Buffalo-Springfield Road Roller

A 1928 Buffalo-Springfield road roller is at the heart of a Washington man's life-long love affair with steam.

| May 2016

Some boys are raised around cars. For others, it’s tractors. Francis Orr is one of the rare few who can say he grew up around steam engines. “My father’s father was a locomotive engineer who farmed with steam and ran a steam roller for the county,” he says. “My dad fired a boiler in a generating plant, creating electricity for the town.” And when Francis and his parents crossed Long Island Sound to visit his mother’s parents on Long Island, New York, they took the steam-powered Park City ferry.

“My dad flashed his Masonic ring to get us down to see the compound steam engine,” Francis recalls. “At 7 years old, seeing everything going up and down, round and round,” he says, “I was hooked.”

Launched by Daredevil Joe

A few years later, when he was in junior high, Francis discovered an abandoned steam traction engine while on a visit to his grandfather near Dundee, New York. “It was a Buffalo-Springfield three-wheel steam roller, shoved into the back lot and out of service,” he says. “My cousin and I used to go down and crawl around on it, making engine sounds and all that sort of stuff. That was the first engine I ever got my hands on.”

But not the last. At 14, during the old car race at the Bridgehampton Road Races on Long Island, he spotted a car pulled off the road. The driver, 87-year-old “Daredevil Joe” Tracy, had burst a tube on his Stanley Steamer and was fixing it. Francis was so enamored of steam that he spent the rest of the day with Tracy, “much to the dismay of my rear end,” he recalls, “when I returned to my folks!”

In the 1950s and ’60s, the first page of several mechanics magazines featured renowned race-driver Tracy at the wheel of the steam-powered Locomobile, wearing his trademark leather helmet and red scarf. “Joe Tracy got me active in steam,” Francis says. “He introduced me to collectors and the machinery.”

Starting a collection

Eventually, Francis would own his own steamroller. But it didn’t happen overnight. While serving in the U.S. Navy, he bought a Russell steam traction engine. In 1966, he picked up a 14-ton Keystone Steam Skimmer steam shovel.