February 2016 Business History: Carriage Industry

Carriage sent to pasture

Watertown Daily Times file photo.

Watertown Daily Times file photo.

Auto fueled death of ‘buggies’ at turn of 20th century

The appearance of the automobile in Watertown in 1909 marked the beginning of the end for the once-flourishing carriage industry and the horse and buggy days.While there is some question as to who owned the first automobile in Watertown, historical accounts seem to assert that it was the late Louis W. Moore.

Mr. Moore was the employer of Frank W. Woolworth in the latter’s younger days and gave Mr. Woolworth the idea for the five-and-dime store that he would develop into the well-known chain of Woolworth’s Department Stores.

The vehicle Mr. Moore bought was manufactured by Foster & Co., Rochester. It was a steam Stanhope model that carried 15 gallons of water and a six-gallon gasoline tank, enough to travel 75 miles. The gas buggy’s headlights were kerosene coach lamps, predecessors of the acetylene light. The 700-pound machine sold for $1,000, a cost of more than $25,000 today.

Five hundred Watertown residents watched as Mr. Moore’s new automobile, capable of doing up to 20 mph, was unloaded “and many gazed with interest at its subsequent flight up Washington Street,” according to a Watertown Daily Times article from the day.

And no wonder. The heyday of the carriage industry in Watertown was from 1880 to 1900, when it started drawing to a close because of the horseless carriage phenomenon. During those years however, it was a pace setter.

In 1875, the Watertown Spring Wagon Co. was incorporated for $100,000, manufacturing carriages in the Winslow Industrial Building on Factory Square. They were the pioneer carriage firm in Watertown. The same company today would be worth more than $2 million. Carriage-making in the north country was big business.

The four local companies engaged in the mass production of carriages and buggies at the turn of the century were Watertown Spring Wagon Co., H.H. Babcock Co., which had plants on Factory Street, Union Carriage & Gear Co. on Newell Street and Excelsior Carriage Co. on Sewall Island.

Carriages and wagons made in these factories found a market throughout the Eastern United States and provided employment to several hundred mechanics.

In 1879, Henry H. Babcock, who came to the city in 1845 and engaged in two small manufacturing plants, entered the carriage business with his two sons under the firm name H.H. Babcock & Sons. This triggered the beginning of what would become one of the leading carriage firms in the United States. Incorporated in 1882, Babcock & Co. manufactured horse-drawn buggies and developed well-known, high-quality carriage lines that were shipped cross-country as well as to South America, Europe and South Africa.

An article from 1900 reports a record-breaking season for the carriage industry. “It is not evident from the present status of the industry that the passing of the horse is in any way imminent.”

But hold the horses. The market was changing.

Will C. Greene, a city bicycle dealer, decided to enter the automobile business and went to Syracuse to get a locomobile for himself. The Locomobile Company of America, a name coined from locomotive and automobile, produced steam cars beginning in 1899. Although finicky and unreliable, they were a curiosity and middle class Americans clamored for the latest technology.

A newspaper reporter accompanied Mr. Greene to Syracuse and recorded what may have been the first automobile trip between the two cities.

“We glided away from the company’s (Syracuse) office at 9:30 a.m. for the feat not previously accomplished by the horseless carriage,” the account began. By 3 p.m., the locomobile had pulled up in front of the Randall House in Pulaski, roughly halfway to Watertown.

They arrived home at 9:15 p.m., a quarter of an hour short of 12 hours.

Most city residents didn’t take the automobile seriously at first. It was nothing more than a curiosity. Horses attached to buggies and carriages still lined Public Square on Saturday nights.

But within 15 years, the carriage industry would be all but finished in the Garland City.

Business history is a monthly feature, often publiushed from the archives of the Watertown Daily Times. This month’s feature appeared in the June 2014 issue of NNY Business as ‘Bye-Bye Buggy.’ Visit watertowndailytimes.com to access digital archives since 1988, or stop by the Times, 260 Washington St., Watertown to research materials in our library that date back to the 1800s.