McLaughlin Manufacturing of Berkeley, California

The McLaughling Manufacturing Co. made steam tractors and steam traction engines

Blueprint of a McLaughlin steam traction engine

Among the fantastic photos Ed McLaughlin sent for this issue's story on the McLaughlin Manufacturing Co. was this blueprint of a McLaughlin steam traction engine as drawn by company founder Dennis W. McLaughlin. No date appears on the blueprint, but it is presumed to date from sometime around 1902 as we can find no mention of the company prior to that time.

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On the back cover of the January/February 2002 issue of the Iron-Men Album, we ran a photo submitted by reader Wilbur Wimmer, Redding, Calif., of a McLaughlin Manufacturing Co. steam tractor located in McArthur, Calif. Having never seen one before, we asked readers to drop us a line should anyone have more information on that tractor. A few of you did, offering tidbits of information heard over the years. But no one, it seemed, really knew much about McLaughlin Manufacturing or their tractors. And more vexingly, no one knew of any source of surviving pictures or literature related to the company.

As is the case with so many tractor manufacturers from the early years, it seemed that any information about McLaughlin had simply disappeared, a trail of vague hints (and one surviving tractor) the only record of its existence. And then I received an e-mail from Ed McLaughlin, grandson of McLaughlin tractor manufacturer Dennis W. McLaughlin.

Ed does not follow the steam hobby, and in fact his only previous connection to steam was through his grandfather. But some years ago Ed made contact with IMA reader Jack Alexander, Gilroy, Calif., and in the process Jack learned of Ed's connection to McLaughlin tractors. Through Jack, Ed became aware of the McLaughlin tractor in McArthur, Calif., and when IMA ran the photo of the McArthur McLaughlin, Jack alerted Ed to the fact.

At that point Ed contacted me wondering what, if anything, might have come out of running the photo of the McLaughlin, as he's actively seeking information related to his grandfather's company. I had learned little Ed didn't already know, but Ed, it turned out, had a veritable treasure-trove of photographs and literature related to McLaughlin tractors.

And that brings us to the present time, and the ability to present at least a rough sketch of the McLaughlin tractor and the man behind it.

Dennis W. McLaughlin

The eighth of 12 children, Dennis W. McLaughlin was born in Ireland on Sept. 28, 1858. In 1869 his mother, Margaret McLaughlin, died, and Dennis' father, Andrew Peter McLaughlin, decided the family's best fortunes could be realized in America. Sometime around 1870 the family immigrated to the U.S., briefly taking up residence in Chicago with Andrew's brother, Frederic, before setting off by train to San Francisco, riding the Union Pacific's transcontinental route in its first year of operation in 1871.

Very little is known about Dennis McLaughlin's early years, other than the fact he evidently became an accomplished pattern-maker and marksman. That he became an accomplished pattern-maker is known only through mention of his pattern-making skills in his obituary and the fact of his design and construction of steam tractors. As for his skills as a marksman, in a three-page autobiography written by McLaughlin in 1930, he proudly cites winning the Columbian medal for on-the-man target shooting in competitions at the 1892 Chicago World's Fair. Oddly, he says nothing of his early days building steam tractors, making only light reference to his later work in the "tractor business."

And while he gives only passing notice to his tractor manufacturing activities, he devotes a long paragraph to reciting particulars of his 1916 patent for a traction wheel for small tractors, developed after his steam tractor operation had closed down and he had moved into the manufacture of small, gas-powered tractors sold under the Golden Gate Gas Tractor Co. name. We know from a surviving embossing stamp that the Golden Gate Gas Tractor Co. was incorporated Feb. 24, 1914.

McLaughlin clearly enjoyed time spent with his inventions, for his brief autobiography also cites his invention of a keyless lock and a combined weighing and advertising scale, designed so a different advertisement would show each time an individual used the scale. Additionally, we know of four tractor-related patents he received; a 1903 patent for the steering mechanism used on his steam tractors; a 1903 patent for a traction wheel for steam tractors; a 1910 patent for a reversing gear for steam tractors; and the previously mentioned 1916 patent for his traction wheel for small tractors.

