DISASTER: FORDING THE MISSOURI WITH A STEAM ENGINE

Case engine

Case engine of the type featured in this story.

Content Tools

An unsuccessful attempt to drive a huge Case 110 tractor across the swollen Missouri River is recounted in this colorful article by James E. Stinson, of near Brady, Montana. The attempt was made by his father, Ernest L. Stinson. One man was drowned. The Great Falls Tribune ran an account based on the information given by James Stinson in this article. Photo of James Stinson courtesy of the Tribune.

It happened in 1927, a wet year when the river was running high. The attempt was made by Ernest L. (Moonlight) Stinson, of Brady, operator of a large custom thrashing business at that time. He had extended his thrashing season by starting in the Highwood country, moving to the Brady east area, then west and ending on the Porter Bench near Pendroy.

Since the river ferry at Carter could not carry the large Case 110 steam engine, he would load it on a flat car and ship it to Highwood.

He hired Mr. Fred Deering, a 23 year old man of Brady, to drive his old Waterloo Boy tractor (forerunner of the John Deere) to Carter pulling the Red River Special thrasher and cookhouse, use the ferry and go on to Highwood.

One day when the outfit was thrashing away, a farmer approached Mr. Stinson and inquired how much cash he wanted for the Waterloo Boy. 'What will you offer me?' 'How about $500.00?' Well, now this was a small worn out tractor that had been out of production since 1913 and besides Mr. Stinson operated on the rule that 'If you ever have a chance to sell anything for all that it is worth, you had better do so, for there may never be another chance.' So the job of moving the cook house went to the water hauler with the Denby truck, a World War I vintage, chain drive, hard tires, 15 mph type.

When the thrashing run was over at Highwood, the problem of how to move the thrasher to Brady became acute. Now Mr. Stinson was a very experienced person having worked for the Advance Machinery Company as an expert in South America for six years. Down there he would assemble steamers in the cities, and drive them out to the colonies, where he would make them perform, and get the acceptance signature from the head man. Often the local gendarmes would meet him at a bridge and say 'too heavy.' He would pull to one side, pull his fire, drive thru the water, fire up again on the other side, and proceed. Six hundred feet of Missouri River did not seem to be too much for his Case steamer.

The engineer-fireman and crew leader was Mr. Samuel Johnson, a farmer about four miles north of Brady. He was quiet, pleasant, always ahead of trouble, and harmonious, continuous operation was his trademark. Once a young fellow came looking for a job. Sam said 'If I could stand you I would hire you. Sit down there.' He then pulled his tin snips from the tool box and started snipping over his fingers. In just a few minutes the fellow had a pretty respectable haircut, and was hired.

The person that ran the Denby truck and hauled the water was Fred Deering, because he was the reliable type that could run most every kind of machine, and when the water man had trouble, everything had to stop. The Denby had a squeeze-ball type ah-oo-ga horn on it and when Fred was about to start up the steep hill, he would give several hard squeezes, to warn anyone not to start down the one way grade. He is now a retired mechanic and lives in Cut Bank.

The cook was Mrs. Swan Lyden, a prodigious worker. She didn't want a helper, she did both jobs and drew double wages. Sometimes she had to hurry with her work. One time Mr. Stinson brought her a 100# sack of potatoes at 10 a lb., and all she did was 'square them a little' he said.

So they picked a spot where the ground was level on both sides of the river, just a little below the present ferry, which is run by Mr. Speed Lamey, and a little above the rapids.

'Sam, how far can you swim?' 'Not a stroke,' said Sam. 'How far can you swim, Fred?' 'Sam distance,' was Fred's answer. So Mr. Stinson said, 'Well, since it will always be partly above water, you won't need to swim, so you two are elected to take it across.'

So they pulled the fire and Sam was driving and Fred was watching on the other side for big rocks. All went well until they were about two-thirds across, when suddenly the smokestack went down and under water. 'It's got to be a deep hole,' yelled Fred. Sam pulled the big throttle lever all the way back, which caused the steam motor to stop and start turning the opposite way, and the big drivers had enough traction, and as the tractor backed up, the front wheels came out of the hole and the smoke stack appeared again. They continued backing toward the place where they had entered the water, but when they were still about 150 feet from shore they ran out of steam pressure, and there they sat in 6 feet of fast running water. The big flywheel was mounted at the very top of the tractor, and was above water. The only practical way to move the big tractor was to wrap a rope about 7 turns around that big wheel, and then have a team of horses on shore pull the rope, rolling the wheel, which moved the tractor about two feet each time.

To get to the engine with such a long rope, Mr. Stinson, who was raised in the lake country of Minnesota, borrowed the row boat from the ferry, got the coal hauler to go with him, and started out. Mr. Stinson was in the middle seat, rowing, facing toward the man in the rear seat, who was sitting with his back to Mr. Stinson and paying out the rope from a large coil in the very rear of the boat. As they progressed across and a little upstream of the steamer, the rope that had been paid out submerged in the water and was pulled downstream by the strong current. It seemed to the man that the whole coil might tangle and go overboard at once, so he tied the other end around himself. Mr. Stinson did not see him do it, but those on shore did and they yelled to him to untie himself but he did not.

When Moonlight Stinson was even with and a little up stream of the steamer, he turned the boat down stream and grabbed for the steamer, but the pull of the current on the rope pulled him away a little too much, and he missed catching it. So they were going down stream when suddenly the rope which had been tied to the Denby on shore became tight, and jerked the coal hauler out of the boat, overturning it at the same moment.

The man tied to the rope was pulled under by the strong current and drowned before those on shore could pull him in. Mr. Stinson stayed with the boat and when it went against the big cliff at the curve down stream, he wedged himself between the boat and a little ledge, and up-righted the boat and bailed it out some. The oars were still locked in place so he rowed back across the river and had the ferry man telephone the sheriff of Chouteau County at Ft. Benton about the casualty. There was still the problem of the steamer in the river with two men marooned on it.

They learned fast in those days, and the second try was successful. It took all afternoon and well into the night to get the steamer wound back into water shallow enough that they could build a fire in the fire box, then they soon had steam and backed it out, and headed for Highwood, where they shipped the steamer to Carter, at about the same cost as to ship it to Brady.

That night in Highwood in a hotel room, Moonlight Stinson (he got the nickname because quite frequently the moon was shining before he would toot the stopping whistle) pulled out his wallet and spread out paper money all over the place to dry. Sam Johnson said, 'If you had gotten lost in the river, we would have had to find you just to recover the payroll.'

Later an inquest was held and Mr. Stinson was declared not at fault in the death. He offered the next of kin a rather generous settlement, amounting to much more than the Waterloo Boy. The person did not want to settle, and it looked like a law suit coming. A few days later one of the spike pitchers informed Mr. Stinson that he knew that family, and the person was a famous jewel thief, and would not want any publicity, and sure enough, he did soon settle.

The next year was the last of the big threshing runs, the combines had come and taken over. Mr. Johnson prospered on his farm, and years later served terms as Pondera County Commissioner, and did everything for everybody but himself. Today his son, Leonard, is Commissioner, and he has the worst road to drive of anybody in the county.

Mr. Stinson became a garage owner and implement dealer in Brady, for a successful business life, and retired in Kalispell, where he passed on in 1961.