purchase of the Saxton was reported on April 6, 1901 in “The Automobile” news column in the San Francisco publication “Town Talk.” They stated in part, “Jos. G. Saxton, the builder and designer of the ‘big steam truck’ which has been attracting so much attention of late, closed a contract during the past week with C. E. Kuhn and E. V. Smith, proprietors of ‘Grey’s Harbor Automobile and Omnibus Company” of Grey’s Harbor, Washington, for the construction of a steam stage coach . . . .”

The bus was shown as, “. . . having a capacity for carrying thirty-one passengers – eighteen inside, twelve on top, and one with the engineer. The price of the big coach is three thousand three hundred dollars of which one thousand one hundred and fifty dollars was paid upon the signing of the contract . . . .” The column further expounded that, “The rig will unquestionably be the largest steam vehicle in the world and on this account Messrs. Kuhn and Smith will come in for considerable distinction for being the owners of such a monster. The coach is to be completed inside of sixty days . . . .” The article concludes, “One special feature about the boiler of this new rig is that it is to be arranged so as to burn either crude or refined oil, coal or wood.” The vehicle was neither perfect nor finished in 60 days.

Steam Ship Newburg

  •  The Saxton steam bus arrived in Gray’s Harbor aboard the steam schooner Newberg. This photo shows the Newberg in 1900 along with the steam Tug Iola and a barge. The Newberg was built in 1898.

It is solely this article that conclusively connects the Gray’s Harbor Automobile & Omnibus Company photographs shown here, the Saxton marque, and it being built in 1901. Strangely, Saxton’s name nor the Saxton firm is stated in any Hoquiam to Aberdeen, Washington newspaper piece.

One of the challenges of driving from Hoquiam or Aberdeen, Washington was the condition of the plank road between the cities. Smith expressed his concern to an Aberdeen Herald reporter in April 1901. He hoped that the cities would, “. . . take steps to repair the road between here [Hoquiam] and Aberdeen.” Whether the city fathers made the repairs or not is not known, but the state of the road did not apparently affect the eventual operation of the bus line. The next month Smith & Kuhn leased a lot in Aberdeen on which to build a ‘stable’ to store their bus.

The bus finally left San Francisco on July 16th on the Steam Ship Newburg, and it arrived at the Hoquiam docks on July 18th where the first operational problem arose. The bus ran fine on the plank road by the docks, but on the sawdust covered road nearby it promptly became stuck. The passengers had to push the 2 – 3 ton conveyance until traction was regained. The bus eventually made it into the city of Hoquiam later in the day.

Almost a week after Smith and Kuhn brought the vehicle to their garage in Hoquiam it was ready for a trial trip between that city and Aberdeen on July 23rd. The Aberdeen Herald declared, “Its entrance to the city caused as much excitement as a circus, and the curiosity to see it was not confined to the little folks either.”   Their short announcement of the event proclaimed, “It will be placed on the regular run between here and Hoquiam in a few days, making hourly trips.” The trip was successful and the Gray’s Harbor Automobile & Omnibus Company began to make their runs.

Steam Wagon Accident

  • Two children pose with the bus after it crashed because of steering failure caused by a broken bolt. Photo © Jones Photo Historical Collection, all rights reserved.

After a week of successful service between Hoquiam and Aberdeen, trouble was encountered. On Friday, August 2nd a bolt that held the steering gear in place broke while returning from Hoquiam leaving the driver unable to steer. The Aberdeen Herald reported the bus, “turned to one side, and crashed through the [plank road] railing, and landed on the tide land on its side.” Besides Kuhn and Smith, there were five passengers on board.

Injuries to the commuters included a broken leg at the ankle, an injured back, and a sprained hand. One passenger was thrown from the coach, landed on his head, was dazed, but was able to soon assist the others. One passenger was uninjured as were Kuhn and Smith. Fortunately a horse-drawn delivery wagon of the Aberdeen Soda Works came upon the scene and was able to ferry the injured to the Aberdeen General Hospital. If you look closely at the photo of the overturned carrier you can see what could be a piece of the steering arm, still attached to the bus at one end, lying on the ground.

The bus remained in place on its side until Sunday when it was finally up-righted, taken back to Hoquiam for repairs, altered so that this accident would not be repeated, and then placed back into service. The regular run was relaunched on Thursday, August 8th. Two days later The Ellensburg Dawn reported that service between Hoquiam and Aberdeen was taking place with six trips being made daily. Whether or not this was six round trips was not explained in their report. Note that in the photo immediately above the headlamp seen in the first photo has been removed.

Accident Aftermath

No detailed interview was apparently given to the Aberdeen Herald by either Kuhn or Smith; however, the Herald publicized on August 15th that the route between the two cities was being abandoned. The paper simply stated that, “the owners deciding it [the bus] was not suitable for the business.” The next day the Washington Herald, satirized the folly of the entire venture in part stating of the accident, “The auto went crashing through the brush, jumping over logs, and finally attempted to climb a tree, when it upset, after scattering its load of human freight all along the excentric course through the ‘deep-tangled wildwood.’” On August 17th the Ellensburg Dawn confirmed the accident saying the vehicle “was ditched,” and a week later they too announced the cancellation of service.

