Whispering Pines: Steamed

Whispering PinesIn this month’s column, John Cross ’76 warms us with tales about the history of steam at Bowdoin.

In a winter that has brought Arctic vortices of cold air swirling through Brunswick, the College’s central steam-heat system and the facilities staff that operate and maintain it are in for some well-deserved recognition. The original coal-fired steam boiler was installed in the old Sargent Gymnasium in 1900 (the current heating plant building), and a network of steam pipes ran through underground tunnels to buildings on the campus. The tunnels measured a little more than five feet in height and about four feet in width, enough room to allow maintenance activities, but requiring great caution to avoid getting burned by touching the pipes during heating season. Stories abound about unauthorized visits to the steam tunnels by students, and I hope that alumni will share some of their own recollections in response to this column.

The College has kept up with significant advances in heating technology over the years. As the heating network has grown, new steam pipes are no longer encased in tunnels, but are simply buried, and the system is monitored closely for any leaks. Coal fuel was replaced by heating oil many years ago, and those oil-fired boilers have since been replaced by more efficient ones that generate heat by burning natural gas and waste cooking oil from the dining halls. A new turbine in a co-generation system converts excess steam into electricity for use by the College, as part of Bowdoin’s commitment to environmental sustainability.

The creative application of steam technology at the College dates back to Cyrus Hamlin of the Class of 1834. While he was still a student, Hamlin was inspired by seeing the steam engine on the ship Chancellor Livingston when it was docked in Portland. Drawing on his understanding of scientific principles and mechanics, he fabricated all the parts to build the first steam engine in Maine. The still-operable engine is on display on the first floor of Searles Science Building.

After his graduation Hamlin attended theological seminary, and then became a missionary in Turkey. To support an Armenian school that he founded in Istanbul, Hamlin set up a shop to produce sheet-metal stoves and stove-pipes, built a flour mill, and then established a bakery (which produced bread for the city and for British hospitals during the Crimean War). He even built a laundry for the hospitals, equipped with washing machines of his own design. Hamlin founded Robert College in Istanbul and served as its first president. Later he returned to America, taught at Bangor Theological Seminary, and became president of Middlebury College (1880-1885). Steam power, the power of human intellect to solve problems, and the power to educate and persuade others intersected brilliantly in the life of Cyrus Hamlin.

The brief Bowdoin career of Freelan Oscar Stanley of Kingfield, Maine, Hebron Academy, and the Bowdoin Class of 1877, opened another chapter in the history of steam power. Stanley was a member of the band at Bowdoin, and was therefore exempt from the military drill exercises that were required of other students at the time. Students who rebelled against “the Drill” in the spring of 1874 were sent home by President Joshua Chamberlain, with the admonition not to return until they agreed to abide by the rules of the College.  Although he was not in the group subjected to disciplinary measures, Stanley left the College out of a sense of loyalty to his classmates. He did not return to Bowdoin when the rebellion was over, but instead attended the Western Maine Normal School in Farmington, and then taught for several years in Maine and Pennsylvania. As a friend from the Class of 1875 would later write, “Unfortunately the military drill rebellion at Bowdoin was the cause of his not completing his college course, because he did not choose to eat crow, as I did, by submitting to the drill” [emphasis in the original letter].

Freelan (or “F.O.”) and his identical twin brother, Francis Edgar (“F.E.”), were visionaries and inventors. F.O. began making violins in the late 1870s, a passion that led him to travel to Cremona, Italy, and to Germany to buy the woods that he used to make concert-quality instruments. F.E.’s interest in painting led him to invent an airbrush atomizer and to explore photography. In 1883 F.E. invented a dry plate process for photography, and Stanley Dry Plates, produced in the brothers’ Lewiston factory, quickly became the industry standard. Their younger sister, Chansonetta Stanley Emmons, became one of the first women to establish a career as a photographer in the nineteenth century. The Stanley brothers sold the process for making the photographic plates to George Eastman of the Eastman Kodak Company in 1905.

In 1896 the Stanley twins built their first steam-powered automobile. They were approached by John B. Walker, the publisher of Cosmopolitan magazine, and asked how much they would take for the rights to the design. The Stanleys were surprised when their $250,000 offer was accepted. Walker and paving contractor Amzi Barber founded the Locomobile company, but only weeks later parted ways. A year after the original sale, the Stanley brothers bought back the rights to their design for $20,000 (a tidy profit), and they were retained as general managers at Barber’s Locomobile factory.In 1899 F.O. and his wife, Flora, made the first automobile trip (7.6 uphill miles) to the top of Mt. Washington in a Locomobile in two hours and ten minutes.

