Backhoe attachment

After building a dam around the engine with the Melroe Bobcat we started to dig it out with the backhoe attachment.

J. G. Rathert

Content Tools

Forman, N. Dakota

While working throughout the Western part of North Dakota during the 50's, it seemed every so often when inquiring about Antique Cars someone would say, 'I don't know of any old cars, but I know where there is a big steam engine in the river.' I took this rather lightly, but after hearing this rumor several times it began to arouse my curiosity. Partly, because it was supposed to be in the roughest part of the Bad Lands, also how and what a big steam engine could or would be doing in this rough country.

In 1957 we happened to be Northwest of Belfield to see a rancher. I asked him if he knew of this engine, and he said he had seen it several times. We asked him if it was possible to get to it from his place. He said, 'Very doubtful by car, by horse back yes.'

There had been a trail through there but it had not been kept up. These trails need work every spring as one run off will wash them out. We left his ranch to go back to Belfield for dinner, talking about it on our way. It was then 11 O'clock A.M., we decided if we were going to see this steamer-now was the time. We were now about 10 miles from his ranch. We returned and got all the details and directions, if there is such a thing in the Bad Lands. Let me say, here is a real test grounds for an automobile. We crossed wash outs, coulees, hills almost straight up and down, at times hung up on the bumpers. The clutch smelled right out loud. The only strong point I had against my wife wanting to turn back, that was quite often mentioned, was 'I surely don't want to go back through there again, besides the trail should get better pretty soon.' It had to get better before it could get worse.

Five hours later and a lot of tough going we arrived at the river, hungry and tired. I think of what a light rain fall could have done, as that soil when wet would make a good grade of axel grease feel cheap. We followed the rivers edge for about a mile and there, sure enough, sat the engine in the river on the opposite side. It didn't take us long to take off our shoes and wade across as the river at this time was very low.

The river and spring ice jam had done everything in their power to destroy this machine. If it had been just an ordinary size engine I feel sure it would have rolled it over many times and buried it in the quicksand in the bottom of the river. It had been vandalized for the nuts and bolts, also the brass, connecting rod bearings etc. Someone had removed the main bearing caps. The ice, during the high water, had picked the crankshaft and fly wheel assembly out, carrying it down stream and buried it in the quicksand. After looking the engine over and taking several pictures, I realized that this must be the largest steam traction engine that I had ever seen. I made one firm statement. 'I hope I never get foolish enough to try and take this thing out of here.' At that time it would have been a lot easier because it had not sunk in, also the boiler was not filled with sand.

We have a large collection of snapshots taken of various engines, as time passed on we would run across pictures of this engine sinking down in the river. Many times while looking at these pictures we would mention it should be pulled out, this would be a real challenge for anyone. I guess the thing that put it off as long as it did was the lack of the fly wheel and crankshaft. If the ice had a good hold of this, it could be anywhere between there and St. Louis. We made several more trips to the engine, not by the original route, always taking more pictures. Each time the engine was settled in a little deeper. It was now plain to see that within just a few year sit would be gone for good. It had settled so the front wheels were completely covered and the mud was half way up on the boiler. The left rear wheel was up to the hub in mud. Now the ice could pile against it every spring, in fact in the past year it had broken the big drive gear on the counter shaft. It looked like one good ice jam could easily tip it over. The boiler was full to the top with sand, even the fire box was full.

We previously had contacted Mr. Don Short the owner, and he was very much in favor of someone trying to salvage the engine. The fall of 1966 we decided to gather cable and equipment to try and retrieve it. This we knew would take a lot of doing. I would guess the engine to weigh at least 20 ton with its tummy filled with sand. The suction around the wheels would be a real problem alone in moving it. Don told us the later in the fall the better as the river would be at its lowest at that time, but one good cold spell and all would be off for another year. The weather did turn cold so it was put off for another year.

On the 14th of November 1967, my Son, Rudy, and I left home with two trucks and a trailer, pushing against a high wind which slowed us up and gave the trucks a real appetite for gas. Four hundred plus miles later we arrived at the 'battle grounds.' On one of the trucks we had an Econolie panel loaded. This we took along to be used as our home on the range. Man it got cold in there at night. We had a small fish house oil burner in it. It just would not burn steady and by morning the roof inside was heavy with frost. As soon as we started to warm it up the frost melted and dripped on our bedding and everything else. This is the first time I found it necessary to wear a parka and a rain coat in bed, the parka to keep warm and the rain coat to keep the parka dry.

We noticed there was an old abandoned cabin a short ways from the engine and mentioned it could be a big improvement over the panel. We gave it a quick glance and decided that next time we would take along enough camp equipment and stay there.

The first bit of good news when we arrived there was that the river was way down, the lowest it had been for a long time; also the very top of the big fly wheel was showing. It surely gave us a lift to see that the fly wheel and crankshaft was here.

We unloaded our equipment which included a Melroe 'Bobcat' four wheel drive rubber tired frontend loader with backhoe attachment. We started to doze a cut down to the river, it is hard to believe the amount of work that can be done with one of these little machines. I think we could have moved a mountain if there was an old engine buried under it. It seemed to go at this tremendous task with the same enthusiasm as we had, only it didn't get tired. After pushing many, many yards of dirt out and beyond the engine we had a dam all the way around it. We then mounted the backhoe attachment and started to pull dirt, tree branches, rocks etc. away from around the boiler. This saved many hours of back breaking hand shoveling. There was still plenty of that to do under and in the boiler, between the big rear wheel gears etc. As Don said 'this filled in a grain at a time.' Next we went for the flywheel and crankshaft with the backhoe. Due to the quicksand the backhoe seemed determined to pull the Bobcat into the hole with it. We found it necessary to chain it to the rear wheel of the steamer. For awhile it seemed we couldn't make any headway as the sand filled in as fast as we could pull it out. After an hour of this we were able to get a line hooked on to the crankshaft to the winch truck, we pulled it up to the top of the bank. It appeared to be intact and in fairly good condition, including the pinion and the big four shoe clutch.