It all started Dec. 11, 2013. I was getting ready for work when I got an urgent phone call from Kim Kestler in Nevada. “You better get online and check the Antique Caterpillar Machinery Owners Club (ACMOC) website,” she said.
I quickly got to the computer and there it was: A 1919 Best 25 Tracklayer, screaming my name. A Cat spotter had been hiking in the hills and posted pictures of an abandoned strip mine on a remote hiking trail in the Simi Valley hills of southern California. On the edge of a heart attack, I began reading the ensuing posts (did anyone else feel the same?!?). But nobody reading the post knew the exact location of the tractor.
That day, while working at my real job, I researched anything that resembled rusty iron in the Simi Valley hills. When I got home that night, I told my wife about the abandoned tractor and showed her the pictures that had been posted. She went to work on Google Earth and in about 15 minutes had found the exact location of the tractor.
My wife took the picture that had been posted and lined it up with the background hills and, through the process of elimination, was able to zero in on the exact site. We were so excited to know where it sat – until the next day, when another ACMOC member posted the exact coordinates online. There went my advantage!
Making the right connections
Emotions were racing so fast that the raw thought of just taking the tractor crossed my mind. After all, after decades of neglect, who would miss it? That thought was quickly dismissed, as I knew that the most logical and ethical way of getting the tractor was to find the property owner and negotiate a fair and honest deal.
My next call was to Caterpillar collector Tom Madden. “Are you on your way to Simi Valley yet?” he asked. “What are you waiting for?” Tom and I talked quite a while about the situation. In the end, he wanted to help us obtain the tractor and help out in any way possible.
For the next two weeks, I was in a race against time, trying to find out who owned the tractor and, at the very least, begin the bargaining. In the back of my mind, I just knew that somebody had already beaten me to the punch and had the tractor loaded up.
After days of talking to every “wrong” person, I finally came into contact with the “right” person. It turns out that the vast open space where the tractor sat was owned by the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA). Once I got in touch with the right guy, it was a breeze.
I explained my plan for the abandoned Best and told them my plans for her future while also laying out a detailed plan of extraction that would neither disturb nor interfere with the protected land in which the abandoned mining equipment was resting.
On Christmas Eve, I got an email from the government agency with the heading “Approved.” What a Christmas gift! Now came a daunting series of tasks involving attorneys, letters of indemnification, additionally insured certificates and all of the “hold harmless” verbiage. Those kinds of words take the fun right out of it!
Planning for the unknown
Tom recommended Atlas Airlift out of Seal Beach to do the lift and after one phone call, I knew I had the right guys. I still needed another guy to help me with this project, so I called none other than fellow Caterpillar enthusiast and co-worker Shawn Stover. “Pack your bags!” I said. “We’re headed south!” In the past, when I had called with words like those, he knew it had to be something of importance and it was “go time.”
After getting the paperwork in order and making a reasonable donation to the MRCA, we were given an extraction hook date of Jan. 9. The days leading up to that date were full of sleepless nights as I ran through every situation in my head with plans A, B and C – and a backup plan if all of those went awry. After all, I had never been to the site itself: I did all of my plotting and planning through Google Earth. The topography could turn out to be much different than what I expected.
The day arrived to leave for southern California. Shawn and I left at 2:30 a.m. and hit speeds in excess of 90mph towing a trailer. After all, I’m sure the highway patrolman would understand the urgency to get a 1919 Best 25! We arrived in Simi Valley in record land speed time, knowing full well that we had a major hike ahead of us.
Each of us had more than 60 pounds of gear strapped to our backs for the ascent. We had bottle jacks, sets of wrenches, sockets, breaker bars, pry bars, come-alongs, ratchet straps, punches, hammers, penetrating lube, and – oh, yes – a full torch set. I had to be prepared for any and all situations.
Shawn and I took off up the trailhead with so much speed and determination that after the first 10 minutes we were absolutely exhausted. The thought of bringing every single tool I could think to bring suddenly didn’t seem like such a great idea after all.
Finally, a first look
Once we took a breather and calmed down a bit, we hit the trail again – but this time with a less reckless mindset. After what seemed like forever up the steep, 1,100-foot climb, we began to see parts of mining equipment and stray pieces of metal everywhere, and then there she was. Though her little exhaust stack was sticking up above the brush, the scrubby bushes were begging to take her over again.