In 1902 F.O. and F.E. left Locomobile and established the Stanley Motor Carriage Works in Newton, Massachusetts. Their superior mechanical and engineering skills put them at the forefront of steam-powered automotive technology. The company’s motto was “POWER. Correctly generated. Correctly controlled. Correctly applied to the rear axle.” In 1906 a Stanley steam-powered race car set a world land speed record on the hard-packed sands of Ormond Beach, Florida, reaching a speed of 127 m.p.h. It was a record for a steam-powered vehicle that held until 2009. In 1907 the brothers built an even faster car that was going in excess of 150 m.p.h. when it hit an irregularity in the beach and became airborne. The car was destroyed, although the driver, Frank Marriott, survived.

For all the fears about explosions, there are no recorded instances of a Stanley-built boiler blowing up. However, there were still hazards in lighting a pilot light, handling kerosene, and working around a steam engine for the 30-45 minutes required to generate sufficient steam pressure to go for a drive.  “Stanley Steamers” are treasured by car collectors like comedian and former late-night television host Jay Leno, who talked with former Stanley Museum President Michael Fiori ’74 about the steam-powered cars in his collection.

F.E. Stanley was killed in 1918 in a rollover accident near Ipswich, Massachusetts, as he swerved his Stanley to avoid two farm wagons that were blocking the road. After his brother’s death, F.O. sold the company, which continued to make cars until 1924, when the electric starter and mass production of gasoline-powered cars finally ended the company’s run.

Back in 1903 Freelan Stanley was diagnosed with tuberculosis and was given a year to live. He went out west to Estes Park, Colorado, for his health, taking a Stanley Steamer with him. There he demonstrated the hill-climbing power of a steam-powered car over rough roads, fell in love with the Rocky Mountains, and built the magnificent Stanley Hotel (which inspired Stephen King to write The Shining). He was a central figure in the establishment of Rocky Mountain National Park in 1915. F.O. divided his time between Estes Park and Newton. For 29 years he was on the Board of Trustees at Hebron Academy (26 of those years as president). He designed and built the first indoor ice arena in America at Hebron in 1925, and also gave the school a dormitory, a gymnasium, and an infirmary. He died in 1940 in Newton, after living 37 very productive years on “borrowed time.”

In 1919, through the efforts of his classmates, Freelan Oscar Stanley received an honorary master of arts degree from Bowdoin, in recognition of his contributions to society and for his integrity in taking a principled stand during and after the Drill Rebellion of 1874. Despite a concern that he might harbor resentment against the College, F.O.’s gracious correspondence about the honorary degree shows that the steam generated in the spring of 1874 had dissipated long ago.


With best wishes,

John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations


  1. Barbara Kaster says:

    So glad the college gave Stanley the honorary degree and that he accepted it!

  2. John, another wonderful column. Thank you! I had no idea that the Stanley Steamer has a Bowdoin connection. There’s a drink named after the car which incorporates rum and Triple Sec. I wonder if the Stanleys invented that, too?

    You should write a book for Down East Books. BTW, we have a new book coming out this Fall about Maine men who were important figures in the Civil War. Many of them were Bowdoin grads.



  3. Bob Spencer says:

    Again, just great stuff. One need not go any further than you to keep the Bowdoin “fires” burning.
    Thank you for your effort on the Hall of Honor. Your historical perspective keeps me and Bo in the “game”
    Best wishes
    Bob Spencer’60

  4. Nancy Bellhouse May says:

    I agree with the book suggestion–a great idea.

    These stories (and the hundreds more that I suppose you have never set down on paper) should be collected for posterity.

  5. Dave Larsson says:


  6. John, always a great column and this one is no different! Thank you for bringing to light so much great Bowdoin history.

  7. Joseph Dane says:

    The only time these rose to consciousness was during the inevitable and nearly annual ice storm, when the streets and walkways became glass. You had to be very careful when skating through campus not to hit the spot where those pipes crossed a sidewalk, using up its energy to transform black ice into a bone-crushing braking area.

    JAD, 1969

  8. In 1957-1961, the open heating plant door beckoned many a night on returning from the Hubbard Hall library during the winter walk back to ATO on Federal Street just across the railroad tracks. Could the present plant, on the same site, now be too efficient to offer a warm-up?

  9. Dick Getchell says:

    Fascinating story, I loved it.

  10. michael hermans says:

    wonderful article. i lived in moore hall as a freshman in sept 1970 and that year was ‘introduced’ to the steam tunnels thru a portal in moore. i had some wonderful adventures until i was crawling i believe underneath campus near appleton when i came upon a ‘pile’ of rocks from a ceiling collapse. thus ended my tunnel trips and i successfully graduated with my class of 1974 intact.

  11. Len Johnosn says:

    Interesting article. At one point I thought some steam was used to heat the paths, entrance at Coles Tower (then Senior Center).
    Len Johnson’70

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