The McLaughlin Manufacturing Co.

We don't know much about the McLaughlin Manufacturing Co., a small, but evidently successful, manufacturing operation set up by McLaughlin working out of shops variously located in San Francisco, San Leandro and Berkeley, Calif. Available evidence suggests the company was actively manufacturing tractors and freight wagons by 1903, but it is unknown precisely when the company was established. Literature on McLaughlin tractors is presently limited to advertisements that appeared in Mining and Scientific Press, a California-based mining trade journal, and a surviving catalog in the possession of Ed McLaughlin.

Readers familiar with the steam tractors produced by Daniel Best in San Leandro, Calif., during this same era will notice striking similarities between the two, starting with the large, vertical boiler and continuing to the single front wheel. In fact, their basic layout is almost a mirror image, and evidently there was question as to at least one element of their design provenance. According to Paul Reno, Oakland, Calif., a well-known restorer and operator of Best steam tractors, Best sued McLaughlin in the 1900s for patent infringement, alleging that McLaughlin's front wheel and steering mechanism was a copy of his own. McLaughlin was evidently able to show his design was significantly different and unique, and continued manufacture. A copy of McLaughlin's 1903 patent is shown on page 17.

That the two companies utilized a similar design suddenly makes sense when we learn that McLaughlin worked for Best before moving on to found his own company. Dennis McLaughlin died April 15, 1934, and an obituary of McLaughlin in the April 16, 1934 edition of the Oakland Tribune cited his work with Best: 'One of the first men in the tractor field, McLaughlin was for many years connected with the Best Tractor Company of San Leandro. Later he went into manufacturing tractors for himself in Berkeley.' A further obituary published in the San Francisco Chronicle on the same day says, 'More than 40 years ago, Mr. McLaughlin was associated with the Best Manufacturing Company in San Leandro, and was known as the pattern maker of the first steam tractor. Later he was head of the McLaughlin Manufacturing Company in Berkeley, which manufactured tractors.'

This makes the fact of a connection between Best and McLaughlin pretty clear, but we don't know when Best and McLaughlin met or in what capacity McLaughlin worked with Best. Perhaps more intriguing is the question of whose design, Best's or McLaughlin's, came first.

There's a tenuous suggestion that Best was first on the scene with his design. According to information from the Oregon Department of Agriculture's web site, Best started toying with steam tractor design as early as the late 1860s in Oregon when he teamed up with a Nathaniel P. Slate. Best was at the time a machine shop pattern maker, and supposedly Best and Slate designed and manufactured a combine harvester, steam tractors and a hay baler. But here the historical record gets slightly muddy.

According to Floyd Clymer's Album of Historical Steam Traction Engines and Threshing Equipment No. 1, Best based his design on a steam tractor built sometime around 1885 by Eugene Remington in Woodburn, Ore. But according to the Oregon Department of Agriculture's web site, a De Lafayette Remington, who ran a foundry and machine shop in Woodburn, Ore., acquired Slate's first steam tractor in exchange for debt. But if Best was working with Slate, then that suggests the tractor De Lafayette Remington acquired was likely designed by Best. Finally, it is possible, but not confirmed, that De Lafayette and Eugene Remington were one and the same.

Another issue surrounding McLaughlin is the question of manufacturing. A surviving catalog from the McLaughlin Manufacturing Co., believed to date from approximately 1906-1907, shows a photograph of the McLaughlin works at what was then 5th and Snyder in Berkeley, Calif. A McLaughlin advertisement appearing in the Nov. 14, 1903 issue of Mining and Scientific Press gives a company address of San Francisco, while clearly visible on the front of the tractor's boiler are the words, 'Manufactured By D.W. McLaughlin Emeryville, CAL.' Evidently, and this is supported by Ed McLaughlin, the McLaughlin company moved a number of times, starting life in San Francisco, moving to San Leandro (home to Daniel Best's company) after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, and finally settling in Berkeley before going out of the steam tractor business shortly thereafter.

