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May 2015

The Genius of Verona - Part 1

By Paul Harvey

In fair Verona, we lay our scene...  Shakespeare

Some 400 years ago the Bard of Avon penned his tragic play, Romeo and Juliet, and chose the city of Verona, Italy, for the story to unfold.   About 100 years ago, another tragic story happened in Verona, Pennsylvania.  That was the life of its most famous, yet least known citizen, John Kowalsky.  He was indeed a genius;  he built gas engines, the fastest boats on the Allegheny River, and his own airplane.  In fact, just about anything.  His ideas never ended.  His passion was to  invent and create! But that finally was his demise, the end of the tragedy.  This is his story.

John was born in Canton, Wisconsin, in May of 1867 to German immigrant farmers.  There is no definite evidence of what brought him east.  One can only guess that it was his love of anything mechanical that would lead him to the bustling, industrial Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, area.  He wanted to invent and build his inventions.  Ironically, the origin of his surname, "kowal" means "blacksmith!" This was the Industrial Revolution and he would be part of it.   Upon arriving in Pittsburgh about 1900, we find that he settled in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, now Pittsburgh's North Side.  The year 1903 locates him in Verona, Pennsylvania, where he built his factory and produced his engines and other inventions.  He spent the rest of his life there near the Allegheny River, . His shop in Verona, as it appears today, is shown in Photo 1.

Although the details are unclear, Kowalsky apparently joined the firm of Force and Briggs of Pittsburgh, while residing in Allegheny.  Their literature states that they manufactured two and four horsepower engines as well as supplying New Era and Nash engines for larger power needs. Indeed, their small engines were the Kowalsky design. Frederick Force and John Briggs maintained a large supply house on Fourth Avenue, and installed complete pumping and generating plants.  The firm was dissolved in 1902, and Briggs continued on a much smaller scale on Second Avenue.  Interestingly, this 1903 advertisement, Photo 2,  shows a Kowalsky labeled as a New Era.

Photo 3 shows a Pittsburg Exposition of 1901 featuring Kowalsky engines;  these must have been built at Force and Briggs, as that is earlier than his Verona shop.  Photo 4 depicts the Kowalsky light automotive engine, built on Fourth Avenue of  Pittsburgh, the same address as Force and Briggs.  Although Kowalsky did not build an automobile, he designed these engines for use in light "buckboard" type chassis. Then note Photo 5, which shows a Briggs engine display of 1903, behind the big Flint and Walling exhibit.  There is a double row of Kowalsky engines there. The next mention of Kowalsky is his ventures  in Verona.

The Verona Historical Society has an excellent article on its website about its most famous citizen, John Kowalsky. It states that John opened his first shop in 1902 as the John Kowalsky Motor Works.  This was located on Fairview and Arch Streets, right on the river.  In 1906, the John Kowalsky Engine Company was incorporated with Harvy Miller, president and general manager; Reuben Miller,  vice president and treasurer; G. E. Flaccus as secretary.  A complete line of engines was built but the emphasis, probably due to location, turned to two-cycle marine engines.  Kowalsky was kept busy dreaming up new inventions.  His engine designs would flourish.

An interesting catalog page, Photo 6, dated 1905 details the  four-cycle engine as well as the  combination engine and pump option.  These were built in 2 hp and 4 hp models. Note the Briggs name.  At the same  time, the firm was advertising its "Simplex" two-cycle marine engine.  See Photo 7.  This engine, installed in a launch, could be purchased for  $175.00 complete and ready for the river!  Advertisements two years later featured a two-cycle stationary engine as noted in Photo 8.  The firm's marine engine manufacturing flourished and this 20 horsepower, twin-cylinder model was available in 1908.  See Photo 9.  Another example of the marine engine is seen in Photo 10.  Note the ignition coil, switch, and batteries supplied with the engine.  Advertisements and references suggest that four-, six- and eight-cylinder, two-cycle engines were built for marine use, but sadly, no photos are available.

Kowalsky engines are rare today and there is no record indicating the total number built.  Photo 11 shows a beautifully restored early marine engine in a private collection.  Outstanding workmanship is displayed in the combination brass ignitor and water pump assembly.  Photo 12,  from an old advertisement, shows a similar engine.  This fine example of the two-cycle stationary engine is in another private collection.  Note Photo 13.  These were built from one to ten horsepower and well adapted for all belt power needs.

Coolspring Power Museum is very fortunate to have a nice example of the two horsepower, four-cycle engine as depicted in Photo 14.  Its nameplate is shown in Photo 15.  On display in the Power House Annex, it is awaiting restoration.  The museum also has this curious part which was found at an old shop in Freeport, Pennsylvania, not many miles upriver from Verona.  As seen in Photo 16, it appears to have been a two-cycle marine engine that suffered attempts to be converted into an air compressor.  The frame does have similarities of a Kowalsky.  Another mystery!

Fair Verona certainly does recognize its most famous inventor with a bronze memorial plaque at the city's northern entrance.  See Photo 17.   John Kowalsky stands tall in the history of Verona with the early development of gas engines and a myriad of other inventions.  Photo 18 shows his portrait.  His story will be continued next month, detailing many of his various inventions, successes, and failures.  It is an amazing tale.

Kowalsky Factory Today

Photo 1: Kowalsky's factory in Verona, Pennsylvania, today

Kowalsky New Era

Photo 2: Ad for Kowalsky engine labeled as a New Era

Kowalsky 1901 Pittsburg Exposition 

Photo 3: Pittsburg Exposition of 1901 with Kowalsky engines - Pittsburgh was spelled without the "h" between 1891 and 1911

Kowalsky Light Automotive Engine 

Photo 4: Kowalsky light automotive engine

Briggs Display 1903 

Photo 5: Pittsburg Exposition with Briggs engine display in the background

Kowalsky Engines in Catalog 1905 

Photo 6: Catalog page dated to 1905 with Briggs engines

Kowalsky Simplex Engine 

Photo 7: Simplex two-cycle marine engine

Kowalsky Two-Cycle Stationary Engine 1907 

Photo 8: Two-cycle stationary engine

Kowalsky 20 hp Engine 

Photo 9: 20 hp two-cylinder marine engine

Kowalsky Marine Engine 

Photo 10: Kowalsky marine engine

Kowalsky Original Engine 

Photo 11: Early Kowalsky marine engine

Kowalsky Engine 

Photo 12: Ad showing engine similar to Photo 11

Kowalsky Two-Cycle Stationary Engine 

Photo 13:  Two-cycle stationary engine

CPM Kowalsky Engine 

Photo 14: Two horsepower, four-cycle engine at CPM

CPM Kowalsky Engine Nameplate 

Photo 15: Nameplate of the engine in Photo 14

Unknown Engine 

Photo 16: Mystery engine, similar to a Kowalsky

Kowalsky Plaque 

Photo 17: Verona's memorial to John Kowalsky

Kowalsky Portrait 

Photo 18: Portrait of John Kowalsky


Copyright by Coolspring Power Museum