Automotive industry

A journey back in time to the beginnings of the automotive industry

By Gene Pisasale
Contributing author

Take a look at some photographs from the very late 1800s and early 1900s, when the transition from horse-drawn carriages to automobiles was happening, and you might see something… different. Some of these images show the proud owners of a craft called the Stanley Steamer which propelled itself across the landscape in a unique way. The Stanley Steamer holds an important place in the history of the automotive industry – and a hidden ‘gem’ of a museum near Hockessin tells its story.

Technology was changing rapidly in the late 1800s. German mechanical engineer Karl Benz created what is believed to be the first self-propelled automobile in 1885. On June 4, 1896, Henry Ford took out his “quadricycle” for a spin. Two brothers, Francis E. and Freelan O. Stanley, were not far behind. In 1897 they produced their first car, powered not by gasoline or diesel, but by steam. The Stanleys were not engineers by training, but they had strong mechanical skills as well as design creativity. After first using their talents to produce photographic plates, the patent for which they sold to George Eastman of Eastman Kodak fame, the Stanleys decided that the automobile would be their lifelong focus. The two men sold over 100 cars between 1898 and 1899, making them the nation’s largest automobile seller for those years. In 1902, the Stanley Motor Carriage Company was born.

T. Clarence Marshall was a self-taught engineer and served as a sales agent for the local office of the Stanley Motor Carriage Company from 1910 to 1920. His fascination with steam technology led him to begin collecting, mining and restoring these cars . His interest rubbed off on his son Thomas. Clarence constructed a building in 1947 to hold his acquisitions; this structure in Auburn Heights (the Marshall family estate) later became the home of the Marshall Steam Museum. When Clarence died in 1969, Tom continued the family tradition of acquiring and introducing Stanley Steamers. Tom dedicated himself to putting the cars out in the open for everyone to see. He drove his 1912 30-horsepower Stanley touring car on four transcontinental trips, the farthest of which was an 8,328-mile trek from Yorklyn, Del. to Montreal, Canada, to Tijuana, Mexico and back in 1972 – considered by aficionados to be the longest excursion ever in a Stanley Steamer.

You don’t have to be a car enthusiast to appreciate the incredible vehicles on display at the Marshall Steam Museum. Next door is the Marshall House, a magnificent 1897 Queen Anne mansion in what is now Auburn Valley State Park in Delaware, donated to the state by the Marshall family in 2008. The archives of the museum note that the venue (proudly operated by the Friends of Auburn Heights, a 501(c)(3) charity) has “the largest collection of Stanley steam cars in the world”. It is not limited to steamers; the collection includes several classic vehicles from the early days of the automotive industry. Some people may now think that Tesla was the first mass producer of electric cars, but the museum contains one from 1916, about a century before Tesla hit the market. The museum also has a 1914 Ford Model T and two 1930s Packards.

Executive Director Susan Randolph knows her Stanley Steamers and talks about them like they’re old friends. A private tour of the Museum allowed this author to get up close and personal with several automobiles in the collection, which contains gasoline, electric and steam powered cars. Their 1932 Packard is exquisite and was considered the premium car at the time. Tom Marshall bought this car in 1956. A brown 1907 Stanley Model K Semi Racer is quite impressive. It could reach a speed of 75 miles per hour, a remarkable achievement for its time.

Some early cars produced in the United States had “missing” features, such as a windshield. A 1910 Stanley Touring Model 71 in the collection has a windshield, which makes it somewhat unique among early automobiles. A royal blue 1916 Stanley Touring Model 725 at the Museum is proof that energy conservation didn’t start in the 1960s. The car has a condenser that allows it to recycle steam for reuse during journeys. The average Stanley Steamer had a tank that held about 40 to 45 gallons and could travel about 40 miles without “refueling”, which usually meant stopping at a house or farm to ask for water. Realizing that these vehicles were powered by the same thing that comes out of your kitchen faucet gives you a better appreciation for the inventive genius of the Stanley brothers.

So how did the Stanley Steamers work? Lighting a pilot light under the car started a fire in the burner under the water tank, using gasoline or kerosene as fuel. It took about 45 minutes to get the boiler up and running at “full steam”. As you walk through the museum, you can see many well-preserved examples of automotive steam technology. The cars are in perfect condition; they have been “road tested” several times. Executive Director Randolph has been a passenger in almost every vehicle in the museum, and her enthusiasm for these rides shines through when you discuss the automobiles of yesteryear and how they transformed life in America.

The Marshall Steam Museum has something for people of all ages. A 1/8-size model train zips around the property, giving kids a thrill as they zip through the landscape on a real locomotive. There’s even a popcorn maker powered by – what else – steam. The various exhibits take you back in time, to a time when the pace of life was just a little…slower. You’ll learn about the Marshall family’s heritage in the area, including ownership of local mills that produced paper that sourced from the nearby National Vulcan Fiber (NVF) mill. Although Tom passed away in 2019, his dedication to maintaining part of our national heritage is shared by the team and evident everywhere as you walk through the Museum.

The Marshall Steam Museum is committed to showcasing its unique collection at events throughout the year. The first Sunday of every month is Steamin’ Day, where people can hop in one of the cars, ride the miniature locomotive, tour the Marshall House and Estate, and walk the nearby trails. Auburn Heights After Hours offers a variety of themed games and activities, food and drink, and a site tour. The website says Steamin’ Summer Camp gives children ages 10-14 the chance to “start a steam locomotive, play interactive games and activities, take train rides, and have the chance to drive our little diesel train…” The camp will take place on Friday July 15th and Monday August 1st.

So if you’re wondering what it was like to ride around in a vintage car and see the countryside at a more leisurely pace – or just learn about the roots of transportation in America, the Marshall Steam Museum will be a treat for you and your whole family.

Gene Pisasale is a Kennett Square-based historian, author, and lecturer. His 10 books focus on the history of the Chester County region and the mid-Atlantic. His latest book is “Forgotten Founding Fathers: Pennsylvania and Delaware in the American Revolution”. His books are available on his website at and on Gene can be reached by email at
[email protected]