The mechanization of Agriculture

Steam Caterpillar

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Very truly, F. Hal Higgins

As Told To F. Hal Higgins in Two Recent Interviews

The big balding man flashed a smile of welcome as the writer asked if he might be the Paul Weston 'who was there' when the famous Los Angeles Aqueduct was built across desert and mountains to bring water to the mushrooming West Coast city that was beginning to attract the United States population from east and south nearly half century ago. Percy Ferguson, an old ex-Holt office man, had referred to him as one of the engineers who had been on the delivering end of a lot of early steam tractors in both wheel and crawler days before the Aurora Engine began powering their gas tractors.

'I was the boy who took that first Holt steam Caterpillar to the desert to start the Aqueduct job when Mulholland and his staff of engineers decided it was worth giving the 'new Caterpillar' idea a trial to see if they could beat horses and mules at freighting materials and equipment from the railroad stations out to the construction jobs. I don't know what you might call me today, but I did a sales-service-diplomatic job back in the pioneer days of the Holt Company soon after the turn of the century. I had three 2-year jobs out on the frontiers of farming, heavy construction, mining and freighting. And those jobs covered hardware, mule, steam and gas power; wheel and track, in the U. S. and Mexico.

'I was sent up to the Holts Spokane branch about 1903 and was there for two seasons as the combined harvester was introduced by Holt. You know these Palouse hills of eastern Washington and western Idaho, and on down into eastern Oregon, of course. Well, that was all horse and mule power before the track type tractor came along a little later. Hence, 32, 33 and on up to 40 animals out in front of a driver sitting on a ladder swaying out over the wheelers as he kept them all pulling together and turning corners up and down hill by good honest mule skin. He knew the language and kept a pile of pebbles that he unerringly tossed at a lagging animal from one to five rows out in front of him. Of course, there were little Acts of God like rattlesnakes, bumblebees' nests, or a sudden startling flight of a flock of game birds that would occasionally start a fresh team running. That's when the nerve and skill plus good and bad luck decided whether the driver would live to drive another day and the outfit would be in one piece for further harvesting the same day. You've seen combines that fell out of those fields, of course, so I don't need to tell you that the development of the side-hill combine also needed the assistance of a shifting human crew at times to prevent the machine from turning over and rolling to the foot of an extra steep hill on some of those corners.

Rear view of 1909 Model Holt Steam Caterpillar (called 'Paddle Wheel' before the word 'Caterpillar' was coined by a cameraman who came out to photograph the first one of the new type developed to whip to boggy peat soil of the San Joaquin Valley west of Stockton.) Ben Holt and his nephew, Pliny E. Holt, had looked over and studied all that had been done on tracks in Maine, Louisiana, Illinois and England along the same idea over the previous 100 years or more. This picture appeared in the Jan., 1909 'The Holt Manufacturing Company Traction Engine Department Bulletin No. T. E. 31', which is an 8-page catalog illustrated by steam Holt Caterpillar shots from the Los Angeles Aqueduct job on which Paul Weston represented the Holt Company from trial demonstration to sale and delivery of 28 more Holt Caterpillar tractors and trains of wagons for freighting across the desert. (Photo from the F. Hal Higgins' collection.

'But that was just part of the job of frontier wheat farming. When I got down to Mexico in 1906, that was mostly mine freighting, taking out ore and hauling in supplies. Those were all steam wheel tractors, and the mountain roads were not too good. But that Mojave (Spanish pronounciation with the 'j' sounding like 'h' and 'e' pronounced 'a' with accent on second syllable) desert was a 2-year epic of desert battles and the start of a revolution in heavy construction. I was the boy who was sent down there by Ben Holt to demonstrate the new and revolutionary Holt Caterpillar traction engine to the LOS Angeles Aqueduct engineers as they sought a way to cut the horse and mule freighting bids of 40 cents a ton mile. Back in the Gold Rush, heavy freighting up the mountains to the mines from Stockton over the bad roads was done at a dollar a mile per ton.

'I lived at the Harvey House at Mojave for two years while I sold and delivered those 28 Holts that followed this first steam Caterpillar I took down with me for that first trial. You can see my water tank in the background of one of those Aqueduct pictures, which is a tip off of what steam always got up against in the desert where there was no water. Every steam tractor tried out in the desert from the British Arizona Special sent over in 1859 to naul gold ore from Mexico, failed on that water problem even if and when they didn't have an insurmountable fuel problem. So, while the first Holt was a steam Caterpillar on this famous job, and it performed OK on pulling and climbing, the orders that followed were for the gas Holts with the famous Aurora engines that could eat a lot of dirt in the days when there were no such things as cleaners, filters, etc.

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