Even though service had ended, Kuhn and Smith didn’t give up their public transportation dream. Instead, by September 5th, they had proposed a different public transportation service. By putting flanged wheels on their vehicle, and track being laid, their bus could provide service between Hoquiam and Aberdeen. They estimated that the cost to lay the track would be around $7,000. Apparently this suggestion was not taken seriously, was quickly squashed, or they were hedging their bets, because by the following week they had already made arrangements to ship the bus back to California. In San Jose the bus was to start a new life on a nine mile route over good roads. So on September 14, 1901 the Gray’s Harbor Automobile and Omnibus Company coach was shipped back to near the factory where it had been built. Kuhn and Smith sailed for San Francisco on Wednesday, September 18, 1901 to run the automobile in San Jose.

The September 26, 1901 article in the Aberdeen Herald that relayed the fact that Kuhn and Smith had sailed to San Francisco is the last known information regarding their enterprise. Beyond this date I found little evidence for the viability of the Saxton firm. Saxton was listed in the October 1901 San Francisco Telephone Directory, but it was not listed in any of the San Francisco City Directories at any time. The latest entry in any publication seems to have been the 1903 edition of the American Carriage and Wagon and Accessory Trades Directory.

The state of Washington was without a bus for less than a month. The Seattle Star of October 7, 1901 reported that, “The Seattle and Steven hotels have added an [electric] automobile ‘bus to their service between depots and boats and the hotels. It is said to be the only automobile omnibus in use on the Pacific coast.” Amazingly there was already an automobile bus stage line between Dawson and Grand Forks, Alaska at this time. No marque name or further details were provided for either service.

After Kuhn and Smith’s venture into public transportation, no one replaced their service for several years. Their customers had to go back to paying passage on a boat between Aberdeen and Hoquiam as they had before the arrival of “The Automobile.” Even though Samuel Benn and others applied for a franchise to operate an electric car line between Aberdeen and Hoquiam in November of 1901, it was not until March 19, 1904 that the Aberdeen-Hoquiam Electric Railway began operation between the two cities. Electrically powered streetcars made a round trip between the two cities every hour.

Trolley Car

  • A Grays Harbor Light & Electric Company streetcar in front of the streetcar garage in Aberdeen, Washington.   It was a trolley like this that began service in 1904 to serve Aberdeen, Hoquiam and later Cosmopolis. “Aberdeen Herald”, July 9, 1908

Later on more track was laid, and the city of Cosmopolis was added to the route. In 1906 the Grays Harbor Railway and Light Company would take over the streetcar system. This firm, as the name implies, also provided electric service to the area around Aberdeen and Hoquiam. By 1910 the Federal Light & Traction Company had acquired control of the company. In all there was almost twelve miles of track in the system with the last portion laid in 1907. Passenger service was discontinued in 1932, but the line continued to provide freight service until 1941.

Both Charles Kuhn and E. Vernon Smith later returned to Washington. Kuhn became a mill worker and a real estate agent and died in 1937 in Aberdeen. Smith later was a grocer, baker, and then he moved to Oregon where he was a farmer into the 1940s. What happened to Joseph Saxton, the Gray’s Harbor bus he built once in San Jose, and his other vehicles remains a mystery. Copyright © 2015 by Ace Zenek

4 responses to “Exclusive – Maker of the Gray’s Harbor Double Deck Steam Wagon Identified

  1. Really fine research and article! This will surely be the standard reference work for Saxton. One tiny technical detail, the 140 tubes in the boiler would be acting as flues and providing heat transfer to the water inside the boiler drum.

  2. I enjoyed very much this interesting and well investigated story. Not only is the story in itself very readable and in a way amusing, it also gives us an example of how at that time people everywhere in the world got involved in the new transportation mode and tried to conquer the numerous problems with these primitive vehicles. Also in the Netherlands around 1900 several people were trying to set up bus services, but their story reads the same as this one. Too heavy vehicles, unsuitable roads and especially regular mechanical failure made it impossible to make things work. All attempts ended sooner or later, but lasted never much longer than a few months. Nevertheless they were the pioneers paving the way for eventual success! The 1901 Saxton photo and text also appeared in The Automobile Review of April 1901 (only p.73 present in the HathiTrust internet archive, not the previous page, but fortunately it appears that both texts are completely identical).
    Builders of this type of heavy vehicles often had no direct relation with the car industry, but normally were used to build heavy constructions and were acquainted with steam power, the energy source of the 19th century.

  3. What a wonderfully researched article about the obscure Saxon!

    As much as the Saxon omnibus between Aberdeen and Hoquiam is quite a story, the turn-of-the-century history of these two towns is equally fascinating.

    My mother was born in Aberdeen in 1920 and both my grandfather and step-grandfather were killed in industrial accidents near there. …One while working on a logging railroad, and the other, as a ‘feller’, working in the woods.

    The author sites the Aberdeen Herald which ceased publication in 1917 for much of his research. There was a competing newspaper: The (Aberdeen) Daily World that continues to this day. They’ve published several historical books about the rough and wooly early days of Aberdeen, Hoquiam, and Grays Harbor. Here is a short summary of the Daily World’s latest book:

    The latest book, “On The Harbor,” features the “Stories of the Century” from 1900 to 2000, including:
    ◦ The “Black Friday” fire of 1903;
    ◦The “Ghoul of Grays Harbor,” Billy Gohl
    ◦The “Wildman of the Wynooche,” John Tornow;
    ◦The “Wobbly” free speech fight of 1911-12;
    ◦The labor strife of the 1930s;
    ◦”Who Killed Laura Law?”;
    ◦Capt. Nick Yantsin’s raid on the best little whorehouse in town;
    ◦The birth of Ocean Shores;
    ◦The fall of WPPSS;
    ◦The spotted owl crisis
    ◦The rise of “grunge rockers” Nirvana

    The book doesn’t dwell on automotive history, but it’s a fascinating read.


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