Duryea on diplay at Peoria Innovation Center

Sruthi Yejju

Michael Rucker has made resurrecting the story of the Duryea, the second automobile produced in the United States his life, of late.

Rucker, president of the Peoria Regional Museum Society, researched and found that Charles Duryea made a speech at Bradley Tech sometime in late 1890s. Charles, he said, predicted,

“Peoria is to run thick with automobiles one of these years, whether you believe it or not.”

No one believed him.

L. Scott Bailey, owner of Automobile Quarterly said in his magazine, “As long as history of the American automobile is written, the names of Charles E. Duryea and his brother J. Frank Duryea will demand respectful attention. Both share the credit for inventing America’s first successful, commercially-produced gasoline-powered automobile.”

Bailey is also the previous owner of the Peoria-built Duryea that is now at its new home at the Peoria NEXT Innovation Center, after 20years of being at the Peoria Public Library, which is now undergoing renovation. Its final home will be the new museum in Downtown Peoria after its construction.

Rucker and friends, along with the Peoria Regional Museum Society, bought this Duryea from Bailey after fund-raising $125,000, by forming a volunteer organization called Bring Home the Duryea in 1989.

The Duryea finally came home to Peoria in early 1991.

Charles was born on Dec. 15, 1861 at a farm near Canton, Ill. and Frank was born on Oct 8, 1869 in Washburn.

Acknowledged as the “Fathers of American Automobile Industry”, the Duryea brothers’ first interest was in bicycles. Charles and a Peoria native, Harry Rouse also formed a Rouse-Duryea Cycle Co. in Springfield, Mass. in 1890. Frank joined them too.

Charles also had many bicycle-related patents to his name. He went on to have many automobile-related patents too.

In 1892, while residing at Springfield, Charles and Frank started working on building their first automobile. Before their invention was completed, Charles moved back to Peoria and opened another bicycle manufacturing plant with Rouse in Peoria Heights.

Frank stayed back in Mass. and finished their first gasoline-powered, “horseless carriage” in 1893.

The Chicago Times Herald held the first automobile race in USA on a snowy Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 28, 1895. Frank drove a Duryea built in 1894 at an average speed of 7.5 mph for 55 miles.

There were six entrants who raced, including two imported Benz machines. The prize money was $2,000.

Despite breaking down a few times and needing repairs, Frank and his Duryea won the race.

In the same year, the Duryea brothers’ established the first American automobile-manufacturing firm, Duryea Motor Wagon Company. They began commercial production and sold about thirteen cars by the end of 1896.

According to Rucker, they designed their own engine and cast about eighteen engine blocks in Peoria Downtown, at the Brass Foundry Company.

Despite initial success, the venture eventually failed due to lack of funding. “Unwilling to share his credit in history with his brother, Charles took actions which finally created a rift between the two of them,” Rucker said.

In a bid to be independent of Charles, Frank went on to collaborate with J. Stevens Arms and Tool Company of Chicopee Falls, Mass. and built several thousands of “Stevens-Duryea” automobiles.

He later formed his own company. In his magazine, Bailey says, “Frank lived comfortably – and much envied by brother Charles – until his death in 1967.”

Charles moved to Reading, Penn. where he experienced some success. However, his ventures later failed there too and he moved to Saginaw, MI and later to Philadelphia. Penn.

He also worked as a consultant for Henry Ford.

In fact, Ford admitted that the first automobile he ever “laid eyes on was a Duryea.”

Charles died in 1938. “Despite his brilliance, he pretty much died penniless,” Rucker said. Charles failed while Frank was successful, Rucker added.

According to Rucker, shortly before he died Charles said of himself, “It doesn’t pay to pioneer.”

The Duryea now at display in Peoria, was sold by Charles to a plumber in Glenside, Penn., who used it for commercial purposes, according to Rucker. Bailey had it restored, he added.

Referring to the current home of the Duryea, Rucker said, “This Innovation Center is a very appropriate place for it as the Duryea was Peoria’s early innovations.”

“It is something Peoria can be proud of,” he said.

The Peoria Regional Museum Society is having a homecoming celebration for the Duryea at the Peoria NEXT Innovation Center from 5-7 p.m. Wednesday. The admission is free and there will be food and drinks.

Rucker has co-edited and republished a biography of Charles Duryea by former Peoria schoolteacher and historian, George W. May, with the author’s permission. The book “Charles E. Duryea Automaker” provides more information about the Duryea legacy. 

The Duryea Fact File

The Duryea cars were for a long time believed to be the first American gasoline-powered automobiles. However, it is not true. The Smithsonian recognizes the Lambert automobile of Ohio City, Ohio, which was successfully operated in 1891 to be the first. Although there have been many earlier contenders for this honor, none have verifiable proof.

It is, however, true that the Duryeas were the first in America to commercially mass-produce gasoline-powered automobiles.

The first Duryea car was not invented in Peoria, as many would like to believe. It was built in Springfield, Mass. in 1893. They road tested their pioneer vehicle in Springfield on September 21 of that year.

The Duryea car now in display at the Peoria NEXT Innovation Center is a 110-years old, Peoria-built, three-wheeled vehicle called a Motor Trap, built by Charles Duryea. It is one of the three prototypes that he built in his workshop in a barn behind his house on 1512 Barker Street in 1898-99.

Although Charles was the brain and designer behind the inventions, his brother Frank was the actual mechanic who built the automobiles with a more practical bend and made them run. The battle for supremacy between the brothers as to who among them invented the car rages between their families till date.

The fact however remains that Charles, despite all his efforts and intelligence, was a failure in all his endeavors and Frank, who was a good businessman too, went on to lead a successful, comfortably wealthy life.