The Tractors

Surviving literature shows only one steam tractor (referred to as a 'Road Engine') available, a 60 HP, under-mounted twin-cylinder with a vertical boiler. No mechanical specifications have been found. As for the tractor's intended duty, agricultural work was clearly envisioned for the McLaughlin. But its main use appears to have been in the mining and logging industries, where its evidently ample power enabled it to pull large loads with relative ease. One surviving photo shows a McLaughlin pulling a 12-ton transformer up a fairly steep grade to a construction site of unknown intent, while others show McLaughlin tractors engaged in pulling large wood wagons.

McLaughlin supposedly engaged in the manufacture of freight wagons and stationary engines, but no known examples have survived, nor have any photographs, drawings or cuts.

Further, nobody knows for sure just how many steam tractors McLaughlin actually built. Paul Reno remembers hearing there were no more than five constructed, but so far that number has not been confirmed. Ed McLaughlin, while fortunately managing to preserve some early literature from the company, says he has no production records. In fact, the photos shown here presently constitute the bulk of known images of McLaughlin steam tractors, and we presently know of only one survivor, the McLaughlin residing in McArthur, Calif.

Among the fantastic photos Ed McLaughlin sent for this issue's story on the McLaughlin Manufacturing Co. was this blueprint of a McLaughlin steam traction engine as drawn by company founder Dennis W. McLaughlin. No date appears on the blueprint, but it is presumed to date from sometime around 1902 as we can find no mention of the company prior to that time.

Written in light pencil on the mat backing of this photo are the words 'out chain.' Note the large selection of chains in the lower left of the photo) Judging by the coke cars this Mclaughlin is pulling, it's probably safe to assume it was employed in the mining industry.

This all started with the back cover of the January/February 2002 issue of the Iron-Men Album, where we ran a photo submitted by reader Wilbur Wimmer, Redding, Calif., of a McLaughlin steam tractor located in McArthur, Calif. Having never seen one before, we asked readers to drop us a line should anyone have more information on that tractor. A few of you did, offering tidbits of information heard over the years. But no one, it seemed, really knew much about McLaughlin tractors. And more vexingly, no one knew of any source of surviving pictures or literature related to the company.

As is the case with so many tractor manufacturers from the early years, it seemed that any information about McLaughlin had simply disappeared, a trail of vague hints (and one surviving tractor) the only record of its existence. And then I received an e-mail from Ed McLaughlin, grandson of McLaughlin tractor manufacturer Dennis W. McLaughlin.

Ed does not follow the steam hobby, and in fact his only previous connection to steam was through his grandfather. But some years ago Ed made contact with IMA reader Jack Alexander, Gilroy, Calif., and in the process Jack learned of Ed's connection to McLaughlin tractors. Through Jack, Ed became aware of the McLaughlin tractor in McArthur, Calif., and when IMA ran the photo of the McArthur McLaughlin, Jack alerted Ed to the fact.

At that point Ed contacted me wondering what, if anything, might have come out of running the photo of the McLaughlin, as he's actively seeking information related to his grandfather's company. I had learned little Ed didn't already know, but Ed, it turned out, had a veritable treasure-trove of photographs and literature related to McLaughlin tractors.

And that brings us to the present time, and the ability to present at least a rough sketch of the McLaughlin tractor and the man behind it.

It's possible more information about the company and its products will come to light. Ed McLaughlin is actively searching for remnants of his grandfather's company, whether literature or surviving equipment, and it's hoped that someone in the steam community has information that will aid in building an accurate history of the company.

For now, we'll have to satisfy ourselves with admiring the precious few images we have of these amazing steam tractors. But at least we have these.

Richard Backus is editor of the Iron-Men Album. Contact Ed McLaughlin at: 13362 Montagne Dr., Santa Ana, CA 92705-2016, or e-mail: EHMcLaughlin@aol.com