The Boneyard

"Ken McCutchan was a life-long resident of Vanderburgh County, Indiana, descended from pioneer families that entered the area in the early 1800s. He is veteran of WWII, having served with Army Corps of Engineers in both North Africa and Europe. He holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English Composition and Modern Language from the University of Evansville, a certificate in French Language and Culture from the Sorbonne in Paris, and an Honorary Doctor of Letters Degree from the University of Southern Indiana. His other books include: The Adventures of Isaac Knight, From then Til Now, Saundersville, An English Settlement, At The Bend in the River, and Dearest Lizzie. Mr. McCutchan's books may be purchased at Willard Library in Evansville, IN.
Smith's Contraption    

by Kenneth P. McCutchan

The Evansville Boneyard

Evansville residents saw their first automobile in July 1896 when one was brought in as a curiosity with the Robinson Circus.

A year later the first locally built car hit the street. It was a strange contraption create by William M. Smith in the shed behind his house at 1910 Governor St. The chassis resembled a railroad handcar with a canvas canopy.

Powered by a 1 ½ - horsepower steam engine with a little boiler only 15 inches in diameter, it was capable of speeds up to 15 miles per hour.

Smith said he could go 25 miles on 10 gallons of water and one bucket of coal.

The wheels were iron with a 3-inch tread, and the engine was connected directly to the rear axle with a chain and sprocket.

Smith, who was a machinist in the Southern Railroad shops, had worked in his spare time for a year and a half before the thing was complete.

On one of his first drives, he took his sister, Mary, and his brothers, Joe and Cleveland. They went all the way to Newburgh.

In an interview in 1925 Smith recalled: “We were traveling just fine until we met a farmer with a pair of mules hitched to a wagon. Those mules braced, snorted, and then took out to the right side of the road right through a rail fence. I was pretty scared, and right then I made that rig travel at the fastest clip it could run.”

”After making that trip,” Smith continued, “I thought I’d try going to town, but every time I tried to go in town, a half dozen teams would run away, and all the kids in town would be running right behind me. I saw I couldn’t drive it anywhere without causing somebody’s horse to run away, so I finally gave up.”

Even back in those days a person had to have a license to operate a vehicle on the city streets. Of course there was no license applicable to Smith’s contraption, so for $1 they sold him a one-horse carriage and crossed out the word “horse”. That was the first automobile license ever issued in Evansville.

But Smith didn’t run his machine much after that. He finally sold the little steam engine to a fellow who was trying to rig up a light plant.

It is interesting to note the young inventor became the United States patent agent in Evansville.

As for his siblings who accompanied him on his historic run to Newburgh, Mary, married Samuel Walden, Joseph became a die maker for the Graham Brothers Truck co., and Cleveland drowned in the Ohio River in 1898.

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