ENGINE IN THE BEARTOOTH

Oold Case

Mackay family members on the old Case in a recent photo. Below, an earlier view of the engine in the same location.

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This is the story of a Case steam traction engine which was taken into the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness of Montana in 1909 and has remained there ever since, a venerable monument to times long gone by.

It originally powered a sawmill operated by the late Walter Scott. Now it is a part of mountain legend, visited by those who know about it, who ride horseback over ancient trails just to look at it and talk about its history.

We of Stemgas heard about it several years ago while talking with Mr. and Mrs. Bill Mackay, at their ranch at Roscoe, near Red Lodge. Mary Ann, their daughter-in-law, wife of Bill Mackay, Jr., said she'd forward some photos and information on the engine.

She sent us a tape made by a neighbor, Patricia George, wife of Arnold George, of an oral history interview with Scott, whom some people called 'Sir Walter'. We transcribed it and present most of it herewith.

'Everyone knew the engine was there, ' Mary Ann says. 'Old timers told the story. But second growth timber had covered the old trails, so that you couldn't ride in on horseback. Arnold George runs a hunting camp in the fall, and he found the engine. He rode out of the camp in the snow; that was an easier time to do it because the snow lay on the bushes and the way was more open. He took us up the next year, and now we visit the engine about once every other year.'

In the tape is reference to a fire. This was the 'big fire' of long ago which burned all the timber between Red Lodge and Livingston.

Photos taken by the Mackays show the engine well intact, less parts that were stolen over the years. If you're in the Wilderness, and come across the Case, you'll know what it's all about. We feel this is a particularly moving story, and we're happy that a recording was made of Scott's recollections. Further, we urge those with knowledge of old engines and implements and their use and role in farming, to put their recollections on tap.

Q: When did you take the steam engine up?
A: 1909.

Q: Did the steam engine go up the hill on its own power?
A: No, not all the way, but most of the way, it did.

Q: How far did you have horses on it, pulling it?
A: Oh, not over a mile.

Q: Is that right? Would it be the last mile up there?
A: Yes, it would be the last mile.

Q: How many horses pulled it, Mr. Scott?
A: Well, we had four horses onto it and then its own power was 14 horse, and it had four others horses ahead of it. But it was no trouble to speak of to take it in there at all.

Q: Was the road built before you took it in or did you build the road?
A: We built the road.

Q: Before the machine went in?
A: Built the road in 1908.

Q: How many years was the sawmill in operation.?
A: Well, it was only about three years because the timber was dead when we started in on it and it didn't get no better, it just started rotting the whole time, you know.

Q: Because it was after the fire?
A: It was after the fire. That fire was in 1900.

Q: Did you stay in the cabin down below, or was there a place to stay up where the steam engine was?
A: Yeah, we had tents that set on the grains and lived in the tents.

Q: Well, then, who lived in the cabin down below? It looks like there were several buildings there a spring-house, different things, down by the creek.
A: The cabins weren't there then, not when we had the mill running. We just used these tents all the time and then we'd take the tents down in the fall of the year and roll them up and keep them until the next spring.

Q: Well, this cabin that's there is about a mile down.
A: Well, I don't know, somebody else must have built that.

Q: And you don't know anything about it?
A: No.

Q: It's all fallen in, you know.
A: I remember an old cabin the Kelly boys built it to live in. A small cabin. They come and got permission from us to build a cabin if they wanted to. They were trapping, you see. And they lived there all winter long.

Q: Was that when the sawmill was in operation?
A: Yeah, it was in operation then, only we just run it spring and summer and we didn't run it in the winter.

Q: Oh, it gets pretty deep up there, doesn't it?
A: Uh-huh. Yes, in my day, I'd give a hundred dollar bill to bring that engine out.

Q: Well, it would be hard to get out, I'm sure. I don't think you'd get it out any way but to air lift it.
A: Oh, you could cut that timber down around it and take it out.

Q: Well, there's quite a rock-slide down below that cabin.
A: There always was a rock-slide in there.

Q: How did you take the lumber out?
A: Four-horse teams and a wagon.

Q: How often did you go out?
A: Each wagon would make the trip about once a week.

Q: You must have had to have brakes on those wagons, as steep as it is.
A: Oh, I'll say there were brakes on them.

Q: And then where did you go down through McKay's?
A: To Luther.

Q: To Luther?
A: The lumber we sold to Mackay went right there to his place.

