James Rada Jr., Columnist
Nowadays, you can drive from Baltimore to Cumberland in 2 1/2 hours — less if you have a lead foot.
However, in 1901, automobile agent George Miller drove from Baltimore to Cumberland for the first time. “The car was a ‘one-lung’ Cadillac and it took him nearly two days to make the trip,” reported the Cumberland Evening Times in 1922. A one-lung automobile had only one cylinder.
Miller was the original agent in Baltimore for Waverley, Oldsmobile, Cadillac, Packard and Franklin automobiles.
“Everybody had it in for the auto those days. Speed limit was 6 miles per hour and the police took delight in arresting you. It took from 1 1/2 to two days on a trip from Baltimore to Cumberland, simply because you had to stop, blindfold and lead around the machine every horse you met,” Miller said in 1922.
The automobile industry was still in its infancy in 1901. This was still a year before the Ford Motor Co. opened, and the famous Model T didn’t roll off the assembly line until 1908.
An 1899 issue of the Hagerstown Mail gave some perspective on the auto industry in America. That year, it was estimated that there were 15 million horses worth $500 million in the U.S. However, a New York firm had ordered $8 million in automobiles over two years, and a million automobiles were expected to be built in 1900.
Martinsburg, W.Va., had only one car in it in 1899. It was sold at the end of the year, meriting a short article in the Hagerstown Mail that noted, “The automobile will travel the streets of Martinsburg no more.” Hagerstown also got its first automobile around the same time.
Miller noted that on his trip from Baltimore to Cumberland that the automobile was still such a novelty that some people had never seen one and others were so scared of it that they ran and hid.
While Miller handled many types of automobiles in Baltimore, there was one automobile actually made in Maryland at the time that he didn’t handle and that was the steamer runabouts made by the Maryland Automobile Manufacturing Co. in Luke. It was one of only four steam car manufacturers in the country at the time.
The Maryland Steamer was built from 1900-1901. It used a vertical two-cylinder steam engine and chain drive for power. The body was made of wood and it had large wooden-spoke wheels with solid rubber tires, according to Maryland Automobile History.
Only a few were built, but the Maryland Automobile Manufacturing also made variations on its design such as a racing car and delivery vans.
When Miller retired in 1922 and told the story of his journey from Baltimore to Cumberland, he was selling only Packards. His plan was to spend a lot of time driving around the country as an “auto bum.”
However, he made two predictions at the time. One was that trucks would overtake trains as the preferred way to transport freight on short trips within 10 years. Depending on how one defines a short trip, this was probably an accurate prediction.
His second prediction was that cheap, synthetic gas “will be on the market before long” distilled from plant and vegetable sources. While ethanol gas finally exists, I don’t think anyone would argue that it is cheap.