Keystone with shovel front

Content Tools

New Ashford, Massachusetts 01237

Photo #1: A Keystone back hoe in some localities called a back drag bucket excavating a cellar, notice the outriggers or braces to the right of supervisor and the extended length of boom.

The January-February 1979 Iron Men Album the editor, Mr. Lestz, displayed three pictures of the O.N. Geer Livery teams and dump wagons with an old piece of steam excavating equipment. I sent in a letter and check explaining my tentative identification of the steamer as a Keystone shovel with a skimmer attachment, however a man by the name of Geer was first. I was glad to hear this as he is more entitled to the pictures than I. If he should read this I would appreciate his comments. Also in his return letter the editor stated he would consider my story about this type of equipment, so after a great amount of reminiscing, checking and searching through files and photos I came up with this:

First about the wagons: these were known as dump wagons, belly dump wagons, drop dump wagons and gravel wagons mostly to distinguish them from the rear or tip-type dump wagons and the one-horse two-wheel dump cart. At the time I knew about eight different makes, but now can only recall the Watson, the Eagle, Owensboro and the Double Diamond. The principle was simple; a latch released the two bottom doors and the load was neatly dropped through. Then a hand lever and dog turned over a winch winding up a chain that closed the doors for the next load. They were made in one and one half cubic yard and two cubic yard capacity. The ones shown appear to be the heavy duty or two cubic yard type.

Photo #2: Keystone with shovel front. Posing are lineman, operator and fireman. AH early models were half swing, that is boom could only swing 90 degrees to either side.

The last large job in the East that used these extensively was in New York State on the construction of the Taconic Trail in 1926-28. The contractor used 25 teams and wagons under two Erie steam shovels along with a few Reo dump trucks. This was the last time they used dump wagons. After the job was completed they sold them off to individuals for $25.00 per wagon. Returning to the Geer Livery stable from about 1912 to 1924 most large livery stables had two or more for hire. I knew of one which had twenty available. I still have some of grandfather's records from 1900 to World War I showing he paid $2.50 per 10-hour day for a complete outfit of a two horse team, teamster and dump wagon. Miles and miles of roads and railroads were built with these wagons. I still have one which needs rebuilding and some day will 'get around to it.'

In reference to the steam rig refer to picture #1. The outrigger or brace is similar to the 79, page 12 picture, by visual comparison with all the photos this follows through. Also arrangement of machinery and boiler is similar. These are the reasons I say it is a Keystone. They were built by the Keystone Well Driller Company of Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. This was a major and well-known builder of steam and gas well drilling rigs, sold all over the country and exported to numerous other countries. They were a sturdy long-lasting machine. The company also offered very good financing so they started a great many drillers in business. Their shovels were rugged and tough to operate. It required three men: operator, lineman and fireman (see photo #2).

In all the pictures notice the man standing at the side holding a rope. He operated the dump or trip latch on the bucket or scoop. Then notice the fireman in the rear. There was quite a distance with obstructing machinery between operator and fireman, so a system of signals was set up having a pull cord from the whistle going to both the fireman and operator. Along with the noise of the machine this could be confusing at times, and also caused panic among the teams, so some operators and firemen set up a system of silent rope signals. The steering mechanism was crude and to turn the front wheels required a man with a crow bar at each front wheel to assist the steering mechanism. It literally took a ten-acre field to make a complete 180-degree turn. On straight work it operated okay.

Photo #3: Keystone skimmer loading old pavement on street believed to be in Chicago, notice man on trip line, truck looks like an early chain drive White. White used chain drive for a short time, was one of the first to use worn drive.

Photo #4: Serving a dual purpose loading snow on the streets of New York City. Turntable and method of swinging boom is more clear also man on trip line, outriggers are clearly shown. I do not know of any other make that used this type.

The basic machine was of the same general make-up and made in three sizes. Then a shovel front, backhoe or skimmer boom could be installed as needed, with the backhoe attachment similar to photo number one. A Keystone had the longest reach of any in use at this time, thus it could excavate a deeper trench than any other make. The shovel front, refer to photo number two, was odd and slow. Erie, Northwest, Osborne, Lima and other principal competitors at the time had a much better operating shovel attachment. On the other hand, Keystone had a very good skimmer. That is a bucket or scoop attached to a horizontal boom that started its cut near the machine sliding outward on the boom filling as it advanced. Then the boom and bucket were raised, swung over the wagon or truck and lineman pulled the latch that dumped the load. In the January-February photo it appears that the boom has been lowered and the scoop is in the process of being loaded. This type of equipment was ideal for skimming off top soil or streaks of coal, also for removing old pavement on roads or streets for one lane could be kept open for traffic at all times. I found photo number three showing a Keystone stripping pavement on the streets of Chicago and another loading snow in New York City, see number four. Note the boom swing arrangementa turntable operated by cable at roof level and a heavy pivot at lower frame level. This permitted the operator to swing boom through a plus or minus 180-degree circle or what was commonly known as a half swing.

All machines shown are about 1918 to 1923 models. Later they came out with a gasoline half-track model and one-man operation that had a latch operating mechanism controlled by the operator. It also had the jack-screw type outriggers. I believe they had a Waukesha engine but just cannot recall. I spoke to an old-time contractor friend who had a 1947 gas model that just sat in the yard for occasional loading. He thought the same but could not recall. He said it was in good operating condition when he scrapped it. I believe this half-swing type Keystone was made up to about 1935. The last one I had direct experience with was in 1942. At that time I was company engineer for one of the three large contractors building the Atlantic City naval air base. It was a two-shift all-out defense job. Equipment was very scarce. We were in need of something for stripping off the top soil or loam which had to be stockpiled and replaced on the finished shoulders. Letourneaus or scraper pans are good for this operation but not economical. It is slow careful work. Yards moved per day is not great, whereas in regular cutting and filling they can move a large number of pay yards per day.

Looking for something smaller we found an old Keystone half-track gas model of a deceased landscape contractor in a large deposit of loam and only used when loam was needed. It had been idle for several years and the estate was glad to sell it. As nothing else was available we bought this rusty old antique for a nominal amount, put two mechanics on it and in two days they had it running. With two small dump trucks under it, it worked like a fine watch and kept ahead of the main cut and fill operation all summer and fall. I do not know what became of this skimmer as Uncle Sam put me in the Army Engineers and four months later was extending an airfield in Ireland then on to France and Germany.

The above is my personal version after over 50 years of construction and engineering work from horse and mule-drawn slip-scoops and dump wagons, steam shovels and rollers, up to the large earth movers in use today. While memory plays tricks there are not many pieces of construction equipment I have not used or seen.