OPINION | Tom Dillard: From first cars inevitably came first car crash

Not long ago, as I traveled one rainy morning to Little Rock on Interstate 30, the traffic slowed to a crawl before coming to a complete stop. As I sat there surrounded by idling trucks and listening to the beat of the wipers, my mind turned to the days when automobiles first appeared on the rutted and muddy roads of Arkansas.

The first automobile in the state was delivered to its owner, Professor Levi Keys of Little Rock, on May 4, 1900. Keys, the owner of Keys Commercial and Trade Institute, had trouble finding an automobile for sale, but finally convinced a Chicago physician to sell his "nearly new" Woods Electric. Yes, the first automobile in Arkansas was an electric model.

From the day he drove it home from the rail station, Keys' car drew crowds of amazed onlookers. A reporter recalled later: "It was indeed the wonder of the city. For almost a year after the arrival of the vehicle, an admiring crowd would gather wherever and whenever the car was stopped for any length of time."

Keys, who used the car to promote his trade school, drove the vehicle about town, picking up students at train stations and taking them to hotels for free.

According to the editor of the Arkansas Democrat newspaper, this first appearance "led to much speculation concerning possibilities in this city if we had a sufficient number of miles of good paved streets. We could have these streets and other needed improvements if we only had the right under the [1874] Constitution to issue the necessary bonds."

This first auto had an interesting life. Keys later complained of the costs incurred in keeping the vehicle on the streets. It was eventually converted to steam power. After being worn out a second time, the vehicle was sold as parts to eager buyers.

The first auto dealer I know of was W.C. Faucette, the second man in Little Rock to have a car. Faucette, who with his brother James were the godfathers of early North Little Rock, bought a steam-powered locomobile manufactured by the Locomobile Corp. of America.

With perfect hindsight, we shake our heads in wonderment that many early car buyers preferred steam-powered vehicles. Residents of Arkansas at the beginning of the 20th century had a long familiarity with steam power. Every crossroads village had a steam-powered cotton gin. Steamboats and trains were powered by steam. It only made sense to extend that power source to automobiles. Most early automobiles sold to Arkansans were shipped here via steam-powered railroads.

However, in 1901, P.M. Kilroy, a Pine Bluff bicycle dealer, had two locomobiles delivered on the steamboat Lucille Nowland. The Pine Bluff Daily Graphic speculated that "the locomobile will be all the fad in Pine Bluff pretty soon."

The Graphic also reported that Kilroy "is giving the 'city dads' the 'horse laugh,' in view of the fact that the vehicle tax ordinance does not apply to his new rigs." The tax was based on the vehicle being powered either by two or four horses. City officials were said to be at work on a new ordinance.

While the locomobiles improved with time, the early models were finicky, unreliable, had small water tanks (getting only 20 miles per tank at first), and required time to build up a head of steam. British writer Rudyard Kipling described locomobiles as "a nickel-plated fraud." Costs ranged from $600 to $1,400.

Nevertheless, Arkansas locomobile owners were pleased with their vehicles. In September 1902, John McGuire of Little Rock boasted that he traveled by locomobile from Little Rock to Hot Springs in less than five hours.

It is surprising that McGuire was still driving a locomobile, since only a few months earlier he had been injured in what might have been the first auto wreck in Arkansas. According to a March 1902 newspaper report, McGuire had just purchased his locomobile from Faucette Bros. in Argenta and was driving it off the lot "when it got beyond his control and ran into a post..." McGuire was left with a sore back, and his vehicle was "badly damaged."

Much more serious accidents were to follow, often involving wagons pulled by horses or mules. An unsigned note in the Oct. 6, 1901, issue of the Arkansas Gazette complained that "Faucette Bros. have bought a new-fashioned whirligig of a four-wheel contraption ... [which is] well calculated to cause the most docile and well behaved family horse to throw several different kinds of conniption fits..."

Perhaps only half joking, the writer concluded: "The rights of the mule and the mustang must and shall be preserved, even if we have to throw these devilish steam buggies into the Arkansas River."

When I think back to the advent of the automobile age in Arkansas, I want to believe I would have been saving my pennies for a car. In truth, however, I suspect I would have kept old Nellie well-shod and my carriage in good repair, quite certain that the automobile was a passing fad. I would have been in the minority.

A surprising number of young Arkansans were so eager to obtain cars that they made their own. On Christmas day 1904, the Arkansas Democrat announced that Edwin Battle, a young machinist and engineer of Little Rock, had "by tireless study and persistent endeavor made for himself an automobile..." After a year of labor and materials costing $150, Battle built a steam-powered vehicle which "he uses ... every day riding about the city with his friends."

A much more sophisticated homemade auto was built by Gus Boehmer of Fort Smith during the summer of 1900. It had an internal-combustion engine powered by gasoline. Like many early models, Boehmer's vehicle employed large rubber bands as brakes, controlled by the foot. Steering was with a lever.

My favorite homemade auto was fabricated in 1909 by what the Arkansas Democrat described as "an aged inventor who lives near DeQueen." Bicycle and motorcycle parts were used to create an auto "which can compete with anything in the country, and make better time over rough roads than the factory-built roadsters." It looked, the correspondent admitted, "a bit crude."

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected].