Our fair city, whose international fame is flavored heavily with automotive lore, might claim one more dubious automobile first: Indy may have been the site of the first auto accident in the United States.
That depends mostly on what you consider to be a “automobile” and how you define “accident.”
It has to be asserted that our neighbor to the east, Ohio, claims the first accident involving a gasoline-powered auto. In 1891, engineer James Lambert was driving an early gasoline-powered buggy when he ran into a little trouble. The buggy hit a tree root sticking out of the ground. Lambert lost control and the vehicle swerved, crashing into a hitching post.
The Indianapolis contender for that title is Mr. Charles H. Black.
Black’s family moved to Indianapolis when he was a child. He received his education in the city’s public schools and went on to serve in the Union Army during the Civil War; as a side note, so did his younger brother, Edward E. Black, who, interestingly, became the Union’s youngest soldier at the age of only eight.
After working in a number of carriage factories, post-war, Charles Black set up his own smithy and then branched out into carriage making, gaining a positive reputation as a craftsman and innovator. According to the Indianapolis News, in 1891, he completed and tested his first steam-powered “chug buggy,” though he found that engine to be “too cumbersome to manage.” Later the same year, 1891, he imported a gasoline-powered engine from Germany and mounted it into a “horseless carriage” which he tried out successfully on the paved streets of the Circle (at night to avoid scaring horses and pedestrians), becoming the undisputed first person to drive an automobile in this city.
Remarkably, research fails to bring to light any news reports from the 1890s of Black’s first automobile, but eyewitness accounts exist to support the claim. This was substantiated by Thomas Taggart the former Indianapolis mayor, who was among those who got rides in Black’s car. In 1899, Black went on to organize an automobile manufacturing company. Indianapolis claims Black as the inventor of the first internal combustion engine automobile — a difficult-to-handle machine whose engine was started by kerosene torch. His wife categorically refused to ride in it.
The Incident in Question:
Just months prior to the aforementioned Ohio crunch up, Black was purportedly doing some daytime driving along Virginia Avenue when the auto startled some horses who bolted, breaking the straps of a wagon they were pulling. A policeman was summoned and Black was held until he had paid $1 in damages. Some accounts claim the vehicle also damaged several stores.
We now leave you to decide if this qualifies as a bona fide “first accident.” In the annals of automotive history, Black never personally tried to lay claim to any firsts–including that of the first accident–though others have done so on his behalf.
Black died in 1918 and is buried in Indianapolis at the Crown Hill Cemetery.