Old Steam Engines

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1927 Telephone Fort Mill, South Carolina 29715

If you ever hear the lonely shriek of a steam whistle you may think that the noise is coming from an old time steam locomotive. However, the sound may be coming from another kind of old steam engine. In the 1800s and early 1900s there were many other less glamorous but no less important sources of power laboring away in South Carolina's forests, fields, and factories. Most of these old engines could not move themselves around as locomotives could, but were rolled on wheels to places of work by strong teams of horses or mules. However, they could go places a locomotive could not, whether deep into the forest to power a sawmill; out into the cane path to crush sugar cane and then use the steam from its boiler to boil the sap into molasses; or out into a rice or wheat field to power a threshing machine and baler; or just to power the machinery at the cotton gin.

Other steam engines in the Palmetto State simply sat on a plinth their whole lives and lead a stationary existence tucked into the corner of some mill or factory to turn the overhead pulleys and belts which distributed power to the various looms and machines in the days before electricity. Some of the whistles on these engines could be heard for ten miles or more, to announce shift changes. The whistles on the portable engines were used to signal messages to the work crew. Of course the most eagerly awaited such signals were the three long toots which meant dinnertime!

There were steam engine factories in South Carolina. The most famous of these was the old Tozer engine works at 700-715 Gervais and later at the 600 block of Green Street in Columbia. They built farm and stationary engines, as well as a locomotive or two between 1865 and 1933. Richard Tozer died in 1884 and the company was then operated by his brother-in-law, George L. Dial, but Mr. Dial died two years later. Mrs. Dial remarried and by the late 1880s her husband John A. Willis ran the business until his death in 1916. Then Mr. Willis' stepson, Thomas Fraser Dial ran the works until 1933 when the demand for steam engines finally dried up. From 1871 up through the first world war, these steam engines always won a blue ribbon at the South Carolina state fair.

The daughter of Thomas Fraser Dial remarked that when she was a little girl, her father would always say that he wouldn't enter his engines at the fair, but at the last minute he always would. It was always a thrill to see the little Tozer engines win first prize; and other more famous makes such as International Harvester would have to settle for second place. Her greatest thrill though, she said, was to blow the whistle at the end of the fair. At one time in the 1800s, the company payroll was $4000 per week, which would translate into about $50,000 today. And by then almost 500 had been built!

Anderson County had over 54 of these machines hard at work sawmilling, thrashing, etc. The early Tozer engines had a Palmetto Tree and a lion head cast into the front of the boiler. The significance of the Palmetto is obvious, but the lion head is still a mystery. Was it the crest of the Tozer or Dial family? No surviving family members can remember. Do you know anyone who has seen a Tozer steam engine? There are two at the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia.

There were steam engines built in Charleston as well, such as the Dotterer and Eason, the Smith-Porter, and the Charleston Iron Works. Information on these engines is more scarce, but hopefully their full story can be told someday.

In fact, almost every major town in South Carolina in those early days had some blacksmith or machinist who could build a steam engine, though they didn't build many. Some of these old machines and other old equipment can be seen today in operation in two small shows in upstate South Carolina, one in Dacusville in the spring of the year and the other in Pendleton in the fall every year. Young and old delight to see and ride on these old engines; see and pet the baby farm animals; see how wood was sawn; fields were plowed and sown; and how grain was threshed in 'Paw-paw's' day. One can even hear that lonesome shrill shriek of the steam whistle echo across the fields.

Do you or someone you know have a steam engine story to tell? I am currently researching and digging up old photos, newspaper and magazine advertisements and articles on steam engines used in the fields, forests, and factories of this part of the country. But this rich heritage is much more than just facts, figures, and photos; it is about people. The generation which is now passing has these stories locked in their memories. Often with just a little encouragement, a flood of such information and nostalgia can be released by merely asking.

If you know of any Tozer engines still in existence, please let this writer know. Also, I am trying to collect nice photos of all extant Tozers including years, size (HP) and serial numbers. So if you have a Tozer, please send me a picture of it. Thanks.

Also, if anybody out there is interested, I would like to record these tales, tragedies, tricks, and troubles so that future generations can enjoy and learn from them. We must all learn from the past. That is what learning really is. Please contact me if you, or someone you know, has some old stories to tell or knows where some old engine is hidden, whether deep in the forest at some old sawmill sight, or languishing away into rust behind some old bam. Believe me, unless we rescue this rich heritage now, it may pass away forever.