The Clarke Gas Engine Company

By Staff
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An early Clarke flathead, twin-cylinder marine engine. None are known to have survived.
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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:
keith@HerculesEngines.com
Additional information can also be found on the Internet at:
www.HerculesEngines.com

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