When it comes to who built America’s first automobile, the discussion becomes as overheated as a car climbing New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington. The answer comes down to the details.
What is the definition of an automobile, other than being self-propelled? Does it need to be gasoline powered, or would steam-power qualify it for first place? Does it need to have four wheels, or will three do?
What would you accept as proof of the earliest–a patent, a newspaper clipping, a photograph? If you search the internet, or review a book on early automobiles, you will see conflicting stories and a long list of people claiming to have been the very first. Instead of arguing these points, I’ll simply tell you George Alvin Long’s fascinating story.
George Alvin Long [not Alexander as some write. George Alexander Long was a different inventor] was born in Northfield, Massachusetts. This fact means he was not a New Hampshirite, even if a few of his ancestors were born here. He lived in Northfield MA too, working as a mechanic and inventor.
My regular readers are wondering now why I would write about him (since my focus is mainly on New Hampshire). The Historical Society of Cheshire County states that “a proper workshop was not available in that town, so Long came to New Hampshire where he worked on his project in the machine shop of Holman and Merriman in downtown Hinsdale.”
So, in a nutshell–the George A. Long automobiles that I will be describing were built at 63 Canal Street in Hinsdale, New Hampshire by a Massachusetts man. The State of New Hampshire recognized his contribution with an official Marker (#112) on Route 119 in Hinsdale, NH in 1976. The sign reads: “In the Holman and Merriman Machine Shop opposite this location, George A. Long of Northfield (Mass.) in 1875 built a steam-propelled four-wheel automobile with a fifth wheel for steering. This vehicle, fired by hardwood charcoal, had a bicycle-type frame, ordinary wooden wheels, solid rear axle and could maintain 30 miles per hour, roads permitting. This early inventor patented and built another automobile, propelled by gasoline, now in the Smithsonian Institution.”
The patent for the later 1882 “steam road vehicle” fueled by gasoline is available for review. The “Patent Pending Blog” also has a nice article about it with photographs of the actual vehicle, while Daniel Strohl of “Hemmings Daily” writes a nice story that includes a photograph of both outside and inside of the Holman and Merriman Machine Shop (recent photos). The National Museum of American History calls the vehicle that George A. Long built “the Long Steam Tricycle.”
Before I discuss George A. Long’s ancestry, I’d like to share a couple of newspaper reports about his life. You’d think that such an amazing inventor would have had cash to spare, but that is not often the case. By newspaper accounts, George ended up dying a pauper, but not before he had some fleeting moments of fame for his accomplishments.
On 28 January 1947 the Boston Herald, Boston MA, published a photograph with this caption: “George A. Long, 97, who made his own steam automobile 72 years ago, was elected honorary president for life of the Massachusetts Council of the Automobile Old Timers Association yesterday at the Copley Plaza. Left to right are Fredrick H. Elliott of New York, secretary of the association; Long, and George C. Diehl of New York, president.” [see photograph above].
Three years later, another local paper told an even sadder story. The Boston Traveler of March 1950 included a story, “Blind Inventor, 100 Today To Have First Birthday Cake, by Virginia Bohlen.” The story details how the then blind George A. Long could not remember having a birthday cake, and that for his 100th birthday he would get one with 100 candles. “The cake, baked in the shape of an auto, is being presented by the Aetna Insurance Co. of Hartford which learned of the man’s plight through a Traveler story. The icing will bear the greeting: ‘George A. Long Steam Automobile–Birthday, March 3, 100 Years Today.'”
The same news article goes on to paint a pathetic picture, that the “light of the candles will be the only brightness in the life today of this aged man, who built the first steam automobile, who at one time paid the city of Boston $400,000 annually in taxes, and who now is rounding out his last days in poverty. His room, where the curtains flutter in the city winds that blow right through the one-window, is only long enough for his bed, wide enough for a chair. There is no kitchen. “I’ve put a gas plate in the room I use for a sitting room,” said his 70-year-old daughter, Miss Georgena Long, pointing to the small room at the end of a concrete-floored corridor. “I stay right down here in bed day after day, night after night,” he said.Beside him is a cloth-covered flatiron which his daughter heats and then puts beside him in bed to try to keep him warm. “It’s hard on her. She has to be up day and night. She even has to wash my face. When you’re blind, you can’t do much.” Yesterday Miss Long appeared for her father at a poor debtor’s session of Roxbury District Court to answer to a charge that he failed to pay a lawyer who won him an $8000 settlement three years ago. Judge Samuel Eistenstadt continued the case until next Thursday after the daughter testified that both her father, who was too ill to come to court and she had spent the entire $8000 and were penniless.”
——PARTIAL GENEALOGY OF GEORGE ALVIN LONG—–
John Long (1690-1749) & Sarah Jane “Jennie” — of Ireland & Taunton MA
John Long, b — d –; m. int. 21 Sep 1745 at Upton MA to Mary Taft.
James Long, b c1730-32 Taunton MA, d 11 May 1789 Upton or Douglas MA; married 8 Feb 1757 at Douglas MA to Elizabeth Cook [?dau of Thomas & Sarah (Burt) Cook] She b. 4 June 1734 Douglas MA, died after 1774.
