Built Local: The Atlas Engine Works of Indianapolis

Indianapolis has a long history of industry and manufacturing, which still persists today. With the recent news of the former GM Stamping Plant property redevelopment stalling, I thought we could take a look at one of the early entrants in Indianapolis post-Civil War industrial scene.


In the 1870’s railroads had already made Indianapolis a hub of commerce and transit. In 1872, on a plot of land in the Martindale Brightwood neighborhood, located at the corner of present day 19th Street, and Andrew J. Brown Drive (formerly 9th and Martindale Streets), a large industrial complex sprang up and was dedicated to the construction of railcars.

1889 Atlas of Marion County, Indiana State Library

This operation was started by Fredrick Ruschaupt, a local businessman, along with several associates, and was appropriately named the Indianapolis Car Works. However, this endeavor failed, and the property was converted to the Atlas Works, and then the Atlas Engine Works in 1878.

Aerial view of the Atlas Engine Works, looking northeast from the intersection of Andrew J. Brown Ave. and 19th St. While undated, this image is likely from around 1900. Credit: Bass Photo Co Collection, Indiana Historical Society.

Atlas took up multiple blocks at its largest, and included a connection with the Belt Railway around Indianapolis on its northern border. The State Ditch, a drainage channel dug to assist in the draining of the swampland which originally existed northeast o the city, ran along the western boundary of the works. 


Below is an image of the 1898 Sanborn map showing the main Atlas facility. Note that this image is composed of two different pages of the Sanborn maps, which I stitched together. The top 1/5 of the image was on a separate page. The quality of the image is rather poor, but the originals can be viewed here and here. The second link shows the northern portion of the works, and also has a map of the Atlas gasoline turbine factory which was located at a separate facility to the northeast of the main works, and along present day 21st street (previously Pike St.) 


19th Street is at the bottom of the above image, Andrew J. Brown Ave. on the left side, and Sheldon Street on the right side. The northern boundary is bordered by the remains of the Belt Railway, and its old right of way. Present day, the only remaining structures from 1898 Sanborn appear to be the diagonal building at the top of the image (adjacent to the Belt Railway) and the small rectangular structure just below the diagonal building. Note the label at the bottom of the Sanborn map says "Lyons-Atlas Company," which as discussed below, was a successor company to the Atlas Engine works in 1912. I suspect this label was added to the Sanborn sometimes after 1912.  


Following the name change and reorganization of Atlas in 1878, Stoughton A. Fletcher, Jr., son of Calvin Fletcher, became president of company that same year,  a position he would hold until his death in 1895. (Note: The "Jr." was meant to differentiate him from his uncle of the same name.) By 1878 Stoughton had experience in numerous business endeavors, including serving as a railroad conductor and engineer for the Indianapolis Bellefontaine Railroad, a farmer, banker, and president of the Indianapolis Gas Company.


Indianapolis News January 31, 1881

In the interim between when the Car Works had shut down, and Stoughton's presidency, Atlas had been operating under a policy of miscellaneous manufacturing, responding to orders for equipment, but having no standardized product. In 1880, this policy ended, and Atlas focused on the construction of stationary and mobile steam engines and boilers, most often for industrial use in factories and mills, in addition to a variety of parts for the engines and other machines. The manufacturing was modified to a standardized practice, which was described in 1902 as "repetitive construction, with interchangeable parts; the manufacture of engine and boilers in lots instead of one at a time, and the carrying of large stocks of manufactured merchandise."


In the 1880's the company specialized in the Atlas-Corliss engine (a type of steam engine originally patented in Rhode Island in 1849), which was used for a variety of industrial uses with various horsepower being available. A PDF of the 1896 Atlas catalog can be accessed here. Atlas would later expand their product line into gasoline turbines and engines, automobile components, and tractor engines.


Atlas was an industrial powerhouse and was also a major employer within the city. Employment numbers vary based on the year, but at around the turn of the 19th century, Atlas employed almost two thousand employees, including laborers and skilled tradespeople.


