The Clarke Gas Engine Company

Clarke Gas Engine

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In 1898 brothers Clarence Clear Clarke and John Norris Clarke founded the Clarke Gas Engine Company in Evansville, Ind. Their father, John Norris Clarke Sr., was an Irish blacksmith who owned and worked in several blacksmith shops in Cincinnati, Ohio, and the brothers had experience gained working in railroad repair shops. With this background it was natural that they became machinists and wood workers. The building they chose to house their new business had previously been a grocery store. Located at the confluence of Canal St., Morton St., and Walnut St., their new business had the somewhat clumsy address of 1503-1505-1507 Canal St.

Some time around 1905 they built a foundry of poured concrete behind the existing wooden shop buildings. They equipped the foundry with a cupola approximately 48-inch in diameter for melting iron, and they also had four small, bronze furnaces. Engine blocks, heads, flywheels and crankshafts were cast of iron, while an almost infinite variety of marine propellers were cast of brass and bronze for use by the Clarkes in their own finished products and for sale to other boat builders. The brothers were evidently fine mechanics, with John concentrating on pattern making and boat building, while Clarence was the firm's machinist.

The shop itself was a two-story wood-framed building. Castings from the foundry were machined in the downstairs machine shop, which occupied the front half of the first floor. The Clarkes outfitted the machine shop with a wide variety of lathes, drill presses and other tools for the making of engines, all powered by overhead line shafts and flat leather belts. A large single-cylinder, hopper-cooled, hit-and-miss Clarke gas engine with double 36-inch flywheels, fueled by city gas, powered the entire shop.

The photo shows a later-style Type A single-cylinder, overhead valve Clarke marine engine, while the photo on the facing page is an early twin-cylinder, flathead Clarke with spoked flywheel instead of the solid flywheel common to the later engines. The photos shown are believed to have been taken sometime in the early 1920s. It is presumed that overhead valve and flathead engines were, at least for a short while, produced simultaneously.

This was a well-equipped shop, one of the lathes large enough to machine a side-wheeler steamboat crankshaft. John Clarke's son, Beresford, remembers as a small boy getting to see how far a continuous chip from a steam boat crankshaft could be stretched, and was delighted when he got the end outside the building and into the street before it broke. He remembers the lathe operator walking back and forth the length of the lathe on wooden duckboards as he applied oil from a large oil can to the lathe tool.

Marine engines were by far the most common products the Clarkes manufactured. Their engines were all of four-cycle design, as the brothers believed that large displacement, low compression and relatively low-speed engines were more reliable than the two-cycle marine engines that were common for the day. The Clarkes did build an experimental two-cycle, unique in featuring forward and reverse ports that could be selected by the position of the timing lever. The engine was a marvel for a few days, going from forward to reverse without stopping, and it was considered for use in a boat. One too many reverses, however, caused it to shed many of its parts. It was deemed impractical and the engine was abandoned.

Early engines were of an L-head design with the valves in the block, while later engines had the valves in the head. The intake valve was atmospheric, operating from the negative pressure created during the intake stroke, and the exhaust valve was pushrod operated from a cam on the crankshaft. Single-cylinder, hopper-cooled engines were manufactured with hit-and-miss governors, and they all had 'Clarke Gas Engine Co.' cast in the flywheels. Unfortunately, none of the hopper-cooled engines are known to exist.

One-, two-, four- and eight-cylinder engines were manufactured, and their manufacture followed what would now be called a modular approach. There were three basic cylinder displacements, the smallest at 2-1/2 HP per cylinder, followed by 4 HP per cylinder and the largest at 6 HP per cylinder.

Adding additional cylinders to an extended base crankcase casting created multiple-cylinder engines. Very early engines used a hot sleeve ignition, while others used a coil with a contact on the exhaust valve cam. Larger engines used a Bosch magneto, while Schebler carburetors were the norm. Magnetos, spark plugs and carburetors were among the few parts the Clarkes did not manufacture themselves.

A head-on photo of a later-style, overhead valve Type A Clarke marine engine. These were available in 2-1/2 HP, 4 HP and 6 HP versions.

On the second floor over the machine shop was the mold loft, where complete boat designs were laid out on the floor - full size and then cut to specification on band saws, table saws, routers and other woodworking tools. Oak frames and cypress planking were common construction materials. The boat frames were assembled in the mold loft and moved by overhead traveling hoists out through large doors into the back half of the shop. They were then lowered to the ground floor and had their engines installed, were painted and finished.

After completion, boats and engines were loaded onto horse-drawn wagons and hauled to the Ohio River some 15 blocks away for shipment to customers. Many of the firm's two-cylinder engines were sold for use in ferryboats operating up and down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, while their bronze propellers, categorized as to pitch, diameter, and number of blades, were sold through their catalog.

The largest boat the Clarkes built was the 'Henry Mann,' a 53-foot pleasure craft. A number of 15-foot to 17-foot fishing boats using the Clarkes small four-cylinder engine were built, many of which were taken to Michigan and rented out as fishing boats. These boats used a rope steering system in which a rope, attached to the rudder lever at the rear, ran completely around the inside of the gunnels of the boat. The boat could be steered from any position in the boat and the engine controls were mounted on the mid-ships engine box.

Clarence Clear Clarke suffered severely from hay fever and spent every summer on Marquette Island near Cedarville, Mich. Each spring he would put one of the fishing boats on top of his large Studebaker touring car and drive to Cedarville, then on to Half Moon Bay near his cabin on Marquette Island. Some dozen or so boats thus became part of his rental fleet, and in waters teeming with yellow perch, Muskies and Northerns they provided many hours of fun for a generation of fishermen. At least one of these engines has been found in the Michigan area.

In the aftermath of the 1929 stock market crash very few engines were sold and boats became unneeded luxuries. The last few years of business were devoted mainly to filling orders for replacement parts and propellers, and by 1941, with little work available and the Clarke brothers getting old, the company closed its doors

One of the last engines made was one that company founder John Norris Clarke used to power a 32-volt generating system at his home in McCutchanville, Ind., just outside of Evansville. It was a small-bore hit-and-miss engine, and it ran almost continuously from about 1932 until about 1937 (when line power became available), requiring little more than gasoline, water for the hopper and the occasional lubrication to keep it running. When John Morris' son returned from Europe in 1945 following the end of WW II, the engine was destroyed for scrap.

To date, about a dozen Clarke engines have been located, and our family has many of those in our collection, including single-cylinder examples of the 2-1/2 HP, 4 HP and 6 HP engines and a two-cylinder 12 HP engine. These are all late-style overhead valve marine engines. It is estimated that approximately 300 engines of various sizes and types were manufactured during their 40 years in business.

I was fortunate in having a chance a few years ago to interview the late J. Norris Clarke, John Norris Clark's grandson, who provided many details of the firm's history. Beresford Newman Clarke, founder John Norris Clarke's son, is still alive, and he has also provided me with important information about the firm's manufacturing history, along with priceless original photos of some of the company's marine engines.

Contact engine enthusiast Keith Kinney at: 8525 Greendale Dr., Evansville, IN 47711, (812)-867-7235, or e-mail:
Additional information can also be found on the Internet at: