24 February 2017

Canada’s first automobile was a watchmaker’s dream

Along portions of Stanstead, Québec’s Canusa Street, houses on the southern end lie entirely within Vermont, while their driveways direct northward and connect to the street in Quebec. Their backyard neighbors are American, while families living across the street are Canadian. In other areas, the international border runs right through individual homes, so that meals prepared in one country are eaten in the other.

Henry Seth Taylor, the builder of Canada’s first automobile, lived and worked here. At age 11, Taylor left home to learn new skills. He dreamed of becoming a watchmaker and thus set off for Boston, some 225 miles away… on foot!

In the early 1860s, already married and with children, he returned home to Stanstead to open his own business. Running his successful jewelry store by day, he spent evenings inventing, experimenting and building things. One of his projects was a self-propelled vehicle, which took Taylor a few years to get on the road.

But on Sept. 12, 1867, The Stanstead Journal reported that “H.S. Taylor’s steam carriage is completed and will be at the Stanstead Fair during the three days of exhibition, where it will run any trotting horse that can be produced.”

Alas for Taylor, that first showing of torque fizzled out when a steam hose burst, enveloping the car and driver in a worrisome vapor cloud. Still, his car was only a few months younger than Canada itself, which had been formed on July 1, 1867.

Undaunted, he soon got things back on track, and by the next year’s fair, his baby performed flawlessly.

The car was unseen for nearly a century, re-emerging when the Taylor property was sold to Gertrude Sowden of Stanstead, who, fortunately, recognized the importance of the steam carriage in the garage. When no museum showed interest, the remaining parts were bought by Richard Stewart, president of Anaconda American Brass and moved to Middlebury, Conn. Using the only photograph known of the carriage, Stewart had it completely rebuilt and, in 1969, showed it at the Ontario Science Center in Toronto.

Since 1983, the Seth Taylor car has sat proudly in the national collection of the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa, which is preparing its re-opening for Canada’s 150th anniversary this fall.

Thanks to Taylor and other local founding gearheads, the Québec’s Eastern Townships can be considered the cradle of the Canadian automobile. In addition to the Seth Taylor Steamer, the region also produced the country’s first gasoline car. It was George Foote Foss’s 1897 Fossmobile, which used a single-cylinder, four-horsepower engine to reach 15mph and was said to have climbed the most challenging of hills.

Then, there was the original Thibault fire truck company, rooted locally in humble family beginnings. And of course there’s another engineering giant, Joseph-Armand Bombardier and his vision of dashing through the snow. Pioneers, all.

But Taylor was the one who succeeded first. Many thought he was a fool. Others wanted him arrested, thrown in jail, even. “A bulky, useless toy,” some said, suggesting that his steam-spurting contraption was nothing short of the devil’s work.

The man never sought fame nor fortune. He was just a hobbyist doing his thing, often in the face of public mockery. Were it not for the tranquil passion, steadfast resolve and mechanical genius of this enterprising watchmaker, one can only wonder where the story of a dual birthday – Canada’s and the Taylor steam car, both turning 150 – would have gone.

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