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Oct 11

First Auto Made and Crashed in Ohio City

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.

Ohio City, Van Wert County, Ohio. (2013 photo by Karen)

Ohio City, Van Wert County, Ohio. (2013 photo by Karen)

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, Ohio. First automobile produced here and site of first US automobile accident. (2013 photo by Karen)

Ohio City, Ohio. First automobile produced here and site of first US automobile accident. (2013 photo by Karen)

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.

Sign at edge of Ohio City. (2013 photo by Karen)

Sign at edge of Ohio City. (2013 photo by Karen)

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.

Site of first US automobile accident. (2013 photo by Karen)

Site of first US automobile accident. (2013 photo by Karen)

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.

Downtown Ohio City. First US auto accident occurred in front of blue building. (2013 photo by Karen)

Downtown Ohio City. First US auto accident occurred in front of blue building. (2013 photo by Karen)

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.

First US auto accident occurred near intersection of W. Carmen & S. Liberty Streets. (2013 photo by Karen)

First US auto accident occurred near intersection of W. Carmen & S. Liberty Streets. (2013 photo by Karen)

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.

6 comments

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  1. Doris Goins

    Thanks so much for the “rest of the story.” I’ve always wondered about this as I pass the sign in Ohio City. You have fulfilled my need to learn something for the day.

    1. Karen

      Thank you!

  2. Scott Bigham

    Check out our home page or our Lambert Days:
    https://www.facebook.com/lambertdays

    1. Karen

      Thank you for the link! I enjoy the photos, especially of Lambert’s family and the 1891 auto. It festival looks like a good time. We will try to check it out sometime.

  3. Carol Lambert

    Hi Karen,

    I want your readers to know I have recently published a book on my great-grandfather John W. Lambert:

    Something New Under the Sun, The History of America’s First Car by Carol Jean Lambert

    Ohio City, Ohio plays prominently in the story of his 1891 primary achievement.

    In my quest to know my great-grandfather, I traveled to Ohio, Michigan and Indiana to visit libraries, to interview those who knew or studied him and to go through boxes of his business and family material. I contacted car museums, automotive history libraries and countless websites. In addition to this non-fiction of John’s career, I have a fictionalized account of John’s family and that first car, Who Invented America’s First Car? Both are available on Amazon.com.

    Please visit my website caroljeanlambertbooks.com

    1. Karen

      I am currently reading “Something New Under the Sun” and it is an interesting account of John Lambert’s life and his many inventions, including the first automobile powered by a gasoline engine, made in Ohio City, Ohio. Carol’s book is well-researched and it tells the story of an inventor in the late 19th century and early 20th century. John Lambert was a man who had a very creative mind and who registered many, many patents. Carol places her great-grandfather in historical perspective, giving a glimpse of what life was like a century ago in this part of Ohio. I also look forward to reading “Who Invented America’s Gasoline Automobile?” Thank you for the fine books, Carol.

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