Watkins steam engine

The Watkins steam engine. The Gardner beltdriven governor is on the upper right and the large flywheel is visible in the background.

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Site Administrator, Watkins Mill, Rt. 2, Box 270M, Lawson, Missouri 64062

In 1860 Waltus Lockett Watkins built a steam powered woolen mill on his farm in western Missouri. He had moved to Missouri from Kentucky where, as a young man, he had apprenticed in cotton mills and eventually became foreman of a mill in Frankfort, Kentucky. It was in Frankfort that he had his first experience with steam engines. He reported in his autobiography that 'I assisted in the building of the first locomotive and car that ever moved on a railroad in America by steam power.' This was the engine built in 1828 by Joseph Bruen and Charles Lewis.

Watkins moved to Liberty, Missouri in 1830. In 1839 he settled a farm about twenty-five miles north of present day Kansas City where he became quite successful as a raiser of mules and shorthorn cattle. By the mid-1850s he had a 3600 acre farm complete with a sawmill, flour and grist mill, and brick kilns. He then decided to build the first woolen factory west of St. Louis.

This three and a half floor mill was designed to produce fabrics, yarn, and blankets for use by local farmers. The power for the mill was supplied by the J. T. Dowdall & Company of St. Louis who's letterhead proclaimed them to be:

Engine and Machine Shop Corner of Second & Morgan Streets

Manufacturers of steam engines and boilers, saw and grist mill machinery, muley saw mills, tobacco screws and presses, lard kettles, lard screws and cylinders, wool carding machines, Young's patent smut machines, building castings, etc.

The original agreement between Dowdall and Watkins states:
Mr. W. L. Watkins:

We will furnish you our Engine 12 x 36 Cast Bed = Double Slide Valve - also Balance Valve = Flywheel 10ft diam - cast arms to weigh about 8000 lbs - Pipes and Pulleys complete with Governor -Boiler 30ft long - 46' diam = 5 flues 2nd hand first in good order - Boiler Castings complete - Breeching for Stack all to be complete for the sum of Two Thousand Dollars ($2000) = Pulleys - Hangers & Boxes we will make at nine (9) cents = Payments = $1000 with acceptance in Clay Co. payable at Branch Farmers Bank at Liberty Mo c Bo Ds = $1000 c. bms payable some places

Very Respectfully and also furnish every thing necessary to have said engine complete & said engine is to be made in an approved stile & in a workmanlyke manner and to be shipped forthwith, (sic)

J. T. Dowdall & Co.

I accept the above proposition

W. L. Watkins

There is no existing record of shipment on the engine and flywheel (which is a sectional wheel 16 feet high, not 10 feet as stated in the agreement), but there is a very handsome and decorative shipping bill on the boiler. It is a printed form with blanks for filling in the particulars and space below to itimize the cargo.

SHIPPED in good order and condition by J. T. Dowdall & Co. on account and risk of whom it may concern, on board the good Steamboat called Thos. E. Tutt whereof Doziers is Master for the present voyage, now lying at the port of ST. LOUIS, and bound for Missouri City the following articles, marked and numbered as below; which are to be delivered, without delay, in like good order and condition, at the aforesaid port (the dangers of the River, Fire, and unavoidable accidents only excepted), unto - W. L. Watkins or to assigns, he or they paying Freight at the rate of Fifty-dollars for boiler & thirty-cents per 100 for balance.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, the Master, Clerk, or Agent of said Boat, subscribes to three Bills of Lading, all of this tenor and date, one of which being accomplished, the others to stand void.

Dated at St. Louis this 25 day of July 1860.

one boiler (dented)
fourteen grate bars
two fire front doors &
eno bolts all
two fire door linings &
eno bolts all
one rearing bar
one rock plate
nine piece fire front
one supply pipe with mud
valve & stop valve all
R. A. Dansr

weight 2738 The Dowdall Company also found an engineer to install and operate the engine for Watkins:

Mr. W. L. Watkins Richfield Clay Co. Mo.

Dear Sir

We will Send you an Engineer in every respect Competent to do your work, he will Start next Saturday or Monday for your place, his name is Jones

Verry Respectfully J.T. Dowdall & Co.per E.N. Dowdall

The following February Jones ordered more equipment from Dowdall including a '10' pulley flywheel, 20' face bored & turned 3460# $311.40.' Along with the pulley was $992.19 worth of shafts, pulleys, hangers, sett screws, pipes, valves, joints, and a 3' steam whistle and valve. These were shipped to Watkins on the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad and had a total weight of 10,712 lbs. There is no way to determine how much all this really cost Watkins, but the equipment and line shafting, complete, to operate the mill was about $3300 plus shipping costs.

The 10' 3460 lb. one-piece main drive pulley inside the mill building pulls a 20' belt which powers all of the line shafts. The vat in the foreground is for dying yarn.

The engineer, Jones seems to have stayed at the mill for a number of years, but there is only one other piece of direct evidence concerning him. It appears that he did not always get along with his employer. The following notice was found in the mill:


As I am bard out never can see what time by the clock I do the best that I can on starting on time of morning and as I have control of the engine I allow no man to touch any thing in the room with out orders I want you to stay out of here and if the whistle is sounded anymore by any body matters not who he is I will never touch a throtle again. I never know one morning out of a week what time it is I am not allowed the admittance less I ask anymore I mean what I say.

L. H. J. engineer

The mill ran full time from 1861 until 1886 when broken equipment, shortages in raw materials, and competition from Eastern ready-made manufacturers made its operation no longer economically possible. After that the mill only ran occasionally until 1898, producing a little yarn and doing a little custom carding. By that time it was being run only a week or two in the summer by unskilled farmhands and the engine suffered accordingly. The pump was blown up when a valve was left shut and big holes were made in the brick wall of the mill in the course of prying on the great flywheel to get the engine off dead center.

The boiler with its 12' return flues was made of 28' x 78' hammered iron sheets rivited together. It consumed eleven cords of wood a day.

The 16' 8000 lb. segmental cast iron flywheel with the replacement pump in the foreground. The back of the boiler setting is in the right foreground.

In the late summer or early fall of 1904 the engine was again fired to process some wool. John Watkins, who had inherited the farm from his father, supervised the firing-up then went into town on business leaving his brother, Joe, in charge. About half way through the day the engine broke down. Charles Dagley, a farm worker, remembered that 'when John returned later in the evening Joe said, 'John, the packing has blown out of the engine. What'll we do?' John replied, 'Well, I guess that's the last time we'll turn the wheels.'' The next day they began storing buggies in the mill.

The Watkins never scrapped or removed any of the mill equipment. The building sits today with all of its original equipment just as it was left 75 years ago. In 1964 it became a state historical site and is operated and maintained by the Parks and Historic Preservation Division of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. Tours are given daily (except on New Years, Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas); the fees are 50 for adults and 25 for children over six years. The steam engine and boiler may be seen without taking the tour but the interior of the mill can only be seen on a guided tour.