Palmer Brothers Engines

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Several years ago, I received a call from the Oral History Project office telling me there was a man who wanted to give the library some information on the Palmer Brother's Engine Company in Cos Cob.  I'd heard that at one time there was a  marine engine shop in Cos Cob where the Palmer Point condominiums were built. I'd also seen photos of the operation they once had on Valley Road near Dumpling Pond and Palmer Hill Road. The man handed me some manila folders with papers, diagrams and photos. I placed these in our vertical files for future reference. Well, now is as good a time as any to document this enterprise.

Frank T. and Ralph L. Palmer opened a machine shop on the banks of the Mianus River along Valley Road in North Mianus in 1888.  The river provided water power. This was called the "Upper Works".  Initially, they manufactured electric telephone equipment.  Several years later (1894), when gasoline became available to power automobiles and boats, the Palmers abandoned the telephone business, and started building boat engines. 

Palmer Bros Upper519.jpg




             Frank Palmer handled the business end while Ray was the engineer.  The company was known for their quality engines.  Their engines were hand-made and lasted for years.  They were shipped all over the world.  Palmer produced a 2-cycle, 2-horsepower engine in six different sizes.  They required no spark plugs. Initially, the company employed 40 to 50 employees.  The business was so successful that it outgrew its old plant, and the company moved down to Palmer's Point in Cos Cob in 1905.

The Palmers had a 200-foot by 60-foot steel frame building erected on River Road located on what is now partially covered by the New England Turnpike (I-95).  This building contained the machine shop, an assembly line and an office.  Later a 150-foot by 60-foot building was built for the assembly and shipping operations.  Finally, a wooden building was constructed near River Road to house the business office. 

An old steam engine was used to operate the machinery.  It turned a long shaft which ran the entire length of the building.  Large belts were wrapped around the shaft, which in turn powered the machines.  A low-voltage generator also ran off the steam engine to provide lighting.  However, in the dark winter, employees had to use candles to provide enough light to work.  Although heat was provided by an exhaust fan from the old steam engine, it was still very cold in the building.  Workers had to wear multiple layers of clothing to stay warm. 

Around 1909, Palmer Brothers was one of the first marine engine companies to mix oil with gasoline as a means of lubricating the engine.  They began advocating this procedure throughout the industry, and before long most companies were also mixing in the oil.  It's still being done today.  This may be one of the reasons that Palmer's engines last so long!  It's interesting to note that some European automobiles (ex. Saab) imitate this practice.  (Oil is mixed in with the gasoline.)

Frank and Ray Palmer were very benevolent to their workers.  They bought 50 to 60 houses in Cos Cob near the shop and had them renovated for the workers.  A maintenance crew re-roofed the buildings, and they were rented to the workers for a very low rent.  This may account for the loyalty of the men, who stayed for life - well into their senior years.

Not all of the workers were model employees, however!  Some tried to cheat on their piece work by moving pieces manufactured in the morning to the count for the afternoon - in effect getting double credit for the same piece!  Some even threw damaged pieces out the window into Cos Cob Harbor.  Most workers were honest though, and worked very hard.  The accuracy they were able to maintain when manufacturing parts with the crude technology available was uncanny.  The engines lasted anywhere from 10 to 18 years - even in a saltwater environment.

The Palmers developed a new 4-cycle engine.  Eventually, they made 1-,2-,3-,4- and 6-cylinder engines.  The 50- to 60- pound engines powered small rowboats, tenders, fishing boats, and commercial fishing vessels.  When Julius Ulrich took over for Ray as engineer around 1934, he introduced bigger engines primarily for charter boats and big fishing vessels.  The company catered to all kinds of sailors - including bootleggers!  These men had the engine company add an oil container so that they could escape Coast Guard pursuers by ejecting black smoke!  The engines were also tuned up so they could outrun the law!  By this time, the company also started their own boat shop, and started manufcaturing 18- and 20- foot open launches. 



The marine engine field was not very big, but there was stiff competition from other small companies.  Fortunately, ingenuity and product quality kept the Palmer Brothers in the forefront.  Forward planning also helped.  The company had 3000 bins of surplus parts they could sell to customers.  Furthermore, they could manufacture a part if they ran out.  This was great customer service.

