Today, the Stanleys and their Steamer. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
When I spoke recently in
Colorado, my wife and I drove the Rocky Mountain
At lunchtime we reached the town of Estes Park,
where we found a grand old hotel on a hill,
dominating the view. We tried it, and the food was
fine. But the greater treat was out in the lobby.
There we found a 1906
Stanley Steamer. This, it turns out, was the
Hotel! So let us see how it, and that
venerable automobile, got there.
Freelan Stanley and his twin brother Francis were
born in Maine in 1847. By the time they were fifty,
Freelan had been a serious artist and had marketed
a line of drafting instruments. Both were amateur
violin-makers. Francis had invented the airbrush.
Together, they'd developed and marketed dry
Then they grew interested in making automobiles;
but how to power such a machine? When Benz made the
first commercial automobiles, he used internal
combustion engines. Stanley biographer James
Pickering tells how the Stanleys came to choose
steam. Francis had experience with steam engines;
other than that, they began carmaking from scratch.
Yet they built an automobile in 1897.
A photo shows the two bearded brothers in their
first automobile. They look like they'd stepped off
an old Smith
Brothers' cough drop box. Those cars were a
great success. Within two years, Freelan and his
wife were able to motor up New Hampshire's
mile-high Mount Washington
in one. But by then they'd sold the business to a
company now selling them under the name
A year later, they bought the business back for a
mere $20,000 and began making the remarkably robust
Stanley Steamers. In 1906 and 1907 they set land
speed records of 128, and over 150, miles an hour.
Airplanes would fly no faster until well after
Now the Stanleys sold their Dry Plate Company to
Eastman Kodak, which made millions off it. George
Eastman also fell in love with the Stanleys' new
cars. "If the electric [automobile] is a 'peach',"
he wrote, "then the Stanley is a 'peacherina'."
But then Freelan Stanley, who suffered from
tuberculosis, had found his way to the small town
of Estes Park. In 1909 he built that great hotel on
the hillside and entered into a huge array of local
enterprises. He lobbied for the creation of Rocky
Mountain National Park. He worked on the
development of electric power and other utilities
in the region.
He also returned to the love of violins he and his
brother had shared. At 77, out of
automobile-building, with Francis no longer living,
Freelan set out to find means for mass-producing
Stradivarius-quality violins. Naturally he failed.
But then, it'd always been clear to the Stanleys
that challenges were far more rewarding than
anything as small as mere success. And that is why
you see, hanging there above that Stanley Steamer
in the hotel lobby, an oil painting of the aging
Freelan lovingly cradling one of his own violins.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
J.H. Pickering, Mr. Stanley of Estes Park.
Estes Park, CO: Stanley Museum, Inc., 2000. I am most
grateful to Jim Pickering, UH English Department, for
Dr. Pickering also adds this very interesting
footnote: "Incidentally, Stephen King came to the
Stanley hotel because it had been built by a fellow
Maine-ite. The hotel inspired The Shining,
and a graveyard for pets of former owners down the
hill, Pet Sematary."