The Steam Plow in America

Pursued for decades, the quest for a workable steam plow was ultimately abandoned with the successful development of the steam traction engine.

40-120 HP Peerless

Cover Image: Bill Speiden and his oxen team pulling an Oliver walking plow contrast Willis Abel's 40-120 HP Peerless Z-3 pulling a 20 bottom John Deere plow at the Steam and Gas Pasture Party, Somerset, Va., August 2002.

Jack C. Norbeck

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By the mid-1800s, the prospect of a steam plow had created more than a little excitement in agricultural, industrial and social circles. The power of steam was self-evident, and it seemed clear that the person who successfully harnessed and combined the power of steam with the utility of the plow would fundamentally alter the agricultural landscape.

As early as 1833, Edmund C. Bellinger, Barnwell, S.C., sketched out a plan for a cable operated steam plow very similar in approach to the steam-powered cable plows that became popular in England and Germany toward the end of the 19th century. In 1855 Obed Hussey, better known for his reaper design patented in 1833, demonstrated his own steam plow. Hussey worked on the design of his plow for at least a few years, but failed to bring it to market. Richard Gatling, the inventor of the Gatling Gun, worked on the development of a successful steam plow, receiving a patent in 1857 for a steam-powered plow that was to be pulled by a team of oxen.

In 1858 Joseph W. Fawkes of Lancaster County, Pa., exhibited his steam plow in Illinois, first in Decatur and then at the state fair in Centralia. His efforts met with at least some level of success, and the following year Fawkes returned to Illinois with a new model, the Lancaster. He went to Moline, Ill., bought eight John Deere plows, bolted them together and used them in his winning demonstration in Chicago against James Waters of Detroit and John Van Doren of Chicago in the famous Illinois State Agricultural Society contest of 1859.

That same year, President Abraham Lincoln addressed the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society at the Wisconsin State Fair in Milwaukee, Wis.. Lincoln talked about the steam plow, about what he thought it I should be like and the impact on American agriculture that would follow its development. In an oft-quoted speech, Lincoln told the assembled crowd that, "The successful application of steam-power to farm work is a desideratum - especially a steam plow. It is not enough that a machine operated by steam will really plow. To be successful, it must, all things considered, plow better than can be done by animal power. It must do all the work as well, and cheaper, or more rapidly, so as to get through more perfectly in season; or in some way afford an advantage over plowing with animals, else it is no success."

Working out of a shop in Pacheco, Calif., Philander H. Standish completed his first steam plow, the Mayflower, in 1867. Standish tested and experimented with his plow on various terrains and soils, and his steam plow won awards at the Mechanics' Institute Fair in San Francisco in 1868 and 1869. Standish won medals and recognition (his design was patented in the U.S., England, France and Russia), and he attracted the attention of O.C. Coffin, a miller in Contra Costa County, Calif., who saw promise in Standish's plow. In 1870 Coffin teamed with Standish, agreeing to finance the building of a second plow in Boston, Mass.

Following the formation of a partnership between Coffin and Standish, Standish went to Boston to engineer and supervise the building of the Sonoma, a steam plow similar to the one he had made in California. The completed plow was shipped to New Orleans early in 1871, where it was tested on a tract of cotton and cane land at the Poydras Plantation. The plantation's owner, General John Davidson, was apparently favorably impressed; he supposedly asked Standish to build a special plow for use at his Poydras Plantation. Unfortunately, fate dealt cruelly with Standish's career, as Davidson was killed in a railway accident before arrangements had been completed for the new plow. Further complications and discouragements caused Standish to interrupt his work on the steam plow, and in 1872 he moved to Jefferson City, Mo., where he went into the chain manufacturing business after perfecting a chain-making machine. Standish evidently continued testing his ideas, never completely abandoning his dream of perfecting a steam plow, but never concluding the work successfully.

Although there were many attempts at steam plowing (and some partial successes during those years, with 13 patents granted in 1871 alone), 1876, generally considered the birth date of the steerable steam traction engine in the U.S., was a turning point in the evolution of the development of the steam plow. A steerable steam traction engine provided a new means for working the land, and the advent of the steam traction engine her alded the use of tractor plows. The multiple gangs -- large, heavy plows intended for use with steam traction engines -- were among the first types produced, and these plows, ranging in size from six to 14 bottoms, soon met with farmer approval and broke many sections of Western prairie. The 1893 Peerless steam plowing outfit, for example, was guaranteed to plow as much soil in the same time and to an equal depth as could be done with six, three-horse teams -- provided, as a Geiser catalog stipulated, the soil was "firm enough to carry the engine, free from stumps and rocks, not too wet, having no grades over 1 foot rise in 10 and good fuel and water are provided."

Large steam traction engines had one field purpose only, and that was drawing multiple plows. Custom plowing was the rule, especially on the large tracts in the West. An integral part of the successful farming of America and the opening of the prairie lands, the large steam traction engines with their multiple gang plows eventually made way to a new age in farming. As smaller, cheaper and more adaptable gas-powered tractors were developed, individual farmers could afford to buy their own tractors and do their own plowing. The new tractors freed small farming operations from their ties to large custom plowing outfits, heralding the end of the era of steam.

The steam plow, as envisioned in its earliest forms, ultimately failed to materialize. Evolving technologies, combined with shifting needs, created the market for steam traction engines, which, although eventually eclipsed by smaller, gas-powered tractors, revolutionized agricultural production.

Information for this article came from the Encyclopedia of American Steam Traction Engines, by Jack C. Norbeck, and the forth-coming book, The First American Farm Tractors, by Jack Alexander. Steam Traction editor Richard Backus contributed to this story. A special thanks to Jack Alexander for providing illustrations of early steam plows, and to Willis Abel, Austin Monk, Carl Tuttle, Ted Haberland and Bill Speiden for all their help. 

Steam Cable Plowing

Steam-operated cable plowing developed successfully in England, using a system of two steam engines pulling a cable-drawn plow. The English cable plows were capable of traveling safely at up to 4 mph when plowing through good soil. The length of the furrow was usually measured in 1/2 miles rather than in rods, and the early English cable plows, with their short strings of cable, were grossly inadequate. By 1870, there were 3,000 steam cable-plowing outfits in operation in England and only four outfits operating in the U.S. Henry E. Lawrence, a southern planter, used one of these plowing outfits on his 1,000-acre sugar estate near New Orleans.

Cable plowing never really took root in North America, owing mostly to issues of topography and the large size of our fields, particularly in the West. The general use of cable-type steam plows was widespread in Germany around the 1890s, and they were still being used for reclaiming peat land as late as the 1970s. FC

Steam enthusiast Jack C. Norbeck is a frequent contributor to Steam Traction. Through his company, Norbeck Research, Jack puts together library exhibits that work to educate the public on the historical role of steam in agriculture and society. His exhibits have been displayed around the world. Contact Jack at: Norbeck Research, 117 N. Ruch St. #8, Coplay, PA 18037 -1712.