“W.S. Vanderwater’s automobile is here and is being put in readiness to astonish the natives,” reported the Kankakee Daily Gazette on May 24, 1901.
In a society still dominated by the horse as the primary means of transportation, Vanderwater’s steam-powered vehicle probably did “astonish the natives” as it cruised along city streets at speeds of up to 30 mph.
It was not, however, the first “horseless carriage” to appear in Kankakee.
In June 1898, Kankakeean Arthur Gilbert purchased a Stanhope electric car powered by a storage battery. It could travel a distance of 50 miles at a speed of 10 mph before its battery had to be recharged.
Gilbert found the electric car to be impractical, however, and operated it for only a short time.
By August 1901, Vanderwater’s automobile had competition: a Locomobile “steamer” owned by Kankakeean Elnathan C. Holmes.
The Gazette reported Holmes’ son, Frank, had gone to Chicago and had driven his father’s new vehicle back to Kankakee.
“Mr. Holmes left Chicago at ten o’clock in the morning and made no effort to break any records, but on the contrary, took it leisurely. Before leaving Chicago, he experimented in running the machine on the Chicago boulevards and easily acquired the knack of management and had no trouble on the entire trip.”
Holmes’ father, however, was not so fortunate when he and his wife attempted to drive to Bloomington a few months later. In those days, country roads were primitive dirt tracks, there were no road signs, and maps (when available) were crude. After taking a wrong turn, Holmes attempted to back up but slipped into a deep ditch alongside the road. The couple was thrown from the vehicle, but suffered only bruises; one of the wheels of the car was broken.
They were rescued by a passing peddler who used his team of horses to pull the damaged vehicle out of the ditch.
He took the Holmes couple (and their disabled car) to Pontiac, where they boarded a train to complete their journey to Bloomington.
The “steamer” apparently was repaired and returned to service, since Holmes was involved in another auto incident a few years later.
He had parked the car in front of Kankakee’s IC depot, turned off the power, and walked away.
A moment or two later, the car (now a “driverless carriage”) began moving again, heading down East Avenue.
Two men managed to get to the runaway vehicle and bring it to a stop by jamming it against the curb. The car was undamaged, and no one was hurt.
By May 1902, there were six automobiles on the streets of the city; seven years later, the number of motor vehicles had climbed to 62.
The pace quickened in the “teen” years: There were 1,853 cars in use in 1916, and 2,452 (an increase of 599) in 1917.
During the same two years, the number of horses in Kankakee County declined by 1,123 — from 13,906 to 12,783.
With more vehicles on the streets, speeding became a concern.
At a Kankakee City Council meeting in August 1906, a speed limit of 12 mph was proposed.
Mayor Henry Beckman (who was jokingly referred to as the “best low-speed operator in the city”) stated, “Twelve miles per hour is too fast for me; better make it six miles.”
No action was taken at that meeting; instead, the city adhered to the state-established limit of 15 mph in residential areas and 10 mph in business districts.
That standard was applied when the first speeding ticket was issued in the city in April 1907.
A Chicago man, George Griffith, was cited for traveling down Court Street at 40 mph — four times the speed limit. He was fined $25 and court costs.
Traffic on city streets became a mix of passenger cars, horses and buggies, trolleys, bicycles and delivery vehicles.
It is believed that the earliest commercial vehicles in use were a truck owned by the Radeke Brewing Company and a “delivery car” operated by Gelino’s Department Store.
Alex Gelino told a Kankakee newspaper reporter in 1904 that the delivery car was actually less expensive to operate than a horse-drawn wagon.
“The cost of running the machine ... will average $2.50 to $3 a week. ... The cost of keeping a horse is about $15 a month.”
A visible indication that the horse was being replaced by the automobile was the conversion of livery stables to auto-related businesses.
The long-established Peter Mellanson Stable on Station Street became G. A. Fortin Automobiles and Supplies in the early 1900s. One-half block to the east, on the northeast corner of Station Street and Schuyler Avenue, a portion of the large Fenouille Livery Stable was demolished and replaced by a gasoline station.
Possibly the most definite sign that the “age of the automobile” had arrived in Kankakee took place in 1914, when George Butz reported to the city police that his car had been stolen.