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Auto pioneer mystery

Kevin Collier • Jul 21, 2015 at 12:05 PM

While the actual event was undocumented, it is said 32-year-old Marshall Henry McCluer, of Spring Lake, drove a horseless, motorized carriage he had assembled the summer of 1891.

History documents the first gasoline-powered American automobile as being built in 1893 by Charles Edgar Duryea and road-tested by he and his brother on Sept. 20 that year in Springfield, Mass.

If the debut year of McCluer's gas-powered vehicle is correct, it places the Spring Lake man’s invention two years before Duryea's debut of what was technically America's first gasoline-powered automobile.     

McCluer, born April 28, 1859, in Ada, Mich., moved to Spring Lake in 1871 with his parents. Married twice, and father of three daughters, McCluer worked for area sawmills and became captain and engineer of many vessels, most notably the Lizzie Walsh, a small steamer he built that serviced Tri-Cities ports. By 1912 McCluer was also working part time at Klaus Katt's Ferrysburg shop performing automobile and boat engine repairs.  

In early 1891, McCluer had borrowed a 3,600-pound gasoline engine from a Grand Rapids man named Zintz. In two months, with help from his father James, a machinist by trade, McCluer assembled his motorized carriage and took it for a spin that summer.

“I was working in the mills in Louisiana as a machinist, while my father ran the shop here,' McCluer said in a Jan. 24, 1925, Muskegon Chronicle article. “I thought about the horseless carriage and decided when I returned for my vacation (at Spring Lake) I would start work on it in father’s machine shop.”

His father, James, helped him built the primitive jalopy.         

“The first trip gave me quite a thrill,” McCluer said. “I think I went about 20 miles per hour — faster than horses, anyway.”          

Talk of the event was still fresh in the minds of some in Spring Lake when the NEA news service put out a story on McCluer published by many newspapers in February 1925.          

“The old-timers in the town (Spring Lake) confirm the (1891) date,” the article stated.          

Apparently onlookers of McCluer's horseless carriage ride down Savidge Street at the time saw it more as an amusement that anything historical.          

“The people weren't startled much because they were used to seeing me do most anything,” McCluer is quoted as saying in the article. “I kept running it around for a few days. I was a laughing stock with most people and this discouraged me from proceeding with the invention.”          

McCluer encountered difficulty interesting others in his contraption and soon returned to his day job, allowing his father to ship the engine back to its owner in Grand Rapids. McCluer traded his father the once-motorized carriage for a riding cart.          

“People told me I had more money than brains,” McCluer said. “The president of the mill where I worked also laughed at my idea. So, I went back to the mill and forgot the horseless carriage.”          

But McCluer's father must have taken the effort seriously as he filed a patent on June 9, 1902, for an “igniter for gasoline engines,” which was granted the following year.          

When James McCluer died in 1908, his estate bestowed the carriage to Aloys Bilz, a veteran hardware store owner in Spring Lake. Bilz stored what remained of Marshall McCluer's horseless carriage in a garage he owned.          

The last known location of McCluer's infamous vehicle was in 1946 when its remains were reported stored in a barn in Spring Lake owned by his daughter, Lillie (McCluer) Pellegrom. The carriage seemed to vanish over time and its current whereabouts are unknown.            

It is likely the mystery of whether Marshall McCluer constructed American's first automobile will never be solved. The eyewitnesses are long dead and nothing exists in print from 1891 that recorded the event.          

But, if the story is true — it means McCluer beat Duryea on the roadway of automotive history. Many automotive history books do mention McCluer as building and testing his road machine two years before Charles Edgar Duryea — but always with a caveat — that no documentation exists to prove the claim.          

McCluer died on July 1, 1928, and is buried in Spring Lake Cemetery. A front-page article about his death published in the Grand Haven Tribune acknowledges McCluer as “one of the pioneers” in the manufacture of the automobile.


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