The turn of the century and the first decade of the 20th century brought with it many problems, and opportunities, for Atlas. In 1903, the Indianapolis News reported that Atlas had laid off "several hundred" employees, although an exact number was not provided. Those released were mostly laborers, although many skilled positions were included. It was not known whether these employees would be rehired, although one officer at the plant claimed that many of the workers had been temporary hires, and that there were still between 1,200-1,300 employees at the works.


In February of 1907, Atlas was competing for a contract to manufacture new boilers for the Indianapolis power plant. It's submitted bid was $21,000, while a competing bid from local manufacturer Julius Kaminsky, was for $16,000. Kaminsky operated on the southside and seemed to be at constant odds with the city on a variety of issues, and had challenged the city in the past for not winning bids for various public projects, despite his bids being the lowest. Continuing with tradition, the city chose Atlas, and Kaminsky, sought and received an injunction from the Marion County Superior Court, which resulted in all the bids being thrown out.


Atlas had better luck in spring of 1907, when it was awarded a contract to supply new boilers for the United States Capitol Building. In reporting on the bid, the Indianapolis Star noted that the specifications for the bid called for the "most modern and handsome power plant in the world." However, issues arose with this contract, and in November of 1907, the Indianapolis News reported that the machinery had not been delivered, although the work was apparently partially completed. A proper site for the new powerplant had not been identified by officials in Washington, preventing the delivery by Atlas. Atlas asked that the federal government pay $21,000 (of a $100,000 contract) for work already completed.


The lack of payment on such a large contract seemed to be a sign of things to come. In August of 1908, a Chicago bank filed suit against Atlas in Marion County Superior Court, requesting that a receiver be appointed due to the alleged insolvency of the company. The bank claimed that Atlas was being run by certain creditors who were applying corporate funds towards their own debts, while excluding the Plaintiff bank and other creditors. The outcome of this suit wasn't located, although it seems that Atlas was unable to return to stable financial footing. Also in 1908, a bribery scandal embroiled Atlas when allegations arose that company representatives and officers had offered and made bribes to various Indianapolis officials and Marion County officials.


Indianapolis Star, October 16, 2012

A second receivership was sought in July 1912 by two creditors who alleged insolvency and were owed the relatively small amount of about $2,300. The News reported that Atlas had a large amount of product on hand, but Atlas had been hurt by delayed payments for parts manufactured an unnamed automobile manufacturer. On October 16, 1912, the Star reported that Atlas had been sold to James Lyons, a Chicago buisness man, and several associates. The company's named was changed to Lyons-Atlas Company and continued operations until 1917, when it was merged with other companies. Following the receivership, the gasoline turbine portion of Atlas was spun off and sold to a company in San Antonio, which took the name Krueger-Atlas, and continued manufacturing gasoline turbines.


Indianapolis Star, September 8, 2009

The defunct Atlas site was the home to many successor companies following the end of Lyons-Atlas in 1917, and the site continued to produce a variety of industrial goods, including auto parts, for nearly a century. The last tenant was Ertel Manufacturing Corp. which ceased operations in the early 2000's. Unfortunately, after 130 years of industrial use, the former Atlas site was heavily polluted and not unexpecadtly, was considered a brownfield. The EPA conducted emergency clean up, and in July 2007, the city of Indianapolis took over the property. In the end, 55,217 tons of contaminated soil was removed from the site.


Following the clean up and demolition of most of the structures, Major Tool & Machine, Inc. constructed new facilities on the site and continues to operate today.


The Atlas site as it appears today, looking to the northeast from the intersection of 19th and Dr. Andrew J. Brown Streets. This is the same view as the aerial view from the Bass Photo Collection discussed above.


References


Indianapolis Star, September 8, 2009, March 4, 1907, October 16, 1912


Indianapolis News, November 10, 1903, November 1907


The Journal Handbook of Indianapolis: An Outline of History, Max Hyman (1902)


Atlas Engine Works, Vintage Machinery, http://vintagemachinery.org/mfgindex/detail.aspx?id=2112&tab=0


Greater Indianapolis: The History, The Industries, The Institutions, and the People of a City of Homes, Jacob Piatt Dunn, 1910


IUPUI Sanborn Map and Baist Atlas Collection, http://www.ulib.iupui.edu/collections/sanbornjp2



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