This is the story of the Frisbie Engine and Machine Company of Cincinnati, Ohio. It is based upon interviews with Mr. Reed Coen, current president of Frisbie Engine and Machine Co. 2635 Spring Grove Avenue, Cincinnati, Ohio, on December 9, 2003. The interviews were conducted by the author. Other information was gleaned from various sources cited in the text and at the end of the article. This story is not complete as there are yet unanswered basic questions. This is especially so regarding the origin of the company before the 1880s. I will be glad to hear from anyone who can add to this information.
Reed Coen says that Frisbie Engine and Machine Co. was founded by H. F. Frisbie, a Scotsman, at the corner of Walnut and Water Streets in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1858. The only place that I found his first name spelled out was his patent papers. His first name was Hamlin. I have not found any Cincinnati City Directories that show that Frisbie appeared there before their listing of him as an "engineer, at No.2 Public Landing, residence, Covington". Covington is in Kentucky, directly across the river from Cincinnati. In 1883-1884 H. F. Frisbie was listed as a "Machinist at 47 Water Street, residence, Covington." When the1884-1885 Cincinnati directory came out, they listed "Frisbie, H. F. Machinery Mfg, 47 Water, residence, Covington." A Covington City Directory of this date shows him living at 333 Garrard St.; in 1886-1887 at 63 East Front in Covington.
A listing in The City of Cincinnati and its Resources, published in 1891 says:
"Frisbie Engine and Machine Company, at Nos. 43 and 45 Water Street, Cincinnati, Ohio, near the Suspension Bridge, is extensively engaged in the manufacture of steamboat and stationary engines of the latest improvements. The business was established by Mr. H. F. Frisbie, who has a successful experience of thirty years' duration as an engine manufacturer. The growing volume of his trade led to the transfer of his plant and goodwill to an incorporated company as above and of which he is president. Mr. Frisbie is the inventor of the Balance Poppet valve, also the inventor of a steam side pipe and its connections, operating an engine with little or no friction,, causing the most powerful engines now in use, through which his company has been given an immense advantage over its competitors, especially in the way of steamboat and stationary engines. Among other improvements he adds his patent poppet valve to other engines of similar make and by their economy of fuel and quickness of action have made this class of Cincinnati work a favorite wherever it is known. The Frisbie engines are used on some of the largest and best boats on the Western rivers, also in large factories. Their works are in a flourishing condition and their business is constantly increasing.
The above information goes a long way toward explaining the difference between Coen's date for the origin of the company and the Cincinnati City Directory listings. The latter do not show any Frisbie, or Frisbie Engine and Machine Company in Cincinnati before the 1880s. Where Frisbie manufactured engines etc, before the 1880s, is unknown.
Frisbie Engine and Machine was a company that made steam engines for steamboats, stationary engines and did repair work on such engines. Per Reed Coen, the original building was located on, or adjacent to the west end of the public landing. This is hard up against the Cincinnati approach to the Suspension Bridge. The building had been built some years before as a hotel to service the steamboat trade and served in that capacity for some time. Reed says that his father always made the lease payment on the Frisbie building to "the railroad". When this ownership first took place is not known. The Waterways Journal notes in late 1894 that the Pennsylvania RR proposed to lease the top of the public landing (from the city of Cincinnati, for $600 per annum) and this may be the railroad involved. However, the B&O, the L&N and the CNO&TP were also active in this area, considered "the bottoms" of Cincinnati. Frisbie also maintained a storage facility at Second and Broadway.
On December 18, 1883, Hamlin F. Frisbie applied for a patent on a "balanced puppet [sic] valve" associated with steamboat engines. In the patent application, Frisbie represented himself as being "…a citizen of the United States, residing at Cincinnati…" This patent, #298,194, was issued on May 6, 1884. The patent featured the principle of differential areas to cause his unique design of poppet valves to self seal, and be quick of action. Both features are important to economy of steam consumption and power. In my view of the patent, that amounts to getting more steam into and out of the engine and doing it faster.
On February 7, 1884, Frisbie applied for letters patent on an "improved valve gear for puppet [emphasis mine] valve engines." This gear, like others before it, provided a means of altering the cut off of the engine, in order to use more of the expansive power of the steam…another economy in steam consumption, when used. A lot of steamboat engineers did not use early cut off, and still don't. This valve gear patent was issued on July 29, 1884 as patent #302,835.
