Past Times

New Bern horseless carriage inventor was an ingenious failure

In 1939, Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert S. Waters posed in Mr. Waters’ first horseless carriage to celebrate their 47th wedding anniversary.
In 1939, Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert S. Waters posed in Mr. Waters’ first horseless carriage to celebrate their 47th wedding anniversary. News & Observer File Photo

In 1928, New Bern’s Gertrude S. Carraway introduced N&O readers to Gilbert S. Waters, a man before his time.

New Bern might have been a Detroit of the South and Gilbert S. Waters, of this city, might have been a Henry Ford of North Carolina, had he succeeded 25 years ago in interesting local capitalists to give financial backing to his plan to manufacture horseless carriages.…

He was in the buggy business but was eager to convert his buggy factory into an automobile factory.…

Many bankers were interviewed in vain but they could not decide to risk capital in such a new and untested venture. “If I had known then what I know now, Mr. Waters and I might both have been among the rich men of the country now,” recently stated one of the businessmen who turned down Mr. Waters’ pleas for aid.…

And so, failing to get financial backing from any source, Mr. Waters had to stick to his old trade. Yet, he had made successful automobiles and believed implicitly in their future.

In 1899, he had visited Baltimore. There were then four horseless carriages in that city, he says. He came back home, much interested in the new machines. Although he had never seen a gasoline outfit, he began to experiment with gasoline cars rather than steam cars like those he had seen.

From an old buggy he fashioned a gasoline car. Many persons made jokes and funny comments about the man and his horseless carriage. They even said that he must be insane to think that he could make a buggy that would run without the aid of a horse.

Finally his work was finished and Mr. Waters decided to give his car a trial on city streets. A large crowd of skeptical persons gathered to see the fun. They were curious to see the peculiar inventor try out the unusual looking car. Practically all predicted hopeless failure.…

The old car did present a peculiar spectacle. It appeared more like a buggy than a modern automobile. It had no top. Its solid double-tired wheels were large, with tiny spokes. The crank was at the side, with the engine under the narrow, high seat. A bicycle chain and muffler were used. A steering rod was used instead of a steering wheel. A bicycle bell warned pedestrians of the approaching machine.

Mr. Waters worked for some time over the engine. Finally he cranked and with a loud noise the motor started successfully. Climbing up into the high buggy seat, he started the machine. To the amazed surprise of the spectators, the car moved forward. Many of them could scarcely believe their eyes. They ran along by the side of the slowly-moving car, to be sure that they were seeing correctly. When it stopped, they dared the inventor to try to start it again. To their surprise, it did start again successfully. The New Bern inventor had won his struggle.

Then came the revolutionary decision to give up his thriving buggy business. At that time there were only a few automobiles in the State. W. T. Hill had brought to New Bern some steam outfits that he ran for hire, charging 25 cents for the pleasure and novelty of riding. J. V. Blades had brought a car from Elizabeth City by boat to New Bern.

Mr. Waters could not get the money to back his enterprise.…

Staying in the buggy business from necessity, Mr. Waters continued to be interested in automobiles. Following his first effort in 1900, he made a second car in 1906. This had a buggy body and the motor under the seat.

“It was a great success for the time,” says Mr. Waters. “It weighed 540 pounds and went so fast I could hardly steer it at the height of speed. It went 25 miles an hour when I was in it by myself. If I took along another person, it would go only 20 miles an hour. If three people were in it, it would go only 15 miles an hour.”

In spite of his failure to be able to market his cars or to cash in on his inventions, Mr. Waters has always been an automobile fan. For about 20 years he has owned, as a souvenir, an old “speed car” that belonged to the race king, Barney Oldfield. In this old car, a Locomobile, Oldfield won a pioneer race in Chicago in 1899, according to Mr. Waters, attaining the “wonderful speed of eight miles an hour.…”

Mr. Waters has in his office a number of early automobile catalogues. Many of the cars sold for a dollar a pound, he says.…

At one period during the history of his buggy industry he made and sold an average of four buggies a day. Until recently he sold at least 100 buggies a year. But now there is no demand at all for buggies, he says. The N&O Sept. 23, 1928

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In the words of G. S. Waters

Mr. Waters shared his memories of the automobile’s early days.

There was much doubt everywhere about the success of automobiles. I have read that some States passed laws making chauffeurs drive to the side of the road and stop whenever they met horses.

Horses hated cars. And mules despised them. I know of one man who wouldn’t buy a car because, he said, his horse was afraid of them. In those days auto collisions were not so dangerous or so frequent as were runaways.

All old automobiles used to open in the rear. That was the only way to get up in them. Real stout persons sometimes had difficulty in squeezing through the narrow openings.

Tires didn’t last but 2,000 miles and they were forever going flat. We had to go slow, too. The roads were perfectly awful. The cars wouldn’t go fast. The roads wouldn’t let them go fast. Fifteen miles an hour was like flying to us. Why drivers used to get arrested for speeding when they went over fifteen miles an hour.

The way a driver had to get up a steep hill twenty years ago was to turn the car around and back upwards. Everybody had to carry along a little extra gasoline, because if the small tank ran dry, it was hard to find any more.

As for light, my, what a time I have had with the unsatisfactory oil and acetylene burners we used to have. People nowadays ought to appreciate their fine, easy-riding cars with all the modern equipment and inventions that make them so easy to run.

When I used to ask a person to go for a ride with me 25 years ago, I would often get funny answers. One of the most prominent and wealthy men in New Bern emphatically refused to risk his life with me. It was considered just as dangerous as airplane flying is now to many people.

Riders used to hold tightly on to the seats, when they did go. Most of them looked scared to death. One fat woman that weighed two or three hundred pounds screamed bloody murder from the time she got in the car until the time she landed safely back home. Neighbors thought she was being murdered.