Editor’s note: This is part of a weekly series marking the 120th anniversary of Niles native William McKinley’s U.S. presidency.
Early U.S. presidents traveled in carriages. The first president to ride in a train was Andrew Jackson, while Theodore Roosevelt was the first to ride in an automobile in a public procession. Year’s later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first to ride in an airplane.
And, Niles native William McKinley was the first president to ride in an automobile.
The automobile was a Stanley Steamer, invented by O.F. Stanley, who, according to author Douglas Nelson Rhodes, assured McKinley that riding in the steam-powered horseless carriage was abundantly safe to soothe McKinley’s concern he was at risk for harm.
But McKinley apparently did not enjoy the ride.
The president later reported to a friend that he felt as if the car and its occupants could be blown to bits at any moment, or that the driver would lose control of the vehicle.
“Stanley’s over optimistic, I think, when he says those things will some day replace horses,” McKinley supposedly remarked.
While there is no picture available of McKinley’s ride, one can imagine, if that ride occurred in a vehicle with no roof, side panels or safety belts, that McKinley’s unease was indeed justified. In addition, roads were little more than muddy paths with wheel ruts, so the ride was not smooth, and the passengers became covered with mud and dust unless wearing protective gear.
However, it turned out this was not the last time McKinley rode in a horseless carriage. After he was shot Sept. 6, 1901, by assassin Leon Czolgosz at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., medics moved the president to the small infirmary on the exposition grounds in an electric ambulance. The engine was electric in keeping with the theme of the exposition.
The Stanley Steamer Company existed until 1924, when the last Stanley Steamer was built.
This was due to the fact that while the steam engine was much more economical to run than an internal combustion engine, a steam engine took much longer to warm up. To get a steam engine to full running power took a half hour’s time, while an internal combustion engine, with its electric starter, took only seconds.
And so to some extent, McKinley was right in the steamer car did not last long. However, the internal combustion engine is still in use today. And of course, with the emphasis now being on eco-friendly or green transportation, thoughts return to building steam-powered cars. We shall have to see if McKinley’s prediction will still hold true for steam-powered automobiles.
Scarmuzzi is curator of collections at the National McKinley Birthplace Museum in Niles.