Unfortunately, the Great Hurricane of 1938 caused a great deal of damage to the Cos Cob operation.  Although the winds were only 70- to 80- miles per hour, the storm surge forced water into the narrow western end of Long Island Sound, creating a tide 8-feet above normal.  Water rose to 3-feet in the assembly building, damaging 150 engines and thousands of parts.  This meant the engines had to be taken apart and cleaned.  Surprisingly, the operation was up and running in a short period of time due to the diligence of the workforce.

Despite the hurricane, the year 1938 turned out to be very profitable for the Palmer Engine Company.  First of all, a British company - the Russell Newberry Engine Company - contracted Palmer to sell it's new diesel engine.  The engine could save up to 50% of fuel consumption as borne out by a survey.  Frank Palmer started traveling up the northeast coast as far as Nova Scotia to extoll the new engine's benefits.  When Frank Palmer passed away, his son-in-law, Carl Hatheway, took over the marketing of the diesel, and expanded sales routes along the east coast to Florida and west to Texas.  One group was impressed when Hatheway sent for  engine parts and assembled an engine on the spot!  Hatheway was diverted to Nassau in the Bahamas, where his boat sunk.  Once again, Hatheway impressed buyers when he raised the boat and rebuilt the engine.  A trip to Guantanamo was not so successful since the boat was seized and used as a boarding boat due to its speed and power! 

During World War II, Palmer was contracted to manufacture 200 engines for PT boats.  They started out making 1 or 2 per week, but soon speeded up to 1 or 2 per day.  They also made engines for lifeboats on the Liberty ships.   Known as the "Little Huskie" (yes, it was "ie" instead of "y" on the end), it was a powerful 20-horsepower engine that could be started by hand.  The Russians bought engines from Palmer that actually burned wood!  (Gases from the combustion ran the engines.)  The company ran 24-hours per day during this period.  The windows were blacked our for air raid purposes.  Inventories were monitored very closely by the government to ensure efficiency and prevent fraud.

After the war, Palmer returned to manufacturing commercial engines.  The company had been operating for almost 50 years, and the remaining principles were getting closer to retirement.  Hatheway decided to put the company up for sale.  A New Jersey Company - The Columbia Aircraft Products Company - decided to diversify and bought the company.  They installed their own management team.  Everything was revamped and machinery was electrified.  This in itself was good;  but they made a critical mistake with the inventory.  They failed to monitor the parts inventory, and they ended up ordering too many types of one part, and not enough of some others.  It wasn't long before they ran out of storage space and were in debt for $1.5 million. 

The company was sold at auction in 1952 to a group composed of previous personnel and Frank Hekma, a large investor.  The company reopened with a smaller staff of 25 men.  It took about 4-years to get up to speed.  Meanwhile, creditors were constantly looking for payment of past bills.  Something had to be done to secure a quick infusion of money.  In 1958, the International Harvester Company decided to enter the marine engine market.  They contracted Palmer to build engines for commercial fishing vessels and yachts.  This was at least a stop gap measure.  Hatheway saw an even bigger opportuniy.  He started lobbying the IH Board of Directors to buy Palmer outright.  The Board agreed in principle and all seemed rosey.  However, a new Board seized power and wasn't aware of the proposed deal.   The deal "fizzled out".

Although the marine engine market was small and very specialized, there were a few powerful competitors who entered the field.  Among them were the Packard Motor Company and the Chrysler Motor Division.  Not only did they have a vast manufacturing operation, but they also had a strong marketing network already in place.  Servicing was also no problem.  This meant the companies could sell the engines at lower cost than Palmer.  This was the final straw.  The Palmer Marine Engine Company was forced out of business and closed its doors in 1972.  Surplus engines were sold to a company in Detroit, and the land was sold to a developer who built the Palmer Point condominiums.  A Mr. Richard Day was able to salvage some of the equipment for a Heritage Engine Museum in Severna, Maryland. 

In 1974, the old Palmer plant was demolished to make room for new housing.  The familiar building complex on the shores of Cos Cob Harbor was no longer there.  Early commercial vessels were replaced by pleasure craft as marinas sprung up along the Mianus River.  An important part of Greenwich's marine history ceased to exist.  Yet, there is no doubting the importance of Palmer Brother's Marine Engine Company to the history of our town. 


The Palmer Engine Company;  Bolling, R; Oral History Project, 1990.



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This page contains a single entry by Carl White published on March 11, 2014 11:31 AM.

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