In both patents, H. F. Frisbie used the word "puppet" as a name for his valve. A bronze builder's plaque currently displayed on Frisbie's office wall uses the word "popput" instead of "puppet" as the name for Frisbie's valve. According to Reed Coen this builder's plaque is: "off one of the Greene Line boats…don't know which one". It is unknown whether Frisbie and/or his attorney did not know how to spell poppet, or if he wanted a distinctive name for his unique form of poppet valve. I suspect the latter was the case. With the balanced design, the valve could be nudged into actuation , not unlike a puppet on a string. The odd spelling on the cast bronze plaque can, perhaps, be charged up to a pattern maker who got his instructions mixed up. Reed Coen says that the Corps of Engineers always specified Frisbie engines on boats constructed for them due to the balanced poppet valves that they featured.
Company tradition has it that Frisbie wanted to sell his business and go back to Scotland, Frisbie was listed as being in Cincinnati as late as 1907, then living at Flat 9, 2122 Auburn Ave, Cincinnati, so he sold out. Taking the cash from the sale with him, he boarded a steamer bound for Pittsburgh (from thence he was to go to New York by train and steamer back to Scotland). He got on the steamer at Cincinnati with the money from the sale, but never got off in Pittsburgh!
The Frisbie Engine and Machine Company was listed in 1917 as being managed by John T. Shields. This is, no doubt, the same "Jack" Shields that Fred Way mentions later in this story. The 1938 listing still showed Shields as manager. At some point, the business was acquired by the Dye family, who lived in Covington.
Company tradition also says that a fellow by the name of Heekin was able to obtain a large contract for canteens for soldiers from the US Government. This would likely have been for the Spanish American War in 1898. Heekin, per the Cincinnati City Directory, ran a coffee business very near the Frisbie plant. However, Heekin could not get a bank loan for the necessary tooling to fulfill the contract. Likely during a neighborly chat, he mentioned this to Hamlin Frisbie. Frisbie went to the safe and loaned him the money on a handshake. Four months later the loan was repaid and Heekin Can Co. was in business…it still is.
Jess Coen, father of the current president, Reed Coen, bought Frisbie Engine and Machine Company from the Dye family 1950. At that time the plant was still located at Walnut and Water Streets, where it had been since the 1880s. Frisbie remained a job machine shop and they were consultants to the steamboat trade for repair service. By that time, the need for new steamboat engines had been over and done for some years.
In the winter of 1958-59, Jesse Coen moved Frisbie Engine and Machine Company to 2635 Spring Grove Avenue where they have been located since. This is in the Camp Washington district of Cincinnati. The location is a couple of miles from the river, but still not out of reach of the flood waters of the Ohio River flood of 1937 due to backwater from Mill Creek. The business had employed about ten hands at the Walnut and Water Streets location and reached as many as sixteen hands at the present location. The project that displaced Frisbie from Walnut and Water was the late River Front Stadium. The building and any content was demolished to make room for that project. The building that they now occupy had been used to cut, shape and polish the stone used in the construction of Union Terminal built in the 1930s. The Union Terminal was located bout a mile south of Frisbie's new, and current, location..
Jess Coen's background was that of railroad master mechanic for Hatfield Coal Company at their river/rail terminal in West Virginia.. Their railroad, owned by Hatfield, had all of eight miles of track. Jess later was sent to Cincinnati to build silos and coal unloading facilities for their river terminal there. The Frisbie, Engine and Machine Company was located nearby and was extensively employed for machine shop work necessary to construction of this terminal. This is how Coen became acquainted with Frisbie Engine and Machine Co. Jess met his future wife in Cincinnati and she did not wish to go to West Virginia to live. So, after returning to West Virginia for two years, he left Hatfield and came to Cincinnati and bought Frisbie Engine and Machine Company.
