Jim Swoveland, America’s First Passenger – Interview 1962


This article appeared in a California paper, the Long Beach Press-Telegram, on Monday, August 20, 1962. The writer Earl Wilson was a widely syndicated columnist who although he lived his adult life in Manhattan, was born in Mercer County, Ohio.

From his 1987 obituary: Harvey Earl Wilson was born into a farm family in Rockford, Ohio, and got a $15-a-week job as sports editor of The Piqua Daily Call by writing stories free while in high school. He later earned a journalism degree from Ohio State University and worked for newspapers in Columbus and Akron and for the International News Service before moving to The Washington Post.

The by-line here is Van Wert, Ohio.

Can you read this version? I will type out the text after the second image of the article.


First U.S. Horseless Carriage Mishap by Earl Wilson

Van Wert, Ohio – Who’s this Henry Ford they talk about and where’s this town called Detroit?

I’ve just interviewed a great old boy named Jim Swoveland, 91, whose face should be put on a stamp. He was in America’s first horseless carriage accident – and he didn’t sue anybody.

Not only that, he even claimed he felt perfectly fine for the next 70 years.

But nice old Mr. Swoveland is inclined to make trouble other ways.

“Yesssireeeee,” He says, “the year was 1891…..”

The gas buggy (a three wheeler with fringe-on-top) was smoking and roaring down Main St. in a town down the road a piece called Ohio City, O.

The driver suddenly saw a tree stump in the street.

He swore a little “Carn-sarn!” probably – swerved, and crashed rattlety-bang into a hitching post.

He was doing a torrid 10 miles an hour, he scared the horses tied up nearby, and they started kicking. So did the village constable, who came panting after him.

The driver was John William Lambert, who also built the car. And Lambert’s 1891 car was a year ahead of the Duryea Brothers’ 1892 car generally credited with being first – so the Lambert car was really No. 1, says our hero.

I admit partiality to this claim – because when I was a boy living in Rockford, 15 miles away, I developed a tender feeling about Van Wert and Ohio City.

We used to come over here to Van Wert because it had a “picture show” that was open every night (except Sundays, of course).

*           *           *

It was necessary to pass through Ohio City. Everybody from Rockford said that was the thing to do with Ohio City – pass through it. You see, Ohio City was a small town (words here are not discernible). Whereas Rockford was a metropolis of 1,000.

Here in Van Wert they are happy to let Ohio City have the first car and the first accident…they just want to claim to be the peony capital and the only lace where ;eodercramz cheese is made. They laugh when folks boast about ” important leidercranz and find it’s from Van Wert.

Beside, there’s another oldster in the country James Yahn, 86, who also remembers that first year.

“I not only saw it, – I heard it and I smelled it!” he says.

“The roar and the smoke would cause a crowd to collect.” (A crowd in Ohio City would be 6 people.) “I remember well when I first saw it chugging down the road. I said to myself, “Where in Heaven’s name is the horse?”

The magazine “Antique Automobile” and its editor L. Scott Bailey, say the Lambert was the first. But the Smithsonian has been sort of stuffy and placed the claim “on file.”

The people in Van Wert say, “What’s the matter with those people in Washington, anyhow?” – and they’re not even talking about the Kennedy’s.



  • Read more about Jim Swoveland on this site:


  • Hear me admit to my ancestor’s involvement in America’s First Auto Mishap on Freakonomics podcast as part of a discussion on automobile safety.




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