Q: You did sell some to Malcolm Mackay?
A: We sold 300,000 feet.

Q: And then you took the rest of it to Luther?
A: Luther for bridges.

Q: Well, what did they do with it in Luther?
A: Well, the county bought it.

Q: To build bridges
A: Yes, to build bridges and things with.

Q: How many people did you have working up there?
A: We had five working at the mill all the time and two or three of us dragging logs in.

Q: How many drivers did you have?
A: One to each team. Four-horse teams, they had two drivers.

Q: You are quite a wizard with steam engines, I understand. You really know all the mechanics.
A: Yeah, I always was.

Q: Where did you get this steam engine in the first place?
A: I bought it.

Q: There were a lot of them?
A: It's the first steam engine that ever went into the Dillon Valley at Boulder. Then when Herman Kool got a hold of it he bought a new Case outfit and traded it in on it.

Q: So then, Alcott was handling the transaction?
A: He was handling the Case and the Russell. But they got something to trade. Like Alcott, he'd trade for a horseshoe if he didn't have anything else.

Q: Did you use just wood in that firebox?
A: Yes, just wood.

Q: Just plain wood you'd get a good hot fire in there and then it produced the steam?
A: It produced the steam pretty fast, too, just as fast as you could run it.

Q: Was there water in there too?
A: Oh, yes.

Q: Those holes in the steam must have been from here to that wall to the end of the
A: The firebox.

Q: I just don't understand how it worked. Could you explain it to me?
A: Yes, if we could take a day's time. You could take that engine and I say it would run, right now.

Q: You think so?
A: I don't believe it would be rusted bad enough to hurt it. You could run one on 10-12 pounds of steam. It won't pull any big loads or anything, but it would run on it.

Q: How did you measure the steam? How did you know how many pounds you had?
A: It had a gauge.

Q: I don't remember seeing it.
A: Oh, no. They stole everything that was loose.

Q: Well, it sure looks intact.
A: Yeah, the only thing they could get off of it was like the pop valve, the steam gauges, the injector and stuff like that. They could get that and the other they couldn't get. When we left there there was a slab pile there that was 25 feet thick and must have been 200 feet long.

Q: There's no lumber there now.
A: Oh, it's all rotted went down to nothing. Them slabs was just bark on the outside with a log in them.

Q: They call you 'Sir Walter' I understand.
A: I've been thinking about the camp there'd be a couple of women who just wanted to go along to stay and listen to it. I don't see why it couldn't be fixed. We camped in camps all the way in there. You could do the same thing coming out

Q: We rode horseback in when we went in Saturday.
A: You went clear in with horses?

Q: It was quite difficult. There was a lot of downed timber we had to clear.
A: Well, you'd run into that. If someone had one of these little Caterpillars, they could go in there and clean it out in no time.

Q: Did you have a permit from the Forest Service or was that Forest Service land at that time?
A: Oh, yes. Ed Russell was the Forest Ranger then. He was the first Forest Ranger in the country.

Q: How old are you, Mr. Scott?
A: 85too old to be of any good for anything.

Q: Oh, I don't know. You're certainly making things interesting for us.
A: Well, I want some of those pictures.

Q: I'll see that you get some. In Jim Annin's book, it says that you were born in 1890 and you didn't go into the logging camp until when?
A: 1890. 1900 is when we put the saw mill in there and the steam engine.

Q: And it was just in operation 3 or 4 years. Why did you quit the operation?
A: Well, the timber was getting rotten. It was falling down, it wasn't no good. It wasn't worth sawing, so there was no use putting any more money back in it. There was about 50 or 100 thousand feet of green timber back behind where that old engine sat. We intended to take it out but then we got to thinking it over. It wasn't worth building a road in to it for 50 dollar timber. So we just left it there.'

Q: You probably wouldn't know the area now. The pines have grown up all the way around.
A: Benny Wigen told me that, that you couldn't hardly see it until you was on top of it.

Q: You can't, Mr. Scott. You come into that clearing and there's nothing there. There are two big pine trees over to the right, and you go around them and there it sits.
A: Oh, it's quite an experience just to go in there.

Q: It is an experience! My husband has a hunting camp on Mouris Creek, down at the bottom, just through Mackays. Last winter, they went up and found the steam engine in about 2 feet of snow. Then we went in Saturday to see it in the summertime.
A: Well, it's a real treat to see it.