Over a decade ago, when a question involving steam whistles arose, I was directed to Jess Coen by Fred Way, then editor of the S & D Reflector.. In a telephone conversation with Jess, after the whistle question was laid to rest, we discussed some of the jobs associated with working on steamboats. Since engines were too big and heavy to be easily removed and taken to a shop, I asked how a steamer's engine might be rebored in place. He indicated that after the heads and piston etc were removed, a typical boring rig with guides on both ends of the cylinder to be rebored would be installed. Said boring rig would then be powered by a small steam engine…that there was nearly always steam available on a steamboat. The actual cutting would be done by a single point tool in the same fashion as a boring head in a boring mill at a machine shop. Since steamers were sometimes "broke down" far from "home" when heavy maintenance was needed, local machine shops…that is the nearest ones to the location of the boat would be used. Of course they had to be shops capable of heavy work. His son Reed indicates that is still true today.
The present president, Reed Coen, was born in 1952, and grew up in the business. He attended UC Engineering College and Business School and went to work in the plant on weekends starting when he was 16. He has never worked anywhere else. The Frisbie Engine and Machine Company maintained an extensive machine shop business, catering to local hospitals, commercial laundries and many other businesses besides boat business. About 1989 it was decided to get out of the active machine shop business. Accordingly, the Coens saw to it that all their employees got other jobs and then sold off their machine shop equipment. Since that time, they have been consultants to the steamboat trade. Necessary machine shop work is done out of house. None of the old original engine patterns were moved to their present location when they moved there back in the winter of 1958-1959. As he grew up, Reed Coen worked in the Frisbie shop, and Jess handled the office chores. Later, an illness of Jess' caused Reed to be pulled into the office end of things. From that time on, they operated as partners.
During these later years under the Coens, Frisbie Engine and Machine Company did build four calliopes. One is on the steamer NATCHEZ [Way # 4113] in New Orleans and another on the m.v. P. A. Denney [calliope runs on air]. The JULIA BELLE SWAIN [Way # 3180] and the MINNE-HA-HA [Lake George Steamboat Company] each have one. In building the calliopes, Frisbie started with a U shaped manifold and mounted the whistles and solenoid valves thereon. They also mounted light bulbs behind the whistles featuring different color bulbs for the different notes. These were wired in series with the valves such that the exhaust steam from each whistle would take on an individual color. Doc Hawley is said to have told the story that a well educated guest on the NATCHEZ wanted to know how many boilers it took to produce so many different colors of steam! The calliope keyboard itself was built by Baldwin Piano Company once Frisbie identified the notes of the scale that were involved.
Frisbie was part of the design team for the AMERICAN QUEEN engine room and steam engine propulsion. It was originally supposed that the QUEEN would not powered by steam. However, Frisbie was told that since there was a heavy requirement for steam to run the laundry and other purposes, that they decided to go ahead with steam propulsion. Another factor in the decision was the heavy demand for steam propulsion among their customers. When their design for the AMERICAN QUEEN'S paddle wheel was submitted, it was rejected as being too heavy, so a lighter one was made up. This light wheel failed in service. It was then replaced by the original design.
Frisbie personnel have worked at various times with Mr. Dow, in New Orleans, on behalf of the 1975 steamer, NATCHEZ to solve cylinder lubrication and vibration problems.
Jess Coen passed away in 1999.
For recreational use, Reed Coen, maintained a sternwheel diesel powered boat made years ago by Dravo. It was originally designed, constructed and then used by Dravo. Reed used it as a pleasure boat at Cincinnati for 27 years. He kept it moored at the lower end of the Hatfield docks in the west end of Cincinnati. It was then known as the REED LEE. Reed carries Master pilot papers. In the year 2000, he sold the Lee to Nelson Jones, who later sold it to Bob Harrison. The Lee has been renamed SEWICKLEY. Bob owns what is left of the CHRIS GREEN [Way #1027] and has the CHRIS' bell on his SEWICKLEY.
Frisbie Engine and Machine made more than engines in the old days too. The June 23, 1894 issue of The Waterways Journal said: "The Frisbie shops are finishing up the four capstans for the NEW DANA [?] towboat. They are an improvement on anything in the way of power that has been built here. The engines are in pairs [steam powered] preventing any bumping or stopping on center which is the cause of snapping lines and other troubles…"
In a completely different venue, the Cincinnati Water Works used Frisbie stationary engines to pump water. In later years, as steam was largely replaced by electric motors, the Frisbie engines were maintained as standby units. This information came to Reed Coen from Water Works personnel some years ago. It is not known if these engines are still in place.
