From Point A to Point B: A Photo of J. Philip Erie and the First Automobile in Los Angeles, 1897

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The huge leaps in technology that took place in the late 19th century included the widespread use of electricity, telephones, the phonograph, early film and the introduction of the horseless carriage/motor vehicle/automobile. For Los Angeles, which quickly became a world capital for cars, a seminal date was the building and testing in 1897 of an early vehicle designed by J[ames]. Philip Erie and built by Samuel D. Sturgis.

Years ago, the descendants of William H. Workman, the mayor of the Angel City in 1887-1888 and its treasurer from 1901-1907, provided a copy of a great photograph, which has been reproduced elsewhere, showing him, purportedly, as the first passenger of what is generally acknowledged as the first auto in the city (an 1896 vehicle was tried out at Port Hueneme in Ventura County).

Los Angeles Express, 14 June 1895.

The Homestead, though, is very fortunate to have a large-format cabinet card, almost certainly from 1897, showing Erie seated in his contraption as it was parked in front of his impressive Boyle Heights residence. This second documentation of the first automobile in Los Angeles has not apparently been seen before, so it’s pretty awesome to be able to share it with this post and to talk about Erie’s introduction of the vehicle.

As to the creator of the car, there is very little information about Erie. He is said to have hailed from New York, but no census or other vital records could be located at all, though some listings in city directories and voter registration sheets, references of patents he took out, and newspaper and magazine articles do provide some information. A James P. Erie, the only person with that surname, was working as a broker on Wall Street in New York in 1891, while three years later that same person (again, no one in the city had that last name–perhaps he adopted the name of the lake that borders the state’s northern edge?) was a clerk.

Express, 12 August 1896.

Yet, in 1895, J. Philip Erie, as he became usually known, was in Los Angeles, for the common reason of poor health so one source indicated, and it was stated in the Los Angeles Express of 14 June that “J.P. Erie of New York, one of the greatest mine experts in the country, is at the Hollenbeck [Hotel” and it was added that “he has just returned from a visit to some of the great mines of old Mexico.” Two months later, Erie, described as a “mining and mechanical engineer of New York” was back in the Angel City and the same hotel because “he is in the city on business for English capitalists.

Yet, when Erie registered to vote on 1 May 1896, the 32-year old claimed that his birthplace was California. He’d settled in a spacious home with distinctive rounded corners on State Street just to the west of Hollenbeck Park in Boyle Heights and his wife became something of a social butterfly, frequently mentioned in the social pages of newspapers attending club meetings, hosting dinners and attending parties. One gathering she hosted in October of that year for their godson included Elizabeth and Thomas Workman, children of Boyle Heights founder William H. In August, Erie became a silent partner in the Abbotsford Inn Company, operating the downtown hotel owned by Abbot Kinney, later founder of the community of Venice.

Herald, 30 May 1897.

The 1897 Los Angeles City Directory listing for Erie showed his profession as “electrical and mechanical engineer” and he soon made a big splash with the horseless carriage he designed and which Sturgis constructed. In its 30 May edition, the Los Angeles Herald reported:

A knot of belated pedestrians and bicyclists was gathered on Broadway, between Fifth and Sixth streets, about 3 oclock this morning, attracted by a strange-looking vehicle which stood near one of the curbs, and upon whose inner mechanism several workmen were engaged by the flickering lights of candles.

Closer inspection revealed a horseless carriage, the first of its kind in Los Angeles . . . the vehicle is a handsome coach, capable of seating nine persons, and is propelled by a gasoline engine concealed under the body and between the running gear.

The piece continued that Erie built a version six months earlier, but that failed. The new edition, however, was trotted out in the middle of the night and “after a little preliminary tinkering to get the engine going right, the inventors, their wives and the workmen mounted to the seats, an alarm bell was jingled, the level pulled and away went the horseless carriage, albeit rather slower and more sedately than expected.”

William H. Workman seated behind Erie in a demonstration from early June 1897 in Boyle Heights. Courtesy of the Workman Family Collection.

While it was expected the contraption could achieve a top speed of twenty-five miles per hour, “on the trial trip it barely moved along owing to the imperfect working of the engine,” though the excursion did make it through several city blocks. With this maiden jaunt, the vehicle was parked “until it shall make its first public appearance some day this week.”

The following day, the Los Angeles Times provided a very detailed analysis of the auto and its early morning travels at a time “when the streets were deserted except for a few sleepy policemen and wildly-careering milkmen.” Referred to as “a wealthy New York civil engineer and inventor” who came to the area for health reasons, Erie, it was added, spent on the order of $30,000 on his autos, for which there were eleven patents.

Los Angeles Times, 31 May 1897.

The paper noted that the vehicle was taken from Sturgis’ business on Fifth just west of Broadway and, once fired up, went down the latter, turned east on Sixth and then south on Main to Seventh, where it traveled east for about a mile. The trial was considered a success, especially with the rough nature of the city’s streets. Notably, even though there were four cylinders, only one was utilized. It was also observed that no horses were affrighted by the machine, though that was a concern before the demonstration.

Among the detail, the paper stated that the machinery was in a black box underneath the carriage and that this enclosure was lined with asbestos with proper ventilation, but also minimizing the heat reaching the body, while fumes were barely noticeable. It was added that noise was limited by having the gears made of wood fiber and steel. The inch-thick pneumatic tires were deemed to be practically puncture-proof, while a polished copper cylinder at the front and nickel-plated levers to start and stop the engine and for steering were the only visible components. The engine case was oversized for development of the project, but was to be a third that size for future production.

