Freelan O. Stanley and his wife Flora climbed Mt. Washington in a Stanley Steamer on Aug. 31, 1899, in one of the earliest publicity stunts in the automotive industry.
It was also the first time any automobile had climbed the mountain, the tallest in the northeastern United States. It took two hours for the Stanley Steamer to climb the 7.6-mile Mount Washington Carriage Road in New Hampshire.
“We went on, and up, up, still up, the continuous climbing being varied only by a steepness so excessive that we felt a sickening anxiety lest each brilliant dash should be our last,” Mrs. Stanley wrote.
Freelan O. Stanley and his twin brother Francis Edgar, known as F.O. and F.E., made several brilliant dashes during their uniquely inventive lifetimes. They pioneered automobile manufacturing, carved concert-quality violins, invented the airbrush, developed the first practical dry photographic plate process and built a hotel that inspired Stephen King’s The Shining.
The Stanley twins were born in tiny Kingfield, Maine, on June 1, 1849, to Solomon Stanley and Apphia Kezar French. Their grandfather, Liberty Stanley, taught them to carve concert-quality violins by the time they were 10.
They attended Western State Normal School, now known as the University of Maine at Farmington. Both then went into teaching, but didn’t last long.
F.O. made school mechanical drawing kits on the side in Mechanic Falls, Maine. The factory burned down, and as F.O. had no insurance, he joined his brother in the photography business in Lewiston, Maine.
F.E. had bought a photographic studio in 1875 for $500. Together the brothers developed the photographic dry plate process, which would revolutionize photography. Then in 1888, they moved their business to Watertown, Mass. The move changed the direction of their lives and their business.
In 1896, F.O. and F.E. Stanley went to the Brockton Fair and saw a horseless carriage. They were intrigued.
F.E. was familiar with steam engines, and the brothers went to work building their own steam-powered car in 1897 — the first Stanley Steamer.
In 1898, F.E. broke a world speed record with the car in front of 5,000 spectators. He drove around a track at an average speed of 27.4 mph without a breakdown. Soon they were swamped with orders for Stanley Steamers. They decided to sell their photography business and concentrate on cars.
The twins sold their company and patents to the Eastman-Kodak Co. for $500,000. Then they started building the Stanley Steamer in an old bicycle plant in Watertown.
Headquartered in Newton, Mass., they produced 200 Stanley Steamers within a year. They were the first to sell commercial quantities of automobiles. Between 1897 and 1914 they made and sold more than 10,000 Stanley Steamers.
F.O. and F.E. built a steam-powered race car in 1906 that set a record unbroken for 103 years.
In their Watertown plant they used an aerodynamic design in a race car they called the Stanley Rocket. Three feet wide and 16 feet long, it was described as an upside-down canoe. Race car driver Fred Marriott in 1906 drove the Rocket 127.66 mph on the hard sand of Ormond Beach, Fla., setting a world speed record. A gasoline-powered car went faster four years later, but it wasn’t until 2009 that another steam-powered vehicle broke the Stanley Rocket record. Charles Burnett III did it by reaching 136 mph and 151 mph in the Mojave Desert.
But by 1914, the technology of gasoline-powered automobiles eclipsed that of the steam cars. The twins sold the Stanley Motor Carriage Company in 1917.
F.E. died on July 13, 1918, in Ipswich, Mass., when he crashed his Stanley Steamer into a woodpile while trying to avoid farm wagons driving side by side. Newspapers made much of ‘inventor killed by his own creation.’
F.O., who suffered from tuberculosis, built a hotel in Estes Park, Colo., and lobbied for the creation of Rocky Mountain National Park.
He died at home in Newton, Mass., on Oct. 2, 1940.
You can visit the Stanley Museum in Kingfield, Maine, Tuesday through Sunday afternoons in the summer.
If you enjoyed this story about the Stanley Steamer, you may also like to read about Vermonter Henry Martyn Leland, the forgotten car king here. This story was updated in 2023.