Historical Markers
Sephaniah Reese Historical Marker
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Sephaniah Reese

Poconos / Endless Mountains


Marker Location:
230 W. Main St., Plymouth

Dedication Date:
May 31, 1992

Behind the Marker

"I was the pioneer bicycle manufacturer here, and I will be the first in the automobile business, too. It is not new for me, as I built a three-wheel auto in 1887-8, which was a success in every way but the public said I was a crank. I told the critics that horseless wagons and carriages would throng our streets before the twentieth century. I expect to be in the field with the rest of them."

 -Sephaniah Reese, October 1899, from a letter to the editor of Cycle and Automobile Trade Journal

Duryea automobile
The pathbreaking four-horsepower Duryea automobile, which completed its first...
Sephaniah Reese's neighbors may have considered him a crank. But seventy-five years later, some of those very same people gave historians the information they needed to identify Reese as the inventor of one of the nation's earliest "horseless carriages." Reese, a machinist by trade, by 1888 had developed a thriving high-end bicycle business in Plymouth, Pa. There, at his S. Reese Machine and Tool Works, Sephaniah stayed at his shop late into the night, using the town's gas lines to power his brazing torch. Tinkering by torchlight, Reese built a three-wheeled, gasoline-powered horseless carriage.

Weighing in at 240 pounds the elegant, finely-crafted, open-air "Reese Three-Wheeler" had machined brass fittings, cabinet-grade oak and cedar details, and diamond-tufted leather upholstery. Reese mounted a one-cylinder markeraluminum engine on the rear axle of a tubular steel frame, and added elliptical leaf springs to make the ride more comfortable. Much of his "Three Wheeler" Reese made from recycled materials. Steering he accomplished by a tiller. For tires, he used old fire hoses filled with sand and corked with wooden plugs, which he mounted on three wire-spoked wheels. These he fixed onto front forks reportedly made from old Civil War bayonet scabbards originally manufactured by the Ames Sword Company.

Although historians dispute the date of his prototype, one Reese three-wheeler still exists-the one that stood showcased in Reese's shop window at 230 Main St. for seventy years-so many people were familiar with the details of its construction. Although Reese claimed to have annoyed his neighbors with his first vehicle in 1887 or 1888, some of them swore affidavits in the 1950s that they saw him trying out prototypes along "the Back Street" (Shawnee Avenue) as early as 1884. These dates would make the "1884-87 Reese Special" the first gas-powered horseless carriage in the United States or Europe, usurping the 1893 record previously held by the Duryea brothers.

Color photograph of the automobile
A 1907 Chadwick touring car, manufactured in Pottstown, PA.
Reese predicted "horseless wagons and carriages would throng our streets before the twentieth century," and he was right. "I expect to be in the throng with the rest of them," he also said. This, however, was not to be. Reese, according to his grandson, made between three and five vehicles in his lifetime, for horseless carriages were only a hobby. Reese's machine shop produced machine parts for the local rail companies, mills and coal mines. He also handcrafted high-end racing bicycles, the "Reese" and the "Shawnee," which he sold in Europe as well as the United States, and which produced the money he used for his horseless-carriage experiments.

Reese's horseless carriage enterprise was typical of the early auto industry, in which Pennsylvanians played an important role. Tradesmen learned their craft by apprenticing in the machine shops of heavy industries prevalent in their areas. Reese, who learned his trade from his father, also a machinist, had built a working steam engine by the time he was twelve. Apprenticed with the Delaware and Lackawanna Railroad at the age of sixteen, he started his own shop a few years later.

Lacking the capital and market to put his three-wheeler into production, Reese's experiments became a footnote in automotive history. In 1896, the marker Duryea brothers of Springfield, Massachusetts, would launch the first company to manufacture and sell gasoline-powered vehicles.

In the decades that followed more than 100 Pennsylvania companies manufactured automobiles, including the Biddle Motor Car Company in Philadelphia, the AutoCar Company in Ardmore, and Chadwick in Pottstown, which manufactured the high speed "Pottstown Speeder," and American Bantam Car Company of Butler, designer of the marker Jeep.Pennsylvania car companies became known for their rigorous specifications and road testing, but were unable to survive the concentration of capital, expertise, and new mass production technologies of the American automobile industry in Detroit.

Sephaniah Reese continued to live and work in Plymouth until his death in 1958. In later years, he produced mechanical toys and automobile parts, and sold Abbott-Detroit, Lambert and Cadillac automobiles.
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