Times, 31 May 1897.

The piece went on that “Mr. Erie pins his faith to the gasoline motor for road vehicles for many reasons,” including financial because a small amount of stove gasoline was utilized, but the tank held enough, it was said, for three hundred miles of travel. Twice that much fuel could be stored, however, and it was noted that, should gasoline not be available, kerosene worked just as well.

The light-weight vehicle was said to have a decided advantage over electric cars and the Times went into some detail about the mechanics, including the fact that each cylinder was a separate motor and the quartet were arranged in a line. One pair was behind the rear axle and the other at the forward end of the steel frame, while the discs and gears were between and below the seats, “thus securing a perfect balance.”

Times, 31 May 1897.

One challenge was cooling, which was handled by a device which sprayed the fluid in contact with the air “over an extended cooling surface.” Most bearings were of the roller and ball type, requiring no lubrication, while smaller ones, along with the cylinders, had oil applied automatically, “which avoids the necessity of oiling each part individually.” Similarly, gasoline was controlled by an apparatus like the one for the oil, “thus doing away with all possibility of any accident.”

The piece, which included a pair of drawings of the machine, concluded with the note that it was almost two years since the project was undertaken “first in the fertile brain of J. Philip Erie” and then with “the skilled hands” of Sturgis and his shop, which collaborated with the former from the inception. A third partner was Charles H. Albers of the St. Louis Merchants’ Exchange. Finally, it was noted,

This is the first motor carriage ever built west of the Mississippi River [Allen’s Hueneme machine notwithstanding]. In all probability it will not be long before a factory is established in Los Angeles for the manufacture of motor wagons.

In its 3 June edition, the Times added that the first trip actually went across the First Street bridge into Boyle Heights and “on uneven roads” to Erie’s residence. Moreover, it revealed that the asbestos lining in the engine case was not the actual article and it burned like paper, so an improvement was made that rendered the use of the material unnecessary.

Express, 2 June 1897.

The previous day’s Herald stated that the first public demonstration would take place that early afternoon by circumnavigating Hollenbeck Park, next to the Erie residence, another excursion would follow on the 3rd “carrying friends and acquaintance[s].” For that jaunt, the car was to travel down Boyle Avenue to State Street then over to Aliso Street and then to Main, with a long ride to Jefferson “and thnce to West End,” which appears to mean the westerly city limits at Hoover. This was the Pico Heights neighborhood where Sturgis lived. It was promised that “an exhibition of its rapidity” would be shown on Main.

It turned out, however, that both trips were delayed by a day because of “the slight defects” found in the vehicle, but that “within a few days it is thought the new invention will be ready to go into active service to do its part in the work of emancipating the horse from bondage.” So, the 3rd was to be the Boyle Heights excursion around the park and the 4th, the longer trip out to Sturgis’ place and a return to Erie’s house. On the weekend of the 5th and 6th, it was planned to take the car as far out as San Bernardino or Redlands and the five or six day trip was expected to really put the machine to the test.

Times, 29 May 1901.

Yet, on the 4th, the Times reported that all this was scotched and that the car “will not be used again for a week” because some locally made steel pieces used as piston heads in the cylinders proved defective and replacements were being sought from Pennsylvania. The idea was to make sure, before any further tests were conducted, that the machine was “in apple-pie order.” It was claimed that the tires held up well even when riding over bottles deliberately set out.

The next news came in the 25 June edition of the paper, where it was stated that

A number of short trial runs about Boyle Heights have been made recently by the new horseless carriage . . . the plan of the machinery has proven entirely satisfactory, but various weak points have been discovered in the way of defective material, a thing due to the distance of Los Angeles from the base of supplies for extensive machinery-making . . . All four cylinders of the gasoline machinery have been tried with eminent success. With two cylinders in use, the steepest hills in Boyle Heights have been easily climbed and a speed of twelve miles an hour attained on level ground.

There were, however, no further reports located in local papers of the future operation of the auto. Erie and partners, including Daniel F. McGarry, launched the Erie Pneumatic Hub Company in spring 1898 and the inventor made several trips to the east, once specifically to work on patents for the vehicle.

Times, 19 March 1902.

Yet, financial problems quickly mounted, including the assumption of a mortgage on the Boyle Heights house, foreclosure on a promissory note, and unpaid taxes. While Erie continued to invent, including for a bottle stopper and a water heater, his residence was subject to a Sheriff’s tax sale in 1901 (he and his wife lived on Hill and 9th streets for a time). A notice of sale in March 1902 by the Bekins Van and Storage Company for a mid-April auction included three-seat and one-seat motor vehicles built by Erie because of $147 in unpaid storage fees at the firm’s warehouse at Fourth and Alameda streets.

Erie appears to have remained in the Angel City until about 1906, when he registered his water heater patent, but, four years later, he turned up in Denver where the General Aviation Company was established and it was reported in Aero magazine that “J. Phillip Erie, well-known Pacific Coast aviator has been engaged to demonstrate machines. The year’s directory for the Mile High City showed that Erie, living in a hotel, was employed with the Fritchle Automobile and Battery Company. Three years later, he was in San Francisco and his voter registration listing gave his profession as aviator. After that, no trace of him could be found.

While his horseless carriage project was ultimately unsuccessful and Erie’s later life was mostly, as his early years were, shrouded in some mystery, he has been periodically been recalled as the Angel City’s automotive pioneer. The Homestead’s photo of Erie in his contraption next to his house, joining the more commonly seen image of the inventor with William H. Workman in the vehicle, are the sole visual documents of his (partly successful) achievement.

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