Last Monday’s episode of the new PBS series Genealogy Roadshow featured a short clip with audience member Jennifer Weed and professional genealogist Josh Taylor. Weed’s great-grandfather John William Lambert made the first gasoline-powered automobile in the U.S. and she wanted to know if he had had a feud with Henry Ford.
Josh Taylor confirmed that in 1891 John W. Lambert did indeed invent the first gasoline-powered automobile in the U.S. Lambert was a pioneer in the field and years ahead of Henry Ford, but Taylor found no evidence of a feud between the two inventors. Taylor also mentioned that Lambert is credited with having the first automobile accident in the US.
What Josh did not mention was where that first automobile was produced and where that first auto accident occurred.
And now for the rest of the story.
Both events occurred right here in west central Ohio, in the small village of Ohio City, located in Van Wert County. Ohio City is about twelve miles from our home, located on State Route 118 between Rockford and Van Wert.
Ohio City is larger than Chatt and has several streets. Ohio City was platted in 1876 and has gone through several name changes. It was first named Van Wert Junction and then Enterprise before getting its current name of Ohio City. The town prospered in the early 1900s because at least three railroads ran through the town. Wikipedia reports that in 2010 there were 705 people living in the village.
Signs along the roads leading into Ohio City proudly indicate that John W. Lambert made the first American automobile there in 1891. A sign downtown indicates the location of the first automobile accident on West Carmean Street. In fact we have driven down that street and right past the very spot where the accident occurred. There is a blue building at that location and perhaps Lambert made his first automobile in that building.
John William Lambert (1860-1952) was born in Champaign County, Ohio, and moved to Ohio City after his marriage in 1885. In Ohio City he formed JW Lambert and Company with his father as his partner. In fact Lambert owned several businesses and buildings in Ohio City: an agricultural implement store, grain elevator, lumber yard, opera house, town hall, jail, as well as a few other establishments. He manufactured fork handles and spokes for wagons there.
However, Lambert’s main interest was the gasoline engine. He was fascinated with them and his goal was to make a light weight gasoline engine that could run a “horseless carriage.” About 1890 he worked to develop a light engine and produce an automobile in his small machine shop in Ohio City. He worked in secret, hiding his invention behind the walls of his farm implement store. Lambert conducted road tests in secret at night on back roads near Ohio City.
One night in1891, while secretly test-driving the first single-cylinder gasoline automobile, Lambert was involved in the first automobile accident in the United States. Lambert’s car struck a tree stump in the road and bounced into a hitching post at 201 West Carmean Street, near its intersection with South Liberty Street. Lambert and his passenger James Swoveland sustained only minor injuries.
Soon after, Lambert tried to sell his new “horseless carriage” to the public, but was unsuccessful. He was unable to sell any of his automobiles. He then sold his businesses in Ohio City and moved to Union City, Ohio, where he made stationary gasoline engines. In 1892 he established the Buckeye Manufacturing Company and the Lambert Gas and Gasoline Engine Company, making stationary engines and farm machinery implements. In 1893 he started the Union Automobile Company.
Lambert moved from Union City to Anderson, Indiana, in about 1893. In Anderson he continued in manufacturing, where at last he successfully produced automobiles . His automobile manufacturing plant in Anderson, the Buckeye Manufacturing Company, produced up to 2,000 cars a year in the early 1900s. During his lifetime he had over 600 patents and is credited with inventing the friction drive transmission.
Lambert remained in Anderson with his family for the remainder of his life. John W. Lambert died 20 May 1952 and is buried in East Maplewood Cemetery, Anderson, Madison County, Indiana.
Source of information: John William Lambert, Wikipedia.