Written by John Peach
posted on February 13, 2012 07:33
Editor’s Note: Thanks to a number of email exchanges in December between Richard Spooner, Dallas, Texas, and Don O’Neil, Morristown, NY, we discovered that a car was manufactured in Ogdensburg. Richard generously shared his family photo album to TI Life and we are fortunate that John Peach took on the assignment and presents this unique history.
A search of the historical records of the Thousand Islands shows that only one automobile was ever designed and produced on the US shores of the St. Lawrence River. Walter E. Dunn, the Ogdensburg native known worldwide for his marine engines, took it upon himself to develop and manufacture automobiles at his factory on Main St in Ogdensburg. Walter’s worldwide sales and marketing contacts, developed over years of selling his internal combustion marine engines to the rapidly expanding boating industry, spurred him into believing he could also sell his automobiles through the same network in such far flung countries as China, Australia, and in Europe.
Walter E. Dunn was born in Ogdensburg in 1877 To Joseph B and the former Maggie May Erratt. Joseph Dunn, a cabinetmaker, built his own family home at 75 King St. as well as the pews for the local churches. Not much is known about Walter’s Ogdensburg education. Bruce Hall, in an article in “Old Marine Engines,” speculates that Walter may have gained his early machine building expertise at Nash Brothers Steam and Boiler Works. It has been determined that he began his career as a mechanic at a local bicycle manufacturer.
Several advertisements for marine engines manufactured by Walter E Dunn Mfg. Co. make reference to his factory at 10 River Street by 1900. Photographs show a complete motor works, with foundry, belt driven machines (as was the norm at the turn of that century), and a large labor force to perform the skilled and menial labor associated with turning out marine engines. An August 28, 1909 Ogdensburg News front page article announced that Walter has acquired recently filled swamp land from Edgar J. Burns on Main St to enlarge his manufacturing capability. According to the article, the company was currently shipping completed engines to Cuba, Norway, Sweden, California, and British Columbia.
Sales brochures and listings of the era illustrate the sophistication of marine engines produced by the Walter E. Dunn Co. By 1917, the official sales literature lists engines ranging in capacity from a 1 HP single cylinder to a 24 HP four cylinder model. Complete engines, including transmissions were being shipped to thirty six different countries on every continent except Antarctica! Prices ranged from $49.50 for the 1 HP model to $275 for the largest 24 HP engine. All prices were quoted FOB, and included “all parts to drive boat, in every case.” That included “shaft, flange couplings, stuffing box, shaft, instructions, propeller, spark plugs, mixing-valve, oil caps.”
Testimonials from boat owners from Syracuse and Michigan for the marine engines were effusive in their praise. They wrote of the reliability and durability, fuel efficiency, and ease of fitting the engines to their boats. The engines also featured removable inspection plates, making maintenance easy to perform in the field. The factory advertised prompt shipment of completed engine assemblies. The January 1918 edition of “The Rudder” talks of the fine castings and forgings of the engines, and the fact the engines would run on gasoline or kerosene. They also praise the excellent service on replacement parts, if needed, doing away with the need to replace the complete engine. An article in the Feb. 2005 edition of “Gas Engine Magazine,” by engine restorer Tom Stranko, has excellent color photos of his restored two cylinder Dunn Engine showing many of the qualities so highly prized by boat builders looking to install reliable engines in the craft they were assembling.
By 1912 or 1913, Walter had been bitten by the automobile bug and was starting to toy with the idea of combining his bicycle mechanic experience and expertise of building marine engines and transmissions in order to design and build automobiles at his facility in Ogdensburg. By 1914, work on the Dunn Cycle Car had begun in earnest. According to Bruce Hall, Dunn’s final design was powered by a 4 cylinder 30 HP air-cooled engine. (Early efforts to adapt a Dunn marine engine proved futile, due to the excessive weight of the heavy castings). Photos of Walter and his wife, Maggie, show them driving the two speed, bicycle wheel equipped roadster around Ogdensburg. A 1948 letter to the editor from H.F. Mallette discussing the car states that no one but Walter or his wife was ever seen driving it. The car was priced under its competition, selling for $295 for the 1916 model. Hall reports that orders were received “for his vehicle from India in February 1916 and additional records indicate the auto business was still active in 1922.” Richard Spooner, Walter’s grandson, recollects that 15-20 cars were built and shipped as far away as Australia and China.
Old advertisements and sales literature continue to list Dunn engines for sale through the mid-1920’s. Walter succumbed to stomach cancer in 1927, and it appears that his proud Ogdensburg based business closed soon after his death. By the time it shut down, it had shipped thousands of marine and industrial engines around the world, to military as well as marine industry applications. A major Ogdensburg area industrialist passed on, and with him went his ambition to become a major automobile manufacturer as well as marine machinery manufacturer and supplier.
AUTHOR’S NOTE Research on Walter E. Dunn turned up very little information. Any further information would be greatly appreciated. I would like to acknowledge prior publication of an article on the website “Old Marine Engines” on the Walter E. Dunn Mfg. Co with information submitted by Bruce Hall, and interview with Walter’s grandson Richard Spooner. The Jan 1918 edition of “The Rudder” had a comprehensive listing of The Walter E. Dunn Mfg. Co. Reference to The Walter E. Dunn Mfg. Co can be found in the 1909 “Blue Book of American Shipping.“ Any knowledge of Dunn’s superb marine engines being used in locally manufactured wooden boats from 1900 through 1927 would be of great interest.
Editor's Note: February 18, 2012. John Peach received an email from Jay Stewart, Manhatten Island. Jay had a note from a friend who wrote, James Bellamy wrote a book entitled: "Cars Made in Upstate New York. " He also sent an image of page 41, with this important information: "The upstate area was divided into seven regions with the St. Lawrence River/Adirondack region being sectioned or part #2. The description of this area showed only four automotive companies building cars for a rather large area encompassing eight counties of New York State. Alphabetically, is the Babcock built in Watertown and owned by ancestors of the current Johnson Publishing Company who prints our Livingston County News with their main plant in Batavia, NY. Next is the Dunn car which was a cycle car built and discussed by your friend in Thousand Island Life. Next is the Lozier built in Plattsburgh and considered to be one of the most well built and elegant cars of the early motoring class of America. A well restored one today is in the 500-700K range and seldom gets on the market, being grabbed up privately by big car people. And lastly, the Malterner steam car. One built and never marketed, and no known photos."
By John Peach
John Peach and his wife, Pat, live on Huckleberry Island near Ivy Lea from May through October. The rest of the year they reside in Princeton, NJ, although John continues to make frequent return visits to the Islands throughout the winter. John retired several years ago from his career in international business. His family has owned a place in the Thousand Islands for over 50 years. John is a past president of Save The River, and is still active on the Save The River board.