Then Again: Early motor vehicles in Vermont made unfortunate history

Then Again: Early motor vehicles in Vermont made unfortunate history

Some Vermonters argued that horse-drawn buggies and automobiles wouldn’t mix well on the state’s roads.

Some Vermonters argued that horse-drawn buggies and automobiles wouldn’t mix well on the state’s roads. If this 1916 photo is any indication, they had a point. Vermont Historical Society

The future arrived in Vermont in 1898. Burlington residents watched in wonder as Dr. J.H. Lindsley putted around in his new Stanley Steamer, which is believed to be the first automobile ever driven in Vermont. 

That didn’t mean the state didn’t already have a law governing motor vehicles. We may be a law-abiding people, but we are also a law-writing people. Passed four years before Lindsley bought his car from the Stanley Brothers of Massachusetts, the law required that anyone “in charge of a carriage, vehicle or engine propelled by steam” shall not drive on a public road without having a person “of mature age” walking at least one-eighth of a mile ahead to warn people that a motorcar was approaching. At night, this person was to carry a red light. 

In a sense, those people walking ahead with lights could have been warning Vermonters of how much automobiles were going to change the state. Vermonters were both enthralled and concerned by these new contraptions. Some worked to promote cars, while other Vermonters dedicated themselves to regulating or outright banning them. 

Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson of Burlington was one of the promoters. In a well-publicized stunt, he became the first person to drive cross-country by car, taking 63 days to travel from San Francisco to New York. 

The going was never easy. Though the United States had more than 2 million miles of roads at the time, only 150 of those miles were paved. Jackson figured the trip set him back $8,000, factoring in the purchase of the car, the salary of the driver-mechanic who accompanied him, and the cost of the gas and multiple repairs along the way. 

Add to that $6 for the ticket he received when he returned to Burlington after the journey. He’d been caught exceeding the 6-mph speed limit. That was quite fast enough, the Legislature had recently decided when it set statewide speed limits. Six miles per hour was the limit in village, town and city centers. Outside of settled areas, drivers were welcome to hit 15 mph. 

Those conservative limits probably made sense. Think of the world automobiles were entering: Horses were ubiquitous and didn’t mix well with cars; pedestrians were unfamiliar with how to interact with cars; the skills of new drivers, which would have been everyone, were probably limited; early automobiles had abysmal safety records; and road conditions were poor. 

As part of state oversight of automobiles, the Legislature started requiring drivers to register their vehicles in 1904. Motor vehicles were still luxury items, so by 1906, Vermont still had only 373 of them. 

To Joseph Battell, that was exactly 373 too many. “Let the owners of the highway dragons build their own roads,” snarled Battell. 

Thanks to a large inheritance, Battell was rich and powerful. He also had a thing for horses. Battell purchased a 500-acre farm in Weybridge for the selective breeding of a horse long associated with Vermont, the Morgan. 

Battell’s love of horses fed his hatred of automobiles. “It is impossible that highways can be used with safety and comfort by the two methods of travel,” he declared. 

Battell fought automobiles in several ways. As a state legislator, he introduced a bill to ban motor traffic on the Hancock-Ripton Road, which, not coincidentally, ran past the inn he owned in Ripton. But the bill failed. 

When the legislative approach failed, he attacked the issue less like a sage lawmaker and more like an unhinged and vindictive neighbor. Battell took to erecting barriers and spreading debris in the road near his inn. When the Legislature learned of his actions, it criminalized such behavior. 

Making unfortunate history

Battell had still another way of fighting this new invasive species. He owned a newspaper, the Middlebury Register, and filled its pages with reprinted stories about car crashes, especially those involving women and children. 

Evelyn Pierpont Willing and her fiance, Harris Lindsley, were killed when her Mercedes was struck by a train in Bennington in August 1905.

Battell certainly would have known of the incident that occurred Aug. 14, 1905. That day, the intriguingly named Harris Lindsley, perhaps related to the Burlington doctor who owned the state’s first motor vehicle, had the unfortunate distinction of making history on the roads of Vermont. 

