In 1884 two mechanics in Jackson established the Southern Engine and Boiler Works to build a line of small engines and boilers. In 1895 the mechanics sold their shop to local stockholders, who constructed a new complex on North Royal Street. By the turn of the century the new plant employed four hundred workers making high-pressure boilers, steam engines, and sawmills, and this steam engine industry was the largest of its kind in the South. The success of the company led to the replacement of the original building with a larger plant. Built between 1902 and 1904, the complex consisted of five connecting brick buildings and included an office, a machine shop, a foundry, a forge and engine room, and a boiler shop.
In 1906 chief engineer William Collier created a gasoline-powered engine and automobile. Over the next four years, the company manufactured around three hundred cars. The automobile was originally called the “Southerner,” but was renamed the “Marathon” in 1909. The following year a group of Nashville investors headed by A. H. Robertson purchased the Marathon division of the company. Relocated to Nashville, the automobile division built around five thousand Marathons between 1910 and 1914. The Jackson plant continued to produce parts for the Marathon until management problems led to the automobile’s demise in 1918. The Southern Engine and Boiler Works produced steam engines until 1926, when the company ceased operations.
The Southern Engine and Boiler Works was a major industry at the turn of the century. In addition to its prominence in Jackson’s industrial development, the company spearheaded the development of the Marathon automobile, which held until recent years the distinction of being the only mass-produced car completely manufactured in the South. Fewer than a dozen original Marathons are known to exist, making them among the rarest cars in the world. The remaining buildings of the Jackson complex were listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1993.