The Herschell-Spillman Company office and factory buildings, circa 1905, with a Thomas Flyer touring car made in near by Buffalo, New York parked in front of the office.
The Armitage-Herschell Company was a partnership that began in 1872 between James Armitage of North Tonawanda, N.Y. and Allan Herschell, an immigrant from Scotland who was a trained machinist. By the early 1890’s, they were manufacturing steam engines, boilers, electric elevators, dynamos, swings and feed cutters.
Allan Herschell visited New York City about 1880 and while there, saw a new and very popular amusement ride called the carousel consisting of a rotating round platform, with carved wooden horses mounted on it. It was powered by a steam engine connected to a series of gears.
Seen above in enlargements are only two of the many factory buildings the firm utilized along with the office building. Note the full-sized carousel horse atop the roof peak in the first and second images.
Upon returning to North Tonawanda, Herschel suggested to his partner Armitage that they could manufacture one of these devices. The pair decided that, since they were already fabricating steam engines and gearing and had a foundry for metal castings, they would produce a few of these carousels to see if it might be turned into a profitable endeavor. Within two years of building their first example in 1883, their carousels became very popular and led to a 50 percent expansion of the business.
The company continued to produce them until 1899, when it then went into bankruptcy, due primarily to an overexposure in land speculation. James Armitage then went into politics and Allan Herschell took on the Spillman brothers as new partners. They continued to build carousels at the newly formed Herschell-Spillman Company.
Early advertisements (L to R, above) showing the castings the Armitage-Herschell Company produced, a steam engine with boiler and acetylene generators used for early gas lighting.
A portable steam-powered “Riding Gallery” advertisement from the late 1890’s. All photos above courtesy of Dennis Read Jr.
The Herschell-Spillman Company also manufactured Razzle Dazzle Striking Machines and miniature railways for amusement parks. The former item is the now familiar carnival attraction in which a customer tries to ring a gong placed at the top of a tall column by striking a target at the bottom with a large mallet. With the coming of the gasoline engine, they formed a separate division which manufactured automobile engines for makers of assembled cars.
Allan Herschell retired from the Herschell-Spillman Company in 1913, after a long and successful career in the amusement industry. After three years of leisure, he decided to return to the business He purchased a building in North Tonawanda and hired a crew of machinists, painters, electricians and carvers, opening in 1916.
He was then competing with his former partners, the Spillmans, at the Herschell-Spillman Company. Allan Herschell’s re-entry into the amusement ride business spurred the Herschell-Spillman Company to officially change its name to Spillman Engineering. Both companies would continue a fierce rivalry for the following four decades and along the way, upgraded features of the carousel numerous times.
L to R (above) : A 1905 advertisement showing a four-cylinder engine, the 1904 Herschell-Spillman 18 horsepower touring, the first of four cars which were built in 1901 and the last a prototype in 1907, and a trade advertisement showing the 45-55 horsepower six-cylinder engine.
The early engines that are seen above shared features also used on many of the Thomas-Flyer and Pierce-Arrow powerplants of the time. Since all three companies were within a few miles of each other, there must certainly have been some cross-pollinating going on with the comings and goings of engineers and designers between the three companies.
The part of the Herschell-Spillman Company that produced engines would continue to do business after car production ceased in 1907, but it is not clear to us at this point if Herschell or the Spillman family owned the company. In 1919, the name of this division was changed to the Herschell Spillman Motor Company.
L to R (above) : A large 1015 cubic inch six-cylinder as built for the Ahrens-Fox fire engine company, a trade ad from 1914 and the V-8 built in the mid to late teens.
Over the years that the engines were built by the firm (1901-1924), as many as 60 auto and truck and fire engine makers worldwide would choose these power plants for their vehicles. The company also introduced its own V-8 engine in the teens that went on to be used in high-quality cars such as the Peerless, the Daniels and others. In later years, they produced a wide array of four and six cylinder engines of all types, as well as engines for Ahrens-Fox and other fire truck makers. During WWI, Liberty engines were built at the factory under license.
The following is from research by Doug Bathke at the Herschell Carousel Factory Museum: “Much of the engine work was done in the company’s Sweeney Street facilities. Multiple factories and work houses on both sides of a city block of the street bustled with activity, as the company had the capacity to make between 60,000 and 100,000 engines per year. Additional work was done in the company’s Oliver Street facilities. Advertisements from the era show that the company was a major employer, looking to hire up to 200 mechanics at one time.”
L to R (above): The Sweeney Street engine plant, a Herschell-Spillman engine on display at the Trew Motor Co., a Peerless dealer in Washington, D.C.
“The recession of the early 1920’s put a damper on business, and by 1924 the Herschell-Spillman Motor Company went bankrupt. Remington Rand bought the Sweeney Street property a year later, with Allan Herschell and Ed Spillman eventually going their separate ways, competing in the carousel business.”