Suddenly the weight on our backs was forgotten as we ogled the machine. My fears were put to rest: No one had already been there and taken what I had so diligently worked for and stressed over during the last four weeks.
Dropping our heavy packs, we felt like new men ready for any task. The helicopter pilot requested a maximum of 4,000 pounds per lift, so I had to made a decision to either pull the engine or split both tracks, since the tractor should have weighed 5,200 pounds new.
While at the Heidrick History Center the week before, I spent some serious time crawling all over the Best 25 they have on display to get a complete understanding of the tractor that awaited me and which tools would be needed. Since the radiator was already gone, the engine bolts seemed like the best and most direct plan. (I should thank the guy who stole the radiator for making it easier to work with.)
Envisioning a long-quiet mining operation
After sitting for decades, the bolts were almost too easy to remove. Within 45 minutes, the engine was free of the chassis, and the thermoids had been removed and were ready to be lifted out. Next, we jacked up each side of the tractor and cribbed it up on rocks to ensure an easy lift-off. The large belt pulley PTO was removed and secured on the track for extraction.
The tractor itself was basically ready to lift, so we combed the area for anything that might belong to the Best that others might have tossed into the bushes. We found the original fuel tank 50 feet away in bushes over the hill. A few more odds and ends were recovered and added to the “home” pile.
With the comfort of knowing the tractor was prepared and hook-ready, Shawn and I spent the rest of the afternoon climbing all over the area, getting a good understanding of what went on at this particular strip mine, which was likely a limestone quarry producing an extremely pure form of calcium carbonite. A large P&H mining shovel was used to dig the raw material out of the hills and a system of cables and pulleys connected to a dragline bucket moved the material to the crusher.
It looked like a couple crushers were being used: one to crush the larger stones and the next to turn smaller pieces into a fine powder. The Best 25 was set up to run a belt pulley to power one of the crushing areas. The fact that the tractor had very little undercarriage wear made perfect sense.
Cleared for takeoff
The next morning was airlift day. We met up early with Tom Madden and headed to the trailhead to begin our ascent. On the way up, I found a good landing pad for the helicopter. After cutting some of the brush and painting a giant “H,” we were ready to accept the bird.
The helicopter arrived at about 10:30 a.m. and did not hesitate to set right down on my makeshift helipad. The crew of five exited the Vietnam-era Huey with their rigging. We all hiked up the last 400 feet to the tractor to rig the two separate pieces and finalize the extraction plan. Soon all of the rigging was in place and it was “go time.”
The helicopter came from the helipad hook-ready with the rigger riding on the hook. First, we had to ease the motor out, just a little finesse from the pilot and the motor was skyward, heading down the steep canyon walls toward the transport vehicle. Shawn was at the bottom with three more rigging personnel waiting to accept the package. The pilot had only an 8-foot-wide trailer to set the lifted pieces onto.
Hard-won prize heads north
Back on top, I scurried around, strapping and securing the heavy packs and tools to the chassis for the next lift. I certainly did not want to carry those back down. Before I knew it, the Huey was back again, picking up the tractor ever so gently and off she went, heading down the canyon.
Tom and I looked at each other in disbelief at the ease and efficiency of what had just taken place. Was it all over? Was it really that easy? Four weeks of plotting, planning and sleepless nights for less than 5 minutes of actual hook time on the helicopter.
The helicopter came up one last time to pick us up and I looked back at the work area. The big proud P&H shovel that had worked with the Best tractor looked a little lonelier. I felt bad leaving the old girl alone for an eternity of solitude on that high peak. But who knows? Hopefully, someday, a couple of “shoot from the hip” fellows will come to rescue her too.
We got out of the helicopter at the bottom and went to the trailer. Too bad we didn’t have a bottle of champagne because it was all high fives and ear-to-ear smiles at that point. All we had to do was get our newly acquired prize safely home 415 miles north to Placerville, California. FC
Portions of this article previously appeared in the ACMOC Magazine and are reprinted here with permission.
Caterpillar collector Matt Veerkamp lives in Placerville, California. Email him at email@example.com.