Children of James & Elizabeth (Cook) Long: [5 children]
1. +Joseph Long, b. 15 Sep 1758 in Upton MA
2. Anne Long, b. 30 November 1760 Upton MA
3-5 or 6. I have seen other children names listed as Elizabeth, Levi, David, and Eunice, though I cannot provide primary evidence of these.
Joseph Long, son of James & Elizabeth (Cook) Long b 15 September 1758 in Upton MA. He lived first in Douglas MA, then Winchester NH, and later moved to Swanzey NH and died about aged 40 in 1798/1799, per his wife’s pension papers. He m. 22 March 1777 in Douglas MA to Phebe Hill of Douglass MA, dau of Roger & Lydia (Peters) Hill. She b. 6 August [month per her own testimony] 1758 in Cumberland, Providence RI, d. 1857 [?in Douglas, Worcester Co, MA.or Swanzey NH.] Revolutionary War service, in 1841 Phebe Long is on pensioners list. In 1856 a land warrant letter was written on her behalf. [refers to Joseph Long, Sergt Major in the War of the Revolution. Land Warrant no 219 for 60 acres under Act of 1855.
Children of Joseph & Phebe (Hill) Long:
1. Levi Long, b b 1779, d –; m. 15 July 1807 Cynthia Pierce, daughter of John & Mary (Frary) Pierce. She b. 29 March 1782 Swanzey NH and d. –. They had 5 children.
2. William Long, b 12 Feb 1795
3. Lemuel Long. No more known
4. +John Long, b 1788 Winchester NH
5. Joseph Long, b. 1782, d. 3 April 1874; m. May 1821 Gillias A. Rice, daughter of Ezra Rice of Northboro MA. Children: Levi H., Lydia Ann, Fanny, Lemuel, Mary C., Joseph E. [see History of Swanzey for descendants] In 1850 US Census living in Swanzey NH
John Long, son of Joseph Long, b 1788 Winchester NH d 22 June 1875 Northfield MA; m. 12 June 1812 in Swanzey NH to Mehitable Hamblet, daughter of Josiah Hamblet. She b. 7 Feb 1787 Swanzey NH d 6 Jan 1843 in Northfield MA. [See History of Swanzey NH]
Children of John & Mehitable (Hamblet) Long:
1. David T. Long, b abt 1813 Swanzey NH; d. 26 March 1894 Northfield MA
2. +Alvin Atwood Long, b. March 1817 MA
3. Mary Long, b abt 1820 Swanzey NH; d. 11 Sep 1902 Worcester MA, a widow aged 82; she m. Dickinson Holton. She is buried at Turners Falls, MA.
Alvin Atwood Long, son of John & Mehitable (Hamblet) Long b 25 March 1817 MA, d 24 May 1904 Northfield MA; m. 27 Dec 1848 Brattleboro VT to Mary Fisher. She was b 11 October 1830 Winchester NH dau of George & Polly (Taft) Fisher, and d. 8 Feb 1916 Northfield MA, age 85. She is buried Central Cemetery in Northfield MA. They are buried in Central Cemetery, Northfield MA.
Children of Alvin A. & Mary (Fisher) Long:
1. +George Alvin Long, b. 3 March 1850 Northfield MA
2. Andrew Atwood Long, b. 24 September1855, d. 12 September 1858 Northfield MA
3. Rose Anna Long, b 3 Sep 1858 Northfield MA, d. 14 Sep 1919 Northfield, Franklin Co. MA; m. George E. Holton.
4. Alace/Alice A. Long, b 16 June 1864 Northfield MA, d. 15 July 1911 Northfield MA; married Charles C. Stearns; resided Northfield NH
5. Mary M. Long, b 6 April 1867 MA, d. 27 July 1943 Northfield MA; m. 18 Sep 1893 Northfield MA to John Ellis Nye, son of Marshall & Myra Jane (Ellis) Nye.
George Alvin Long, this story is about him, son of Alvin A. & Mary (Fisher) Long, b 3 March 1850 Northfield MA, d. 1951; m. 23 Nov 1870 in Fitchburg MA to Mary Ellen Farrar, dau of Joseph & Laura H. (Brown) Farrar, daughter of Joseph & Laura H. (Brown) Long. She was b. 28 July 1849 in Lowell, Middlesex Co. MA, and d. 1922 Lowell MA. On his marriage record his occupation is carpenter. He was also a mechanic, inventor of first American automobile. They are both buried in Center Cemetery, Northfield MA [his burial] [her burial]
Name: Georgina Long
State of Issue: Massachusetts
Date of Birth: Monday November 10, 1879
Date of Death: March 1970
Est. Age at Death: 90 years, 4 months
Children of George A. & Mary E. (Farrar) Long:
1. Walter G. Long, b.and d. 1871
2. William Alvin Long, b. 1874, d. 1961 [thanks to commenter, “Kat,” for this info]
3. Georgina Lauretta “Laura” Long, b 10 Nov 1879 Northfield MA; d. Mar 1970 – Brookline, Norfolk, Massachusetts. She is buried in Center Cemetery, Northfield MA.