Thursday, June 18, 2020

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Dr. Higgins and the Cape's First Automobile

     Whether it’s a car or truck, SUV or van, hybrid or electric, automobiles come in all shapes and sizes. They are also common in the 21st century. Several generations of people have grown up taking rides in the family car. In fact in 2019 there were 284.5 million registered vehicles in the United States. Most people have a vehicle, some have two or more. Despite them being ingrained in society for well over a century there was a time when an automobile was novel and rare.

     In 1893 the first American-made gasoline powered automobile was created in Springfield, Massachusetts by Charles and Frank Duryea. It is highly likely that one of those vehicles was the first to ever traverse the roads of Cape Cod. However this will be the history of the first Cape Cod resident to own a gasoline powered automobile. His name was Dr. James Haydn Higgins and here is his story.

     The man who would become a highly decorated physician was born in Marshfield, Missouri on February 2, 1871. His parents were Delia and David Higgins. His father was a Civil War veteran and also a watchmaker. He attended the Boston College of Physicians and Surgeons which ultimately closed in 1948. While in school he interned at Rhode Island Hospital in Providence in 1891 and 1892. Higgins graduated with a degree as a Medical Doctor in 1894.

     Shortly after graduating the newly made Dr. Higgins came to Cape Cod. In 1894 he set up a general practice in medicine and surgery in Marstons Mills. His skill and geniality made him immensely popular as a doctor and a resident of the village. In September 1895 Higgins married Grace Babbitt in Boston. The couple would eventually have five children. Grace received the William Marston House at 71 Cotuit Road as a gift from her father Dr. Henry Babbitt in 1896. The home sat on 4 ½ acres of land abutting Mill Pond. Dr. Higgins eventually set up his office on the property.

The William Marston Homestead c.1910 (Marstons Mills Historical Society)

     Though the internal-combustion engine had been in development as far back as 1860 it was not until the 1890’s and specifically 1897 where it was put to use in a ‘horseless carriage.’ Twin brothers Freelan and Francis Stanley from Kingfield, Maine set out to make a vehicle which would become the ‘Stanley Steamer.’ The brothers had already become wealthy from developing the airbrush and a dry photograph plate coating. The latter invention would make George Eastman a fortune when he founded his Eastman Kodak company in 1892.

A 1912 Stanley Steam Car (Stephen Foskett)

     The Stanley Brothers sold 200 of their steam-powered autos in 1898-1899. It outsold all other makes of vehicles in that period despite the fact that it cost $3,950 ($122,000 in 2020). One of the buyers was Dr. James Haydn Higgins.

     The steam car came full of issues though. It could take up to half an hour to start, had a high water consumption, and worst of all could freeze-up in the winter. Though not the worst place to spend winter in America, Cape Cod provided enough cold for Higgins’ Stanley Steamer to freeze-up. At this time with two young children and a third on the way Dr. Higgins decided to take a look at the new rage, gasoline-powered automobiles.

     Higgins’ automobile arrived on Cape Cod on January 19, 1900. Arriving at the West Barnstable railroad station it was driven to his home. It caused an immediate buzz among the locals. The arrival of the vehicle was big news in the local newspapers. Dr. Higgins drove his automobile from Martsons Mills into Hyannis attracting excited onlookers along the way. Accompanied by Grace he stopped at the Barnstable Patriot offices and brought the editor out for a quick drive. He gave several friends the chance to ride along with him on that day as well.

Dr. Higgins along with his children, 2 nieces and a nephew in his automobile. (Martsons Mills Historical Society)

     Though still a relative novelty Higgins would be joined in the ranks of automobile owners on Cape Cod by people like Dr. Asa Pattee of Falmouth and William Herbolt of Provincetown. By the end of 1900 there were 8,000 registered vehicles in the United States. That number would cross 1 million in 1913. From there the automobile became a necessity more than a novelty in America.

     Dr. James Haydn Higgins would become far more well known on Cape Cod for his work in the medical field rather than being simply the first automobile owner. For twenty years he was a member of the Barnstable Board of Health and was the town and school physician for many years as well.

     On Christmas Day 1913 he and his family left Cape Cod for the island of St. Lucia on account of health problems. His stay would be brief and he was back in Marstons Mills in a year. During World War I Dr. Higgins served as the Food Administrator of Barnstable under Governor Calvin Coolidge. In total Dr. Higgins served as Marstons Mills local physician for 35 years. Higgins’ son Donald would become a doctor himself, serving as Cotuit’s town doctor from 1936-1969.

     After years of failing health Dr. James Haydn Higgins died at Cape Cod Hospital on April 7, 1942 at the age of 71. Fittingly Higgins had been a charter member of the hospital staff upon its opening in 1920. Despite his decades of service to the community as a doctor a hugely important part of his obituary was the fact that he had the first automobile on Cape Cod. However despite the good doctor’s connection with the introduction of the automobile to Cape Cod one must first off remember his contributions to the health and well-being of people young and old that once called this area home. That is his true lasting legacy.

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View my previous blog posts: In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Albert Crosby and Tawasentha
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