Fall River, a city in Massachusetts, has a rich history of textile manufacturing and immigration. But did you know that it also played a role in American automobile history with the Altham, the first car ever built and owned in the city?
The Altham was a homemade vehicle created by John Altham, a Fall River resident who worked as a machinist at the American Printing Company. He built the car in his spare time, using parts from bicycles, carriages, and engines. He completed the car in 1896, making it one of the earliest automobiles in the country.
The Altham was a simple and crude contraption, but it was functional and innovative. It had a single-cylinder gasoline engine that could produce about three horsepower. It had a wooden body, a leather seat, and a steering lever. It could carry two passengers and reach a speed of about 15 miles per hour.
Altham was proud of his creation and often drove it around the city, attracting attention and curiosity from the locals. He also entered it in several races and exhibitions, where it competed with other early cars. He even patented his design and planned to start a company to produce more Althams.
The Fraud: A Stolen Car and a Broken Dream
However, Altham’s dream of becoming a car manufacturer was shattered by a fraud. In 1899, he sold his car to a man named George H. Pierce, who claimed to be a wealthy businessman from Buffalo, New York. Pierce offered Altham $5,000 for the car, which was a huge sum at the time. Altham agreed to the deal and delivered the car to Pierce in Buffalo.
But Pierce was not a legitimate buyer. He was a con artist who had no intention of paying Altham. He gave Altham a fake check and then disappeared with the car. Altham tried to track him down, but it was too late. Pierce had already sold the car to another man, who then sold it to a third party. The car changed hands several times, until it ended up in the hands of a man named William H. White, who lived in New York City.
White was a real businessman who owned a bicycle company. He was also interested in automobiles and wanted to start his own car company. He bought the Altham from a dealer, who told him that it was a rare and valuable car. White believed him and paid $10,000 for the car, twice as much as Pierce had offered Altham.
White then used the Altham as a model for his own car, which he called the White Steamer. He copied the design and the patent of the Altham, and started to produce and sell his cars. He also claimed that he was the original inventor of the car, and that Altham had stolen his idea.
The Justice: A Lawsuit and a Settlement
Altham was outraged when he learned that his car had been stolen and copied by White. He sued White for patent infringement and demanded compensation. The case went to court in 1901, and lasted for several months. Altham had to prove that he was the true inventor of the car, and that White had copied his design.
The evidence was in Altham’s favor. He had witnesses who had seen him build and drive the car in Fall River. He had documents that showed his patent and his sale to Pierce. He also had photographs of his car, which matched the description of the White Steamer.
White, on the other hand, had no proof that he had invented the car. He had only his word and the dealer’s testimony, which was not credible. He also had to admit that he had bought the car from someone else, and that he had not made any significant changes to it.
The judge ruled in favor of Altham, and ordered White to pay him $25,000 in damages. White appealed the decision, but the higher court upheld the verdict. Altham finally received his money and his justice in 1903, seven years after he had sold his car.
The Legacy: A Forgotten Car and a Historic City
The Altham was a remarkable car that represented the ingenuity and creativity of its inventor. It was also a historic car that played a role in the development of the American automobile industry. However, it was also a forgotten car that was overshadowed by the fraud and the lawsuit that followed it.
The Altham did not survive the ordeal. It was destroyed in a fire in 1904, while it was stored in a garage in New York City. No other Althams were ever made, and no replicas or models exist today. The only traces of the car are the photographs, the patent, and the court records.
Fall River, on the other hand, is still a thriving city that preserves its history and culture. It has museums, monuments, and landmarks that showcase its textile, immigration, and automobile heritage. It also has a plaque that honors John Altham and his car, which reads:
“John Altham, a Fall River machinist, built and drove the first automobile in this city in 1896. He sold it in 1899 for $5,000. It was later copied and sold as the White Steamer. Altham won a lawsuit for patent infringement in 1903.”
The plaque is located at the corner of South Main and Anawan Streets, where Altham’s workshop used to be. It is a reminder of the Altham, the first car of Fall River, and its fraudulent fate.