Buckeye Steam Traction Ditcher


| September/October 1989



Traction ditching machine

703 Co. Road 2 So. St. Stephen, Minnesota 56375 Reprinted with permission from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers

Patented by James B. Hill in 1894 as the traction ditching machine, this steam-driven ditcher (No. 88) survives as an example of the first successful machine ditcher. Accurately graded ditches were needed for open drainage, pipeline trenches, or placement of underground agricultural drainage tile. These machines replaced slow and costly hand labor Steam engines were replaced early in the twentieth century by internal combustion engines.

Historical Significance

The Old Black Swamp area of northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan developed rapidly as an agricultural community during the post-Civil War era. The forests had been cleared, but waterlogged clay soils made cultivating the land difficult. Several efforts to increase productivity, such as crop rotation, were made by farmers. Among them was under drainage ditching, a method for laying tiles that act as conduits beneath the soil. Ditches had to be dug along gradients that followed the fall of the land. The tile piping was then laid along the bottom and covered over.

Tiling techniques for draining land were brought to the United States from Scotland in 1821 by John Johnston, who settled in Geneva, New York. Hand labor was used to dig the trenches along a gradient and to lay tile pipe sections to carry off water. Wood planks were used in lieu of tiling until the brick and tile mills could be built to produce clay tiles. A Geneva pottery maker, B. F. Wharten by, perfected and patented the first U. S. tile-making machine for Johnston.

As farmers moved westward, these techniques were studied by state commissions and farmers. Black Swamp farmers had begun digging or widening surface ditches along natural channels beginning about 1860. According to the census, Ohio had 25,000 miles of open drainage ditches by 1920. Of those, 15,000 were located in the Lake Erie drainage basin of northwest Ohio.