This Lindsley, who was a deputy police commissioner of New York City, was touring Vermont with his fiancée, Evelyn Pierpont Willing, an heiress from a prominent Chicago family. Willing, whose late mother had Vermont roots, had taken to summering at the Equinox in Manchester. She was there for a couple of weeks in 1905 with family members, including an aunt and younger cousin. Some people later said Willing and Lindsley were to be married the following week; others claimed they had yet to make formal wedding plans. 

That afternoon in August, the couple were heading north to Manchester after visiting Williamstown, Massachusetts, during the day. They rode in the back seat of Willing’s 60-horsepower Mercedes, a “big touring machine,” as one newspaper account described it, with brass plates marked “1041” and “City of Chicago” — the state of Illinois hadn’t yet started issuing plates. Up front were Willing’s 13-year-old cousin Ambrose Cramer and the chauffeur, J.A. Adamson. 

As the car approached Pike’s Crossing, a railroad crossing just north of Bennington, Adamson accelerated because of an incline. If he glimpsed the approaching train, he might have hit the gas harder. The front of the car cleared the tracks before the train struck. The back seat bore the brunt of the impact. 

The collision threw the automobile about 60 feet. The train, which consisted of only a locomotive and passenger car, derailed. The train cars slowly rolled over and came to rest about 10 or 15 feet from the tracks, about 100 feet of which were torn up in the wreck. The engineer and fireman both managed to jump to safety. Not one of the train’s 15 passengers was seriously injured. 

The impact crushed the automobile, which caught fire. Adamson and Cramer survived the crash with some bad cuts and bruises. Lindsley and Willing weren’t so lucky. They were thrown against a nearby fence with such force that they knocked it down, according to one newspaper report. 

The Bennington Banner reported a fatal car accident, the first one known in Vermont, in its Aug. 15, 1905, edition.
The Southern Vermont Mirror of Danby, which was a weekly, didn’t report the news of Vermont’s first fatal car accident until Aug. 18, 1905, and used a more sensational headline (“Wedded in Death!”) to grab attention.

They became the first two people killed in an automobile accident in Vermont. A subsequent investigation found that the train had been driving backward (that is, with the engine in the rear) toward Bennington at the time of the crash. The position of the engineer blocked his view of the approaching car. 

A state railroad committee, however, laid most of the blame on Adamson for not stopping at the crossing, seeing or hearing the train, and for speeding. 

Newspapers repeated claims that Cramer, the teenage boy, was at the wheel at the time of the accident, a claim the chauffeur denied. The Waterbury Record reported that Willing and Lindsley might have been the victims of the “auto craze for making high speed,” with the car reaching 30 to 40 miles per hour in pursuit of a second automobile that they were racing.

After the accident, the bodies of Lindsley and Willing lay in state at the Mark Skinner Library in Manchester, which was built in honor of a former Vermont governor. It might seem an odd use for a library, but Willing was Skinner’s granddaughter, and her mother had donated the library to the town. 

Willing was buried in Manchester’s Dellwood Cemetery. A train transported Lindsley’s body south to Grand Central Station in New York, where a crowd greeted it. Dozens of military and police officers, some mounted and others on foot, accompanied the casket to a military armory — Lindsley was a veteran — where his body lay in state. The next day, 600 police officers and 900 members of Lindsley’s former regiment escorted the casket as it was transported back to Grand Central Station for the long ride back to Vermont, where Lindsley was buried beside his fiancée. 

Joseph Battell would certainly have argued that the lovers’ graves were a stern warning of the unacceptable dangers posed by automobiles. But it was an argument he would lose. 

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Tags: fatal accident, first automobile, Then Again

Mark Bushnell

About Mark

Mark Bushnell is a Vermont journalist and historian. He is the author of Hidden History of Vermont and It Happened in Vermont.