By Roy Vataja


In the summer of 1901, the enterprising Hoquiam duo of Vernon Smith and Charles Kuhn put together a transportation scheme that was intended to bring Aberdeen and Hoquiam together with a means of transportation the likes of which had never been seen in these parts.

Despite the oddly inclement weather that July 18th, a large crowd had gathered on the dock of Hoquiam’s North West Lumber Company to welcome the arrival of the steamer Newburg. The ship made regular runs between the Harbor and San Francisco, but this time it was carrying a very unique cargo: a specially built automobile capable of carrying 36 passengers to be put in service between Aberdeen and Hoquiam. Kuhn and Smith had traveled to the California city some months earlier and secured the services of machinist M.J. Chapman. Chapman designed and built an 18-foot long, 4,500-pound behemoth powered by a 35-horse power steam engine fueled by crude oil or wood. It was billed as the first motorized stage coach in the country with room for 22 passengers inside and 14 on the roof.

Once safely on the dock, Kuhn loaded the machine with his friends before taking the wheel and heading into town. The rig did well on the planked dock and road but bogged down when it hit a sawdust street, forcing the passengers to get out and push. Before long, they reached the specially built “stable” on H Street behind a bank.

There had been a number of snags in getting the machine here and on the road. In San Francisco there was trouble getting proper tires and a machinist strike brought construction to a halt for a short time. Once in Hoquiam, a further delay was caused when adjustments had to be made to the smoke stack, and it was found that the builder had neglected to send along some necessary duplicate parts.

Finally, on a Tuesday in late July, the rig emblazoned with “Gray’s Harbor Automobile &Omnibus Co.” on its side, made its inaugural run to Aberdeen where it was met by an eager crowd that had not shown such enthusiasm since the last time the circus came to the young town. The rig would make hourly trips between Aberdeen and Hoquiam, traveling along the old plank road that connected the two cities. That road is now known as Pacific Avenue.

The autobus did good business for the first week. It was on the return trip to Hoquiam on Friday evening in August that the enterprise came to a muddy stop. Kuhn and Smith had picked up five passengers in Aberdeen and were approaching the Ninemire &Morgan slaughter house at Frye Creek near the Aberdeen - Hoquiam border when the vehicle began to lose steam. They stopped to fire up with wood and were soon underway again. They had not gone far when suddenly a bolt holding the steering gear snapped. The machine pulled roughly to one side, smashed through the wooden railing and landed on its side in the mud flats.

As it came to a jarring stop, one passenger, A.S. Taylor, was thrown head first into the muck. The dazed man made his way back to the coach to help the other commuters: D.N. McDonald, with a badly injured back; W.H. Frasier who had a sprained hand and was badly cut by flying glass; and P.W. Todd, a visiting Oregonian, who had fractured his left leg at the ankle. The fifth passenger, S.D. Bowie, escaped without injury, as did the operators, Charles Kuhn and Vern Smith. As the men appraised their situation, a delivery wagon from the Aberdeen Soda Works happened by and ferried the injured men to Aberdeen.

The behemoth machine was raised from the mud two days later and taken to Hoquiam for repairs. Meanwhile, Kuhn and Smith began rethinking their plan and opted to get out of the transportation business. Before the end of the year the autobus was shipped to San Jose, Calif., and placed on a nine-mile run on better roads.

Despite the failure of the autobus, the necessity of a public transportation system to the growing area was apparent. By the end of the 1901 the Grays Harbor Electric Company was formed to create a street car line tying together Aberdeen, Hoquiam and Cosmopolis. Under the management of Aberdeen promoter and capitalist Ed Finch, the rails were laid and the first cars started rolling in early 1904. In 1906 the company was reorganized under the name Grays Harbor Railway &Light Company, and for the next three decades streetcars ferried passengers between the three cities before coming to an end in August, 1932. The steel rails were ripped up and sold for scrap. The age of the streetcar had come to an end and the private automobile quickly took its place in American culture.

Roy Vataja is the son of Finnish immigrants and would give anything to have a ride on Kuhn and Smith’s autobus.

 

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