Iron, Steam and Wood: 150 Years With the Waterous Engine Works Company

Book Review

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Mike Hand is a retired Canadian engineer with a keen interest in manufacturing history. In this, his third book, he tells the complete story of a Brantford, Canada, firm from its early 1830s beginnings until the end of the twentieth century.

Hand has pursued his story through family and industry sources, beginning with the opening of Philip Van Brocklin and Elijah Leonard's Foundry in 1848 in St. Thomas, Ontario. Charles Waterous, a native of Vermont, joined the firm after the failure of his own business in the U. S. Ultimately, Waterous bought out his partners.

By 1854, Waterous patented the first circular saw mill built in Canada. Throughout the following decades, gristmills, edgers, trimmers and a shingle mill were added to the line.

Boilers were another early product, and over 2,500 vertical Champion portable steam engines were sold. The portables were based on the design of David June, one of Waterous' Ohio relatives.

Charles Waterous had six sons, all of whom were employed by his company at some time in their lives.

Although Charles died in 1892, the company continued to grow and (mostly) thrive into the twentieth century, as the product line continually diversified to meet new markets.

World War I brought a shift towards shell and lathe production for war use. The period following the War saw great improvements in the conditions of employment at the firm.

Increased demand for roads piqued by automobile development led Waterous into the manufacture of road rollers and a scarifier licensed by the Buffalo Springfield Company.

The firm also moved into products to assist in pulp processing, such as barkers and grinders. After the death of Charles H. Waterous, Jr., control of the firm passed to his brother David in 1925.

More road building equipment was produced in the 1950s, including Clinton Motors' truck-mounted concrete transporters. A gasoline powered road roller was added in the 1930s.

In 1944 the company, still under Waterous family management, celebrated their 100th anniversary. Profits were excellent during the World War II years. In 1947, with no male family members ready to take over from the founder's grandson Donald, a decision was made to sell out to a group of businessmen who controlled The Modern Tool Company of Toronto.

Large size Waterous traction engine with rear mounted cylinders, 1905. Illustration from Mike Hand's book, courtesy Roy Belshaw archives.

Chapter nine tells the story of the family's St. Paul, Minnesota, operations. The St. Paul factory made the Waterous steam fire engine, and eventually a gas tractor and gas pumper.

In addition, a gas powered stationary engine was made. A very small number of gas tractors were built.

Only a few highlights of this 216-page book have been covered here. It is a fascinating story, which intertwines product development with family history. A great number of rare illustrations help to tell the story.

Iron, Steam and Wood is available from author Mike Hand, Box 722, St. George, Ontario N0E 1N0. Prices, postpaid, are in Canada, $24.00 (Canadian funds); in the U.S., $16.50 (U.S. funds).