Hugh Dolan recounts an Adventure with Edward Gray

This story comes from the Benson Ford Research Center’s Oral Histories and is shared unedited, except where one or two comments by me are inserted- and noted. My grandfather worked personally with Mr. Edward Gray from 1906 to 1919. He started working with him at Riverside Engine Company in Oil City, Pennsylvania. When Gray took the position of Henry Ford’s Chief Engineer at the new Highland Park Model T plant in 1909, my grandfather, Elmer Allen LeSuer, soon followed. And when Gray left Ford in August 1914, grandpa stayed with Gray as is shown on his 1917 draft registration, working on some project at the Conner Creek Detroit Edison Plant, for Mr. Gray. Here is Mr. Hugh Dolan’s story-

Mr. Edward Gray was superintendent of power and chief engineer for the Ford Company.  He was the exclusive designer of these gas engines.

Producer engines were gaining popularity rapidly in many parts of the country.  The Gary, Indiana Steel Works had a row of producer gas engines a block long.  I don’t remember how many there were, but they were not as large as the Ford engines which were supposed to be the largest in the world.

Shortly after I went to work for Mr. Gray he introduced me to Mr. Ford as a young man with producer gas experience.  I got a quick second look and a blunt inquiry, “Where are you from?” This introduction had its good and bad points.  Every time the old engine let out a squeak I was supposed to know the answer.

It should be said of Mr. Ford but he needed little explanation from any one on what was going on.  He may not have been very familiar with producer gas, but he was an engineer of the highest rank and I learned a lot from him.

Many times when I would mention the producer gas engine plant at Racine to one of my co-workers, I would get this question: “If it was such a highly efficient plant, how come it shut down?”

Maybe the question should be answered here too.  The Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha Traction and Lighting Company (MRK) furnished power for the city lighting all along the Lake Michigan Shore between these towns.  They had a heavy standby loss in the daytime.  To offset this loss and to straighten out their load curve, they offered attractive rates to furnish current to commercial plants.  The rates were so attractive that many plants discontinued producing their own power.

Now, let us say that all of the nine big gas engines are running with highly trained operators.

The Hooven, Owens, Rentschler Company of Hamilton, Ohio, now the Baldwin, Lima, Hamilton Company, had the contract to build these engines.  Mr. W.  B.  Mayo, one of the top ranking officers of the Ohio company, was a frequent visitor when the engines were being erected.  His company’s contract included the erection.  Mr. August Boetsch was erecting engineer.

For reasons unknown to me, Mr. Gray suddenly severed his connection with the Ford Company, and Mr. Mayo moved up from Hamilton and established an office in the Ford made office.

Since Mr. Gray’s association with Mr. Ford in a $1,000,000 power venture suddenly terminated, I have been asked if I would give some of my personal impressions of Mr. Gray that might throw some light on the reason for the parting of these two mechanically minded men.  The word impression implies opinion, which I would not venture to express.

The termination of their business interest was without incident visible to any except possibly those at the top.  I do not believe that temperament entered into the separation.  Mr. Gray had a wider reputation as an engineer and he enjoyed the acquaintance of prominent engineers in many parts of the country.  His wider acquaintance among the engineering fraternity was directly responsible for my hook up with him.

Being a native of Illinois and for several years a resident of Chicago, I had done some work with Mr. Homer Linn, consulting engineer in Chicago’s Monadnock Building.  When I left Racine, Wisconsin, her return to Chicago in may to call on my old friend Mr. Linn.

When he had heard that I finished with Mitchell Motor Car Company in Racine, he said, “You are just the man I’m looking for.  A friend of mine, Edward Gray of Detroit, was in here a few days ago and asked if I could find him an experienced gas producer engineer.”

In a few minutes Mr. Linn had Mr. Gray on the long distance phone, and I was in Detroit next morning (Saturday) with a job in my pocket.

I reported to Mr. Gray Saturday morning at the Ford Motor Company.  After a brief tour of the powerhouse he asked me if I would like to go for a little boat ride Sunday.  This was agreeable to me, and he directed me down to his boathouse on east Jefferson Avenue where I was to find his young son Eddie junior.  Following his instructions we took his little cabin cruiser “Mildred II,” named after his young daughter Mildred, out in the Detroit River and picked up some supplies, such as gasoline, water, oil, soft drinks and various food stuff that he had ordered from dock merchants.

During this river shopping tour, I was to check up on the performance of his two Buffalo Sterling motors.  From his conversation I surmised, and rightly so, that the performance of these two motors would be a dominant factor in his day’s pleasure Sunday.

Junior had informed me that “Only the commodore goes ahead of father.“ He was joining the Detroit Boat Club fleet on a voyage across Lake St. Clair and up through the Thames River to Chatham, Ontario, there to spend Saturday night as the guest of some club or association that escapes me now.

I had no desire to inject my presence into their festivities and remained on the boat as watchman, which pleased Mr. Gray.

