Wheel Man: Robert M. Keating, Pioneer of Bicycles, Motorcycles and Automobiles, written by R.K. Keating.
Previous Excerpt: Wheel Man, Part I: Keating is COMING!
Once the agreement was signed between Keating and the Middletown Board of Trade, things began to move quickly. Just before closing the deal with the City of Middletown, Keating purchased two parcels of land once used as a trotting track originally owned by Michael H. Griffin, a breeder of thoroughbreds. The Rogers and Hubbard Company now owned the property, consisting of about thirty-two acres in total, and sold it to Keating for $6,500, equal to about $175,000 in today’s dollars. The tract lay between the Berlin railway line on the south and the Little River on the west and north with the Connecticut River to the east. The property was flat and largely deforested, and, with the exception of a small brick building once used for manufacturing, largely vacant. It was perfect for the construction of a new factory. Getting men and machinery to the property would become the next challenge.
The City of Middletown quickly approved a proposal at the end of May to “open up new land” to accommodate the building of a road to allow access to the property. The proposal called for an extension of the City’s Main Street beginning at the railroad’s Air Line Bridge that spanned the Connecticut River and west of the school building owned by St. John’s Church, on “through Hall’s grove property across the meadows over the Little River beyond Johnson Street and thus on to Newfield Street.” By the first week of July, Keating negotiated a deal with the Consolidated Rail Company to construct a spur line “from the branch road to the site of the Keating factory.” Given that he will need the spur to bring in construction material and equipment, the rail company agreed to expedite construction and work began promptly around July 21. As per the terms of the deal, Keating only had to pay for that part of the new spur that was constructed directly on the factory property.
The Middletown Board of Trade received eleven responses to the request for bids sent out for the construction of the new Keating factory. To be considered under the procurement process, the bidders had to all provide a $1,000 good faith deposit by certified check, a bond of $20,000 and agree to have the factory building completed in four months time or face a penalty of $100.00 a day until the building is completed. At noon on June 3 the bids were officially opened but no decisions were made nor were the names of the bidders immediately released, although ex-Connecticut State Senator Horace R. Butler was rumored to have been among them. Two days later the names of the bidders were officially announced and they did include the former state senator along with, Charles D. Kinney of New Haven, L.W. Bishop Company of Providence, Rhode Island, R. Hurlburt of Waterbury, the H. Wales Lines Company of Meriden, the Watson Bliss & Company of Hartford, John W. Ferguson of Patterson, New Jersey, Tracy Brothers of Waterbury, A.W. Burritt of Bridgeport, the Roehr Company of Bueyrus, OH, and a familiar name, Casper Ranger of Holyoke, Massachusetts, the man who built the factory building Keating was now vacating.
Keating’s decision to build a state-of-the-art manufacturing plant from the ground up at this precarious time was conceived out of the same passion and spirit that propelled men like Pope, Spalding and Ford. For Keating, it was as much about building a new horseless carriage as it was continuing the manufacturing of Keating wheels. In many respects, the new factory was simply another invention -- like the patent for an “Adjustable Handle-Bar” he found the time to file on June 1st. The new plant was another innovative tool that would allow him to take the two-wheeled machine to the next level, something he had been contemplating since 1895. But bicycle manufacturing would have to pave the way. Unfortunately, conditions in the trade were changing rapidly. Moving from bicycles to horseless vehicles in a brand new factory located in a new state was going to take some time – and there was precious little time to lose.
On June 11, the Committee of Fifteen met in Elmer G. Derby’s office to give a final review of the responses to the construction bids. Not surprisingly, they later announced that the contract for building the new factory would go to Casper Ranger, reuniting the team that built the Holyoke factory. Keating officially broke ground on June 19, 1896, construction contracts were signed on July 13, and Keating was able to provide the company’s board of directors with an impressive progress update at their board meeting on August 5 in Portland, Maine.
In the meantime, the Consolidated Rail Company had been busy putting in the new spur connecting the Keating factory site with the Berlin rail line. The spur ran right through the center of the factory footprint so that a “huge derrick” could be used to swing the massive foundation stones to either side. When the foundation was finished, the track was removed to the outside of the building and used to raise the brick and timber for the framing. By August 1, the Johnson Brick Yard in Middletown was notified that it needed to begin sending bricks to the building site. They were also chosen to provide all the bricks for a new addition to Middletown’s “Insane Hospital” and the L.D. Brown and Sons new plant at South Farms – 1896 was also to be a good year for the Johnson Brick Yard.
To prepare the foundation, Ranger needed 50 tons of sand delivered to the site. The closest place to obtain the sand was on tiny Willow Island, located almost due east from the factory in the middle of the Connecticut River. A tributary, the Little River (variously called Matabezeke, Massabeset, Matowepesack and Sebethe River, but called the Mattabassett River today), ran just north of the factory and emptied into the Connecticut River on he west side of Willow Island. It could provide the perfect, that is, shortest, route from the source of the sand to the factory site. But it would not be easy. The Consolidated Rail Line spanned the Little River at its junction with the Connecticut River with an iron bridge. Running parallel to the rail line was Bridge Street, which spanned the river with a bridge of its own; a quaint covered bridge constructed right alongside the rail bridge. Ranger made arrangements with the Hartford and New York Transportation Company to have a scow, a flat-bottomed, blunt-nosed boat, to take the sand from Willow Island and carefully ferry it under the bridges to the construction site, saving significant time and money as a result. It was the largest vessel to ever go up the Little River.
The foundation for the new factory was completed and by September 11 the main walls of brick were “going up rapidly.” Incredibly, Ranger and Keating designed the two-story building with enough structural support (by 1896 standards anyway) to allow for the future addition of two additional stories if the need arose. Work had also started on the boiler room and chimney. Keating grew increasing confident that Ranger would have the new plant ready for operation even earlier than the deadline specified in the construction contract. So much so that in mid-October he notified the respective post offices in Holyoke and Middletown that the company’s mail should be delivered to the new factory building after the first of December.
Indeed, by the time of the first mail delivery, the 900 foot long factory was reported to be “substantially finished and ready for occupancy less than five months to date.” Even with early completion, however, with the impressive amount of new orders for ’96 model wheels, Keating determined that it would not be prudent to breakdown and ship individual department machinery from the Holyoke plant to the new factory over the winter as originally proposed. Instead, Keating decided that the Middletown factory would be used to assemble and ship the new bicycles, but all the pre-assembly work would continue to be done in Holyoke. Ranger, however, continued his masterwork and by the end of December all of the necessary construction was finished to allow the installation of the new plating room in the factory. Keating now anticipated that the ’97 Keating wheels could all be electroplated, enameled and assembled in the new factory in Middletown; and the Christmas holidays were still a week away.
On the last day of 1896, the new factory on “the old race course by the Berlin branch” suddenly and dramatically came to life. On that wintery New Years Eve, smoke billowed out of the factory’s 135-foot chimney for the first time. The Keating Wheel Company had officially arrived.