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July 2015

The Genius of Verona - Part 2

By Paul Harvey

For never was a story of more woe... Shakespeare

My May 2015 Flywheel article was the first part of the tale of the Genius of Verona, John Kowalsky. Briefly, it noted John's birth in Wisconsin and his move to Verona, Pennsylvania, to pursue the engine manufacturing business and develop his dreams. That article detailed many of his varied designs and existing engines. In Verona he became immersed in anything that moved: automobiles, motorboats, and airplanes. Yes, airplanes! He had an inventive mind beyond comprehension but this eventually led to his downfall. Some 400 years ago, the Bard of Avon concluded his immortal play, Romeo and Juliet, with the above line which so appropriately fits the life of John Kowalsky. The inventor's portrait is shown in Photo 1. His final story now unfolds.


John Kowalsky developed a "light car" engine in 1903, shown in Photo 2. He was located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, at that time and probably worked for the Force & Briggs Company. His engine was a four-cycle design, with only one cylinder. With a four inch bore and four and one half inch stroke, it had sufficient power for the "buckboard" vehicles of the time. About 1910, one ad shows an improved single-cylinder automobile engine, as seen in Photo 3.  Interestingly, this ad denotes the Kowalsky Engine Company was located in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. There is no other reference to substantiate this move. The Verona Historical Society noted that, in 1906, Kowalsky operated an automotive dealership in Verona, Pennsylvania, selling the Orient Buckboard and the Gale. Photo 4 shows the Orient.  It looks like a fun little vehicle to drive! Although history is unclear, it seems that Orient was buying some of their single-cylinder, four horsepower, engines from Kowalsky. The Gale, Photo 5, appears to have been a nice car for its vintage, although production was short-lived.


Kowalsky's interest in automobiles and stationary engines was soon eclipsed by his love for motorboats. He had developed a very dependable two-cycle engine for this use early in his career. Moving to Verona, Pennsylvania, he built his first shop on the east bank of the busy Allegheny River. Imagine watching all the steam boats bringing raw materials south to industrial Pittsburgh and then taking finished products back north - all just outside his back door! A few years later, John moved his shop to the corner of Grant and Railroad Streets, a mere two blocks from the river. Here he built a two-story brick building that is still in use today. Photo 6 shows the river from outside this building. Located here, he had a ready market for his boats and marine engines.

Business must have been good for, in 1908, Kowalsky, a member of the Pittsburg Launch Club, decided to build a masterpiece. Shown in Photo 7, this craft was solid mahogany and used over 19,000 brass screws, all inserted from the inside so that no fasteners showed. It was a magnificent vessel! Powered by an eight-cylinder, two-cycle Kowalsky engine of 80 horsepower, it attained 30 miles an hour on the river. Sadly, due to its speed, it was banned from the river! Kowalsky was able to sell it to a Detroit businessman who enjoyed it on Lake Michigan. Another triumph delegated to end as a failure.

Stepping back to 1905, we see that complete opposite of speed, a canoe. John successfully installed a one horsepower engine of his own manufacture into a canoe, seen in Photo 8. The original description of this venture is so pleasant to read that I have included it as Photo 9. I wonder how many were made?

Photo 10 is a typical advertisement for the Kowalsky two-cycle marine engine. Made in various power ratings, these smaller engines were the mainstay of his factory for many years. He also sold complete boats with these engines already installed, ready to cruise the three rivers of Pittsburgh. However, his most successful engine was the 20 horsepower two-cylinder model as seen in Photo 11. With a basic 10 horsepower, two-cycle cylinder, they were made in multiples of a two-cylinder, four-cylinder, six-cylinder, and the big 80 horsepower eight-cylinder. He had a good product and many were sold.


By 1908, Kowalsky had a very successful manufacturing business with Harvy Miller as president and general manager of the John Kowalsky Engine Company. The excellent sales of the marine engines gave John some wealth for the first time in his life. Unfortunately, two events soon caused this venture to collapse. First, Cameron Waterman, who had purchased Kowalsky's famous mahogany boat, visited Verona to acquire the rights to manufacture the two-cylinder, two-cycle marine engine in his new firm, the Waterman Marine Motor Company. This failed, but Waterman did allure Miller to Detroit to become the head of his new concern. This was a crushing blow to Kowalsky, who was not a businessman but an inventor. Secondly, Kowalsky fell deeply in love with the airplane. He devoted all his time to designing and building, letting his business slide away. He did gain fame with the ventures with his plane for a few years, but soon the money was spent and the business was gone.

Photo 12 shows John sitting on top of his first airplane in 1910, readying it for its first flight ever. Next, in Photo 13, we see John sitting in the cockpit about ready to give it a try. I'm sure the adrenaline was pulsing through his veins. Would he fly and live or crash and die? Of course, the engine is a 40 horsepower Kowalsky. Interestingly, the wing design was meant to be a parachute in case of failure! Using the main street of Verona as a runway, he advanced the throttle and actually lifted off the pavement a few inches for about 75 feet. John had flown! He now went back to his shop to design a better craft, profiting from what he had learned. The next one would be better.

