by Shannon Butler

In a world where we are slowly cutting our ties to fossil fuels and reaching out for new ways to propel us forward, imagine a time when the quickest way to get around involved steam. Sure, today steampunk may be all the rage when it comes to inspiring fashion, but back at the turn of the 20th century, steam was essential! Whether you were steaming down the river on a Day Liner ship, or steaming north on the New York Central line train, steam was the quickest way to get around. So it only made sense for early manufacturers of automobiles to put steam engines in their cars too. Right here in the City of Poughkeepsie, we had our very own manufacturer of steam-powered automobiles, but the company had been making machines and hardware for years. Today, the Lane Steam Automobile is practically lost to history.

Lane Brothers began as a hardware business in Millbrook as early as the 1840s. By 1882, they had moved their operations to Poughkeepsie, where they purchased land along the river at the lower landing. They quickly became known for their coffee roasting machines, door hangers and tracks, and of course, their automatic steam heaters. The two men in charge of the operation in Poughkeepsie were brothers John G. and William J. Lane, and their sons would continue on in the business as well. They made the news in 1891 when they placed electric lights within their factory at the foot of Prospect Street, which was run by their own on-site power plant.

By 1900, Lane Brothers ventured into the world of steam-powered automobiles with their new handcrafted engines. Mr. George Lane, the son of William J., decided to take a joy ride from Poughkeepsie, across the river by ferry, and west to Lake Mohonk. He told the papers that he did not do it to showcase the power of the automobile, but merely as a pleasure ride (yeah, right). It certainly made for good press. Nobody believed that a horseless carriage could make it up the hills that lead to Lake Mohonk, but George, along with a party of three ladies, managed to climb the steep grades and sharp turns without issue and arrived at the hotel with a crowd following behind, as the vehicle’s journey had “attracted as much attention as a circus parade.”

Between 1900 and 1911, the company continued to make steam automobiles and competed against other companies like White and Stanley Steamer for superiority in the steam market. Their popular Lane Steam Style 6 had a rate of 15 horsepower, weighed 2,200 pounds and cost $2,200 (roughly $66,000 today). At their height of production in 1909, the company made about 150 cars in that year alone. However, that wasn’t so impressive when you consider the fact that Henry Ford manufactured over 10,000 Model T’s that same year, before he had even perfected his assembly line style. The Lane Brothers company was certainly good about advertising in newspapers and displaying their vehicles at various shows and competitions, but cars like Ford’s model T were simply cheaper and easier to maintain.

There are only two Poughkeepsie-built Lane Steam cars still surviving today (that we know of, at least). The building where the cars were manufactured was sold for $30,000 in 1927 to the DeLaval Separator Company, which was at the time located just across the road on Prospect Street. Those buildings are also now lost to history.

Poughkeepsie Eagle News – 20 Jun 1882, 22 Jan 1891, 18 Jun 1900, 29 Dec 1927

01 – Advertisement from the Poughkeepsie Eagle News for the Steam heater
02 – Article from the Poughkeepsie Eagle News in 1901 praising the new Lane Automobile
03 – Advertisement from the Poughkeepsie Eagle News in 1901 for the new Lane Steam Car