Lombard's Log Hauler: The First Crawler Tractor

Let's Talk Rusty Iron: Sam Moore details the development and use of Alvin Lombard's log hauler, possibly the first crawler tractor ever produced.

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1907 patent drawing of the improved Lombard log hauler .

Alvin Lombard

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Benjamin Holt is generally credited with producing the first successful crawler tractor in November 1904, but several others seem to have been ahead of him.

Endless chain drives with 'feet' or pads of wood or iron were patented by at least three other men, Thomas S. Minnis of Meadville, Pa., in 1870, Robert C. Parvin of Illinois in 1873, and F.W. Baxter, whose state is not listed, in 1888.

None of these men's machines caught on, but then there was Alvin O. Lombard, who built and sold crawler tractors for logging, starting in 1901.

Alvin Orlando Lombard was born in 1856 and grew up on his father's farm near Springfield, Maine, a small town in the eastern part of the state. Mechanically inclined, young Lombard worked at lumber mills along the Penobscot and Kennebec rivers and eventually became a skilled millwright with several lumber mill-related inventions to his credit.

In 1899 or early 1900, E.J. Lawrence, a Kennebec lumberman, asked Lombard to come up with a mechanical log hauler. Lombard built a wooden model of a steam-powered machine with a horizontal boiler. The machine's front was supported on a pair of sled runners; the locomotive was equipped at the rear with a pair of endless tracks in place of large drive wheels.

Lawrence reportedly thought the design had promise, so Lombard had the Waterville Iron Works build a working prototype, and he filed for a patent. The machine, named Mary Ann, was first tried on Thanksgiving Day 1900, exactly four years before Holt tested his first crawler in California.

After correcting Mary Ann's initial tendency to stand in place and just hop up and down, Lombard had a working log hauler, which he patented May 4, 1901. Those early machines had two vertical steam engines, one to power each track, and crude wooden cabs at the rear. They were steered by horses attached to the sled in front.

Five such machines were built and sold from 1901 to 1904, and they caused much excitement among New England lumbermen. Later, Lombard recalled that in 1904, he sent a machine to Colebrook, N.H., where it was hitched to a string of sleds holding 40,000 board feet of logs.

"Hundreds of thousands of people lined the road," he said. "They came from Boston and from the lumber mills in the woods, and ministers had to shut down the churches on Sunday so people could see the event."

The demonstration so impressed one lumberman that he wrote a $5,000 check and bought the machine then and there.

Lombard redesigned the hauler to include a horizontal, double-acting steam engine on either side of the frame below the boiler. These engines drove a bevel gear differential that powered the tracks through sprockets and chains. In front of the boiler was a horizontal wheel on an upright post that steered the sled through a chain of gears.

A 425-gal., saddle-type water tank was carried over the boiler. These later machines looked very much like a saddle-back railroad engine with the water tank around the boiler, the smokestack and steam dome, and the railroad style cab at the rear.

Fuel capacity was 1 1/2 tons of coal or 7/8ths of a cord of wood. The machine weighed 19 tons and the instruction book claimed, "A machine can, if in proper hands, haul on snow iced roads a load of 300 tons."

The Lombard was operated by a crew of four, and Robert Pike, in his book Tall Trees, Tough Men, gives the following description of duties:

"A crew consisted of four men – an engineer, a fireman, a conductor who would connect and inspect each sled to see that it was properly loaded and secured, and the steersman, the most important of the four, who was a hardy and intrepid soul, quite unaccustomed to fear.

"There were no brakes on a log hauler. Close to the rear, the conductor rode the logs, communicating with the cab by a bell rope which ran along the sled stakes. Should one of the wooden poles break going around a curve, the unhitched sleds would head for the brush, and the conductor had to jump for his life. From his cab, the engineer worked the throttle, watched the lags (treads) turning beneath him, and swore at the fireman. The fireman swore back and kept poised to jump.

"And all along, far up front, huddled the steersman. Directly behind and above him loomed the smokestack, and when the wind was right, it belched smoke that blinded him and sparks that set his clothes on fire. So there he sat, grasping mightily a heavy iron wheel, steering for his life, and hoping every time that he came to a steep down-grade that he would survive long enough to find another way to earn a living."

The Lombard log hauler hit about 5 mph at top speed, but on a steep downhill grade, with 200 to 300 tons of logs on board, it provided some wild rides and spectacular crashes.

A book titled Endless Tracks in the Woods notes, "Steersmen who resisted the temptation to jump were known as 'stay with 'er' men and gained the respect of the loggers."

The Phoenix Company of Eau Claire, Wis., built, under license from Lombard, a similar tracked log hauler called the Centipede. It had a two-cylinder, vertical steam engine mounted on each side of the smoke box that drove the tracks through shafts and pinion gears rather than chains.

Lombard continued to build tracked log haulers into the late 1930s, but after 1917, gasoline engines were used instead of steam. In the early '30s, Lombard introduced a 10-ton truck-tractor powered by a Fairbanks-Morse diesel engine that could handle 250 tons in sleds on iced roads.

These gas and diesel haulers looked nothing like the steam versions. The fronts were like the heavy trucks of the day and the backs resembled a World War II half-track. These truck-tractors were often fitted with front wheels instead of runners and were used as heavy dump trucks and to push snow plows.

Log haulers on display

Vintage log haulers/crawlers still can be seen at a few museums around the country. These include:

The Patten Lumbermen's Museum, P.O. Box 300, Shin Pond Rd., Patten, ME 04765, (207) 528-2650, Web site www.lumbermensmuseum.org. Open seasonally. As of 2001 the collection includes two Lombard log haulers, one steam and one gasoline, according to curator and director Marcia Pond-Anderson.

The Rhinelander Logging Museum, operated by Rhinelander Area Seniors Inc. Open seasonally. As of 2001, this museum, begun in 1932, owns a Phoenix log hauler made by the Phoenix Foundry in Eau Claire, WI, according to Walter Krause, president of Rhinelander Area Seniors, which operates the museum. FC 

Sam Moore became interested in agricultural machinery while growing up on a western Pennsylvania farm. Now a resident of Salem, Ohio, he collects antique tractors, implements and related items.