Kowalsky designed and built many planes over the next few years and had several successful flights. By 1911, he was trying his second airplane, a biplane with a larger engine. It did fly, but he landed in a tree. Undaunted, he again built a better plane in 1912 and demonstrated it with a successful flight over the Allegheny River. Fitted with pontoons, he could land on the river to the enthusiasm of his hometown residents. A Labor Day flight is seen in Photo 14.

Very ambitious, Kowalsky now decided to try an air mail service. He engaged Theodore Stockman of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to be his pilot, building a special aircraft for this venture. It was powered by his big 80 horsepower, eight-cylinder engine and provided a perfect flight in August of 1913. He was now ready for airmail. With the approval of Postmaster John Clinton, Stockman would take the mail from Natrona Heights to Schenley Park, a distance of 25 miles. Note the special postcard shown in Photo 15. On the morning of October 4, 1913, Stockman attempted to take off but failed, badly damaging the plane. The aircraft, as well as the mail, was taken back to Verona, with the mail being posted from there. This essentially concluded John's airplane venture, except in his dreams. Photo 16 shows a beautiful model that he built in his declining years.

Declining Years

An interesting article was found in the September 11,1910, issue of the Washington Post. Amid all his airplane work, Kowalsky was able to design and produce this ungainly amphibious vehicle. Note Photo 17. Not steam at all, it was powered by a six-cylinder Kowalsky gasoline engine. Being 21 feet long and four feet wide, it could travel on land as well as water, and carried 30 passengers in its Pittsburgh demonstrations. John hoped to sell the design to the United States War Department, but nothing ever materialized. His friend, W.L. Woods, planned a voyage down the Ohio River and up the Mississippi to St. Louis. Uncertain if this materialized, nothing more was heard from it. Another great idea passed into oblivion.

The year 1913 was a turning point is Kowalsky's life. As he returned to his shop in Vernoa, it must have been with remorse to have seen so many of his brilliant inventions turn into failure. On June 20 of that year, he essentially turned over his marine engine business to the Oakmont Motorboat Company but retained his shop to invent.  Here he eventually became a recluse. Oakmont borders Verona to the north and is along the Allegheny River, so his beloved marine engine business would be nearby. Spending all his money on his inventions, he saved nothing for his daily life. But his inventive creativity and building skill was second to none! Amazingly, he handcrafted his own violin in 1899 and made several others during these last years. This fine instrument is shown in Photo 18. The aging Kowalsky is seen at the door of his shop, Photo 19, with an improved hand drill that he developed. There is no record that he attempted to produce this, or sell the design. John tried some small jobs to make a bit of money, but finally secluded himself in his workshop where he still tried to fulfill his dream. He was in his own world doing what he loved best.

By the mid-1930s, John's neighbors, fearing the worst, asked the authorities to check on him. He was found acutely ill, emaciated, and confused, but still in his workshop. He was taken to the Woodville State Hospital where he passed away on May 9, 1938, at the age of 73. His death certificate lists "acute lobar pneumonia." Because John was without any funds and was abandoned by his family, the citizens of Verona raised the money to have him properly buried in the St. Joseph's Cemetery. A large brass plaque, Photo 20, now proudly stands at the north entrance to Verona, commemorating its most famous citizen. John's memory will live on!

Kowalsky Portrait

Photo 1: Portrait of John Kowalsky

Kowalsky Light Car Engine

Photo 2: Kowalsky Light Car Engine.  Note that Pittsburgh was spelled with out the "h" during those times.

Kowalsky New Auto Engine

Photo 3: Kowalsky New Automobile Engine

Orient Buckboard

Photo 4: Orient Buckboard

Gale Automobile 

Photo 5: Gale Automobile

Kowalsky View of River 

Photo 6: View of the Allegheny River

Kowalsky Speed Boat 

Photo 7: Kowalsky speed boat

Kowalsky Canoe 

Photo 8: Kowalsky canoe

Kowalsky Canoe 

Photo 9: Account of Kowalsky canoe

Kowalsky Marine Engine 

Photo 10: Ad for Kowalsky marine engine

Kowalsky 20 hp Engine 

Photo 11: Kowalsky 20 hp engine

Kowalsky First Airplane 

Photo 12: Kowalsky's first airplane

John Piloting Airplane 

Photo 13: John Kowalsky in his airplane

Kowalsky Plane Flying 

Photo 14: Kowalsky's airplane flying

Airmail Postcard 

Photo 15: Airmail postcard

Kowalsky Airplane Model 

Photo 16: Kowalsky's airplane model

Steam Duck 

Photo 17: The Steam Duck

John's Violin 

Photo 18: Violin by John Kowalsky

Kowalsky the Inventor 

Photo 19: John Kowalsky: Inventor

Kowalsky Memorial Plaque 

Photo 20: Memorial to John Kowalsky


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