Steam engines from just about everywhere


I have done a couple articles recently on where traction engines were built. Most of that information came from Jack Norbeck’s Encyclopedia of American Steam Traction Engines and this material on portables comes from the same source.

He also included in the book material on horses, pioneers of the industry, sawmills, threshers and shingle mills.

We usually assume portables came before traction engines, and indeed developed into traction engines when they got big enough and heavy enough to be an overload for a team of horses.

One person claimed self propelled engines, or traction engines, were developed for hauling freight on wagons.

There are stories and machines around that support the idea of tractions developing from portables. To be clear, portable steam engines are boilers and engines on four wheels, but not self propelled by gearing to the wheels from the engine proper.

Skid timbers

Presumably engines were mounted on skid timbers before wheels and very few of those are left in preservation. Pictures of them are also common.

In British farm practice “barn” engines were first mounted on foundations or skids and the thresher or what ever machine needed the power were brought to the engine. I have wondered about fire hazards but have not read of any disasters.

Most, if not all, the companies we listed as traction engine builders built portables also, either before or at the same time as the self-propelled units.

Portables were especially valued as power for sawmills and I believe the last one outshopped by Frick was an 80 HP portable sent out in 1944. I saw it at the Williams Grove Show many years ago and it was beautiful.

Another thing that seems clear is many engines were built in the same areas where facilities were available.

One such area was Hamilton, Ohio, near Cincinnati. That location comes up over and over.

California area

Another locale was the San Francisco, Calif. area. A Baker and Hamilton portable was listed as coming from there, along with one named Benicia, possibly built by the same company.

A Bay City portable was listed as coming from Oakland, Calif. The Holt company was in Stockton, Calif., also close by, and they were a major player, building large engines for the western farms, including some with wheels up to 15-feet wide and nine feet in diameter to get flotation in marshy ground.

Later they pioneered track-laying vehicles, also for flotation. An early, and maybe developmental, engine was built by Byron-Jackson in San Francisco. The Best Company was located at San Leandro, Calif., just a few miles down the bay from Oakland.

Their vertical-boilered design was originated by a man named Remington at Woodburn, Ore.

Later on Best and Holt joined to form the Caterpillar tractor company. which of course went with gas and diesel power, and is still going strong, with headquarters at Peoria, Ill., where they bought up Avery. The index page lists an engine by Roberts and Dean of Sacramento but none are surviving and not even any picture is shown.

East Coast

We also skipped a few East Coast engines in earlier writing, including George Page in Baltimore and Hagerstown in that town and the American in Jersey City N.J.

We wonder if they were related to one of the early locomotive builders from New Jersey.

A couple other categories were portables built by sawmill companies. Two I know of are Enterprise, of Columbiana, Ohio, and Hench and Dromgold, of York Pa.

The Enterprise was a high pressure, high speed engine with piston valve. I have not seen a Hench & Dromgold, but there is a picture in the book.

Another class of engines was log hauler engines, both with tracks for grip. The Lombard was designed and built by Alvin Lombard in Waterville, Maine. The Phoenix Centipede came out of Eau Claire, Wis.

The Lombard used horizontal cylinders in standard position while the Phoenix used vertical cylinders similar to the Shay locomotive. Fortunately, examples of both are still running.

Canadian engines

In the two preceding articles we made references to Canadian traction engines, which are very similar to the American versions.

I like traveling to Ontario, probably because my dad was an avid fisherman, along with a next door uncle, and we went fishing to several lakes up there in the years just after World War II, the late 40s and into the 50s and I fell in love with that area.

You may be aware a sizeable majority of the population of Canada lives within 100 miles of the U.S. border and of course much of their industry does too.

The book lists some 11 makes of traction engines and some portables on the same relation as American practice.

The first alphabetically would be the American-Abell built in Toronto, Ontario. They built some very large engines, including the only one I recall seeing with a triangle wheel arrangement similar to later row crop tractors.

They got involved in the Advance Rumley mergers and went out of business many years ago, but a few still survive.

The John Goodison engines came from Sarnia, Ontario, and were built quite late in the game. George White Engines were built in London, not too far from Detroit, Mich. They were a full-line company and their equipment is often seen.

J.M. Ross was built in St. Catherines, fairly close to the Niagara area, but none of their engines survive.

Haggert Brothers of Brampton, built portables and I have seen one or two.

The MacDonald was mentioned as using counterflow Baker designs by permission. There are a few survivors, all quite old.

Robert Bell engines also came from Sarnia and used the Port Huron design, except Bell’s were not compound.

American designs

The Waterous engines were the third to use American designs, this time the D. June Champion. They are scarce too, as Waterous soon went to gas power and fire equipment.

The other two most commonly seen engines are the Sawyer-Massey from Hamilton, Ontario, and the Waterloo from the same town.

Waterloo at one time sold Belle City threshers in Canada. Hamilton is the center of the Canadian steel industry, so it is not surprising a steam engine was built there. Both these latter concerns built a full line of equipment.

I saw a Sawyer-Massey stone crusher at Milton one year identical to one I had that came out of Kingston, N.Y., except for lettering.

New Hamburg engines came from New Hamburg in eastern Ontario, but did not survive at attempt to move west and went out of business in 1918.

One of the most interesting stories concerns the N.C. Peterson Co., whose engines also came from Sarnia, and when western growth became strong they moved to Winnipeg, taking a complete traction engine along for a pattern.

Other interests

Alas their foundry at Winnipeg got so busy with man holes and covers and similar castings they never built any traction engines there, and the pattern engine was discovered under a tarp in the warehouse after engines became collectibles.

So there is a brand new traction engine shown in Manitoba. What a dream sequence.


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