I had acquired some experience with boats like Mr. Gray’s around Lincoln Park Lagoon in Chicago.  A personal friend of mine, a Swedish engineer and pilot, serviced a fleet of small luxury boats that plied the shores of Late Michigan.  I was not engaged in this boat service with my friend as a business; we had other connections.  I used to go out with him on test runs after he had made a major overhaul.  I always got the job of steering while he played with the engines.

We had some pretty rough water on many occasions.  My friend at one time sailed the high seas and  I learned a lot from him that played an important part later in this story.  Eddie Jr.  had tipped off his father that I had considerable experience with boats on Lake Michigan, and on the way over to Chatham the Senior Eddie decided to see how much I knew and extended to me the courtesy of the pilot’s stool and the wheel.  In fact, I handled the boat nearly all the way over while Mr. Gray enjoyed the company of his family and friends.  There were only seven of us all told on board: Mr. and Mrs. Gray, two guests, young Eddie, his sister Mildred and myself.

The party over, rather late Sunday evening, just before dark, we proceeded down the Thames River toward Lake St. Clair.  Far back from the mouth the river we could see that the lake was quite rough and a nice little storm was whooping it up.

I noticed that Mr. Gray, who was steering, had the youngsters throwing everything that was loose down the hatchway and tying down the deck furniture.  I didn’t know what he had in mind but I soon found out.  The boats that had gone ahead of us down the river were pulled up lining the shore.

The steamer “Ossifrage,” a 430 ton, 1,000 passenger excursion boat, had shut off her power and was laying way back up the river.  Mr. Gray turned his fog horn or siren loose, and with the aid of a megaphone he maneuvered the little “Mildred II” down the river to the lake.  The family and guests ducked below.  The hatchway door was watertight and went bang shut.  We were heading into the storm that had stopped every other boat in the fleet.  I would suppose that the steamer “Ossifrage” had nothing to fear from the storm but the comfort and enjoyment of her passengers who were all out on deck, but our little craft had no business out in that storm.

As we left the mouth of the river and our intentions became known, the other boats turned their sirens loose in unison.  The old “Ossifrage” gave us a salute with her steam whistle, and I wondered to myself whether they were applauding or saying goodbye.

As a single man with no family obligations, I was not without some spirit of adventure; but it didn’t border on suicide.  The steering was exposed just back of the forward cabin, and Gray and I had to duck with each wave that came over.  It was a warm August evening.  We were soaked but didn’t mind.

At the height of the storm Gray sent me below to see if everything was all right.  The electric fan had toppled off its stand and was chewing up the rug.  Dishes, tables and chairs were flying around.  The two ladies, laying flat on the floor, were using a little doorstep between two compartments for anchorage.  I hustled back on deck and advised Mr. Gray to go down.  He gave me the wheel but not without some hesitation.

The most unforgettable moment of that boat ride was when Mr. Gray, while going down the hatchway and closing it behind him, yelled back at me, “If she goes over, hang on and she’ll come back all right.”

The going was pretty heavy at times.  A couple of nosedives threw the twin propeller wheels out of the water permitting the motors to race, and there were brief spells when disaster stalked in every wave.

When the storm subsided, we were miles off our course; I didn’t know where we were at and Gray didn’t either for a while.  We finally landed at our Detroit dock.  The “Mildred II” had justified the faith of its owner.

It was quite late as we got off the boat, and no one was talking.  When parting for the night, Mrs. Gray said, “Goodnight sailor,” which I consider a compliment.  Mr. Gray’s goodnight was followed by the remark, “Glad you were along Dolan.  We’ll see you tomorrow.” (My note: Mrs. Gray, Nina Myer Gray, was divorced from Edward not long after this!)

I never put a foot of that boat again, because I was never invited.  I was puzzled for a time, and finally came to the conclusion that Mr. Gray wished to avoid the slightest suspicion that a Ford engineer had anything to do with his boat.  I was now Ford a employee.

This story throws no light on what caused the break between Mr. Ford and Mr. Gray, further than to indicate Mr. Gray was a great showman; and besides a great showman, you’d better not “kick his dog.” Maybe Mr. Ford did.

My position with the Racine, Wisconsin Company, mentioned previously, as producer gas engine your brought its rewards in two ways.  It got me the position on the Ford producer gas engines, and I went back to Racine and married one of their best looking girls.

1906 Oil City Elmer- Edward Gray-clip

1912 City of Detroit Elmer bds Edw Gray 56 Windemere-crop

Elmer WWI Draft Card-left

Gray lived on his yacht, the Mildred G. III while developing Grayhaven starting around 1916 and is listed there on the 1920 Census.

Gray lived on his yacht, the Mildred G. III while developing Grayhaven starting around 1916 and is listed there on the 1920 Census. This, I’m sure, was a larger yacht than the Mildred II listed in Mr. Dolan’s story. 

Apparently grandpa never worked for Ford, always for Edward Gray.