Fred Way, Jr., in his Packet Boat Directory and in his Towboat Directory, usually did not list the maker of any of his listed steamer's engines. As far as is known, there is no catalog of how many Frisbie engines were made and where they were placed. However in a search of Way's directories, and The Waterways Journal, these did show up:
Towboat E.R. ANDREWS [Way # TO659] was built in 1894 by Howard. She was renamed OSCAR F. BARRETT [Way # T1974] in 1912 and ran until 1933. This was a good long life for a steamer. I believe that the ANDREWS is the "NEW DANA" towboat mentioned as being the recipient of four steam capstans mentioned above. She was fitted with Engines by Frisbie: 20's x 8 foot stroke. The Waterways Journal quoted the Cincinnati Enquirer concerning the ANDREWS on April 20 1895: "The new ANDREWS, in command of the veteran Capt Joe Burnside, now has a battery of six double-riveted steel boilers, with a working pressure of 202 psi. The big engines are working splendidly, while the steam steering, fixtures, electric lights, capstans and all the conveniences and appliances with which she is furnished are giving perfect satisfaction. The ANDREWS is owned by the Campbell Creek Coal Company, the Messrs. Dana, [emphasis mine] and is strictly a Cincinnati boat and one that the river fraternity are justly proud of. H. F. Frisbie built the magnificent machinery that is doing far above what was contracted for."
The towboat TITAN [Way # T2443] was also built by Howard in 1930 and fitted with Frisbie compound engines, 14's, 28's x 8 foot stroke. She ran until 1953
Moving to packet boats, we see the following: BOSTONA, [Way # 0693] was built at Cincinnati in 1879 with Frisbie engines, 25's x 8 foot stroke. Dismantled in 1899, her machinery went to the INDIANA [Way # 2753]. The INDIANA was built by Howard in 1900, she was a low water boat (drawing 30" light) running instead of the CITY OF LOUISVILLE during periods of low water. The INDIANA burned at Cincinnati on May 1, 1916; rebuilt by Howard as the AMERICA in 1917. The AMERICA ran until September 1930 when she burned. Way reports that the steamer AMERICA (Way # 0241) "had engines of the broadhorn type that were modified by Jack Shields of Frisbie Engine and Machine Co." Way reminds us that this was the AMERICA that ran in the staged race at Louisville with the then fairly new steamer, CINCINNATI [Way #1033] in 1928…"a spectacular affair in which the AMERICA showed ability to win, but was prevented [from doing so] by management [they owned both boats], a hotly debated topic for many years after." These engines ran from 1879 to 1930…a full half century. The modification of the engines by Jack Shields of Frisbie, would have been to convert them to the patent Frisbie Puppet valve system and valve gear.
The ill fated JOHN K. SPEED [Way # 3077] built at Madison (1892-1901) had 22 1/2's x 8 foot stroke Frisbie engines. My late friend, Ellis Crawford, told me fifty years ago that the SPEED once lost her paddle wheel overboard. This is confirmed by Way who says she also…"sank three times, was afire twice, broke several [paddle wheel] shafts and once lost her paddle wheel overboard."
Now we come to the CITY OF LOUISVILLE [Way # 1095]. Built by Howard in 1894 with Frisbie engines 30's x 10 foot stroke for Commodore Laidley of the Louisville and Cincinnati Packet Line. The L & C Packet Line was also known as the US Mail Line. The June 10, 1893 issue of The Waterways Journal reported: "H. F. Frisbie …has secured the contract for the building of the new machinery for the new packet for the Mail Line, now under contract at Howard yards. This boat is to be one of the largest, finest and fastest boats ever built for the western waters…" The April 14 issue of The Waterways Journal had this to say: The brand new steamer CITY OF LOUISVILLE is lashing the waves between Louisville and Cincinnati and when Capt. Frisbie gets his machinery to work satisfactorily look out for some breaking of records."
Early on, the big steamer was put to the test. Four days later, on April 18, 1894 THE CITY OF LOUISVILLE ran Louisville to Cincinnati (upstream) in nine hours and forty two minutes. A clipping dated April 20, 1894, reprinted in the S&D Reflector says:
"…according to the statements of proprietors of elevators and coal harbors, she tore up the river behind her". The article went on to catalog the snapping of mooring cables including an inch-and-a-half wire cable, the tripping of spars and tearing out of timbers and blocks from the heads of barges. "The Cincinnati Gas Works came near losing its entire fleet of 28 barges."
