When Oliver P. Fritchle left Wilmington, Delaware the morning of December 7, 1908, he expected an easy 82 mile jaunt to Baltimore in his fully charged 100-Mile Fritchle Electric.
“O. P.” as his friends called him, was so confident in his car’s ability that he didn’t even bother to ask about charging stations that might be along the way.
Fritchle had already driven his Victoria coupe nearly 2,000 miles from Lincoln, Nebraska via New York City to demonstrate the durability and range of the electric vehicle that his company manufactured in Denver for wealthy customers which later included “The Unsinkable” Molly Brown. The only repairs the car had needed was fixing a flat tire in Illinois and a new set of camel’s hair brake linings after descending the Allegheny Mountains in Pennsylvania.
With sparse electrical distribution in rural areas, Fritchle quickly learned how to handle “range anxiety” such as on the evening he found himself on a muddy road pushing to reach the town of Avoca, Iowa.
Fearing that with the many strains of the day the battery might run down completely before reaching Avoca, I asked the farmer to accompany me with a horse and wagon, that he might tow me if necessary. To this request his wife, who overheard the conversation, replied: “No, sir, Pa, you don’t dare tow one of them automobiles. Didn’t you just read in the Des Moines paper ’bout one of them things explodin’ and killin’ a man?” I endeavored to convince “Ma,” who was standing in the dim light in an adjoining room, with a bed quilt over her shoulders, that my auto was an electric machine, and that there was no danger of it exploding. But my pleading was all in vain, so I told them to go to hell, and started off alone, reaching Avoca at 10 0 ‘clock Sunday night.
The roads leaving Wilmington were good for a short while. But then they turned into a muddy quagmire as the clay earth mixed with the pelting rain necessitating chains on the drive wheels to maintain traction. Even worse, a strong headwind kicked up, sapping the battery’s energy. Fritchle knew he better start looking for a source of electricity for an emergency charge.
It was Cecil County, Maryland. I stopped at a little cross-road country store and after inquiring of half a dozen different country-store, rainy-day loafers, I felt as if I had a scant knowledge of an electric water-power plant about five miles south. In trying to follow the road they laid out for me, I got completely lost and had to use my compass as a guide until coming across a high tension electric power line. As this current was alternating, it could be of no use to me till I reached the power house, where there was bound to be at least an exciter dynamo. After following this “juice line” for about ten miles, I finally arrived at the water power plant of the Gilpin Mills Electric Company.
The power plant was unattended when he arrived and Fritchle was finally able to reach the superintendent by phone to get permission to generate DC current by hooking up a dynamo to the water-wheel shaft. But then he learned, the charging cable he brought wasn’t long enough to reach from the power house to the closest he could get the car.
By then the superintendent had arrived and they decided to tap into the wire of the 100 volt line that provided the lighting circuit on the poles that also carried a dangerous 6,600 volt line.
The poles were very damp and it was somewhat dangerous to climb up to the lighting circuit to connect my charging cable. Mr. Edgar Renn, the day superintendent, being a very obliging electrician, donned rubber gloves and coat and climbed the pole to make the connections for me. We were very careful not to touch the auto or wiring when standing on the ground, for fear of receiving a shock from the high voltage current, which might leak across the wet insulators to the lower lighting circuit.
Fritchle spent the night in a hammock inside the power house with his shoulder resting on the iron water wheel casing. He reported sleeping soundly despite the cold, noise and vibration.
There is a quaint old country store at Bay View, about a mile from this Water Power Plant. A Mr. Reid is the proprietor, and Mr. Renn and I took supper and breakfast at his home. As this was the first electric automobile to travel in this section it was quite a curiosity to the inhabitants.
By morning, Fritchle’s batteries were charged and he continued to Baltimore where he spent a few days. He reached the Capitol in Washington, DC on December 10 after traveling 2,140 miles.
The waterfall between the dam near the old bridge and the power house is most picturesque. The scenery along the route is of sufficient interest to tempt me to go over this muddy, difficult course again from Wilmington to Baltimore.
The Gilpin’s Falls power plant is gone but the covered bridge, dam and concrete raceway are still there. You can visit the bridge and adjacent park and see where this historic electric car charging session took place. It’s only a few minutes from Exit 100 off I-95 and, fittingly, very close to the new fast charging stations at Chesapeake House Travel Plaza in North East, MD where you can charge your EV without having to climb a pole.