New Brunswick

U.S. sisters uncover rare photos of historic Saint John car

A discovery earlier this year by two sisters in Florida has revealed new photographs of a historic but little-known New Brunswick car.

Gail Middleton Zellars's grandfather was at wheel of Maritime Singer car on gruelling winter trip

A Maritime Singer Six car from Saint John on a January, 1914 publicity trip. It took 58 hours to reach Halifax. (Provincial Archives of New Brunswick)

A discovery earlier this year by two sisters in Florida has revealed new photographs of a historic but little-known New Brunswick car.

The Maritime Singer Six was assembled at a purpose-built factory in east Saint John in 1913 and 1914. None of the cars survive today, and only two photographs of the luxury vehicle were known to exist. 

Brian Chisholm of Saint John has been researching the history of the Maritime Singer for more than 30 years. 

"It was a monster," said Chisholm. "It was a 50 horsepower car. It had 36-inch wheels, it weighed way more than any regular car."

It was also expensive, selling for $3,000. 

By comparison, Henry Ford's then plentiful Model T had a 20 horsepower motor and cost about $600.

Chisholm had exhausted most avenues for his research. He'd combed newspapers from that time for ads and articles and even has the names of the five registered New Brunswick owners. The provincial archives in Fredericton had little to add.

Brian Chisholm with one of the newly uncovered photos of the Maritime Singer Six car. He's spent 30 years researching the history of the Saint John company. (Connell Smith, CBC)

Then came some dogged detective work from 2,700 kilometres away in Florida.

Gail Middleton Zellars and one of her three sisters were going through a box of items last January. They had been saved by their late mother.

Included was an album of photographs and quality, extra-large negatives that belonged originally to their grandfather, Ottie White. 

The century-old pictures showed men in fur coats on a winter trip in an open car. In some of the photographs they are seen shovelling the car out of deep snow. 

A banner along the side of the vehicle says "Maritime Singer Six, St. John to Halifax."

Bringing the Maritime Singer Six back home

2 years ago
Duration 2:22
How a Florida woman uncovered a collection of rare photographs of a 100-year-old Saint John auto manufacturer and its luxury car.

"I love history," said Middleton Zellars. "I love to look through things. I love family history. And I thought, well, that's pretty neat. And I was going to research it and see if I could find anything about it."

The lack of online information about the car proved a major roadblock. It was only when she turned to Facebook that she discovered one of the images in her collection was the same one in the cover photo on Chisholm's personal page.

"So I thought he must be very interested in this. I decided to Facebook message him."

Gail Middleton Zellars of Florida. Her love of history led to her search for the story behind a collection of family photos. (Gail Middleton Zellars, submitted)

"I clicked on it, and I thought, Oh, I don't know this person," said Chisholm. "And then I saw the photographs.

"When I looked at them I almost fell out of my chair."

The collection of photos show the car and the Rothesay Avenue Maritime Singer factory.

They also document a publicity stunt designed to promote the Maritime Singer as a durable and reliable car, more than powerful enough to push through packed snow and winter storms when other cars were put away between December and April. 

Ottie White was the driver-mechanic on the venture. He was accompanied by James Pullen, and by Dutch Ervin, the St. John Standard reporter who was documenting the trip for readers.

The trio left New Year's Eve 1913, and arrived in Moncton 12 hours later after ditching three times in –24 C temperatures.

But it was the next section that nearly bested both the car and its occupants. That trip, from  Moncton to Amherst, took 28 hours.

Driver Ottie White catches some sleep as the Maritime Singer car is restarted en route to Halifax, January 1914. (Provincial Archives of New Brunswick)

"As the automobile struck the drifts the clouds of snow were thrown up over the front of the car and she plowed through for a few yards, only to sink deeper in the snow and sink, stuck solid," wrote Ervin.

On occasion, they would seek help from a farmer to drag the car back onto the road using a team of horses.

Fifty-eight hours after leaving Saint John, the men finally arrived in Halifax, suffering from exhaustion and frostbite. They were treated in hospital before resting up and hitting the road again, travelling through the Annapolis Valley to Digby and on by ferry back to Saint John.

Chisholm and Middleton Zellars each had missing elements of the story.

After the gruelling winter car trip, Ottie White went to Europe to serve as a lieutenant in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the First World War.

Chisholm retrieved his war records from Veterans Affairs Canada and sent them to Florida, along with the newspaper accounts of the Halifax trip. 

He learned that on White's return from the war he moved to the U.S., getting married in 1920 to Ethel Ault of Tennessee. The couple then moved to Florida, where Ottie eventually operated an auto parts business.

The Maritime Singer factory on Saint John's Rothesay Avenue. Only a handful of the cars were built in the days before the Great War. (Provincial Archives of New Brunswick)

Middleton Zellars wondered if there was something that could be done with the photographs. Chisholm put her in touch with Joshua Green, photo archivist at the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, who showed immediate interest and was thrilled to learn the collection included the original negatives.

Middleton Zellars conferred with her three sisters in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Vermont. Like her, they were excited to have the opportunity to make the donation. 

"It's just fantastic they were able to make their way back here," Green said of the photos, which have already been  integrated into the collection. "This is as good as you're ever going to get for that."



Connell Smith is a reporter with CBC in Saint John. He can be reached at 632-7726


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