Of the same incident, the Waterways Journal reported this the next week:
"The coal men are very indignant, and say that last night when the new boat came up the river on the fastest trip ever made by a Western steamer from Louisville, that the chains that held the coal barges to the bank were parted by the heavy swells of the boat and many barges came near being sunk. A lot of shanty boat people down near the mouth of Mill Creek, claim that their boats were nearly capsized by the waves of the new boat and they threaten to shoot the pilot should he persist in running at full speed past their landing."
Two years later, the CITY OF LOUISVILLE set a new downstream record of five hours and fifty-eight minutes. Both records still stand.
It might be of interest that the hand on the throttle of the CITY OF LOUISVILLE on these record runs, and on that of the AMERICA during the "race" noted above, was Henry. R. McClannahan. McClannahan was the grandfather of my friend Ellis Crawford. Ellis still had Henry's steam gages off the CITY OF LOUISVILLE, neatly lettered on the dial with the name "H. R. McClannahan". Ellis said that old time engineers had their own steam gauges and carried them from boat to boat….in which case they'd have been on the AMERICA during that race too.
While there is no direct reference to Frisbie engines having been actually installed in the ISLAND QUEEN [Way #2799], The Waterways Journal reported in their November 24, 1894 issue that : "Col. Lee H. Brooks, of the Coney Island Company, and Engine Builder H. F. Frisbie, last week went to Jerffersonville, and had a conference with Howard, the boat builder. The contract for the new Coney Island boat has not yet been awarded. It [the contract] lies between the Cincinnati Ways [Cincinnati Marine Railway] and Howard's at Jeffersonville. … Col. Brooks said he expected to have a fast, fine boat, next only to the fleet ‘greyhound' and that he would probably run her as an excursion boat to Louisville." We know from Way that she came off the ways at Cincinnati Marine Railway in 1896. The "fleet greyhound" mentioned in that 1894 article was, in my mind, THE CITY OF LOUISVILLE. Way does not mention anything about THE ISLAND QUEEN'S engines in his listing. The view from here is that the Cincinnati firm of Coney Island Company, contracted the boat in Cincinnati and that she came out with Frisbie (Cincinnati) engines.
The Waterways Journal in their August 12 1899 issue reported: The Frisbie Engine and Machine Company of Cincinnati has just shipped to Potlatch, Idaho, a complete set of Frisbie valves for the steamer Northern Pacific, which belongs to the Northern Pacific Railroad Company. This to a railroad company which presumably knew all about steam engines.
The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune was quoted in the June 17, 1899 issue of The Waterways Journal as follows: The Frisbie Engine and Machine Company has been given the contract to place the machinery on Capt. Ed Marmet's new pleasure boat OHIO. The engines are 7 by 30 and were purchased from McIlvain of this city. Work is progressing nicely on the hull of the boat at Marmet's Harbor, Columbia.
The engines for the pleasure steamer OHIO listed above would be of great interest today, Particularly so if all the ancillary equipment was with them. It is not stated that the engines were of Frisbie's make. At this distance I'll not hazard a guess. Although there were several boat of the same name, I find no listing in Way's Packet Boat Directory that matches this boat.
The number of extant Frisbie engines is small. Reed Coen reports that he has heard that there is a set owned by Dennis Trone, a set on display in the Smithsonian set up to turn over, either by air or an electric motor, and a set on the old Steamer WAKEROBIN, [aka USS NIGHTMARE] [Way # 5680] Frisbie engines 18's x 7 ½ foot stroke; condensing, high pressure] currently owned by BB Riverboats and used as a "haunted house" in season. The WAKEROBIN has been "cold" for many years.
Frisbie Engine and Machine Company was an innovative and viable force in the steamboat trade for many years, and that tradition continues to this day.
The writer wishes to thank Reed Coen of Frisbie Engine and Machine Company for his input. He also wishes to thank M'Lissa Kesterman of the Inland River Library and Rare Book Room of the Cincinnati and Hamilton County Library for assistance in finding information on Frisbie. This in addition to other employees of the library who were helpful in locating patent and directory information. He also welcomes and looks forward to additions and corrections to the above manuscript.