In the November/December 2002 issue of Iron-Men Album Geoffrey Stein, senior historian at the New York State Museum in Albany, N.Y., wrote in on the subject of Birdsall steam traction engines. I have a special interest in Birdsall steam engines and other engines made in New York, and as such I would like to contribute the bit of Birdsall history I have gleaned from various sources.
Evolution of Birdsall name
The earliest published reference to the Birdsall company I have found is an ad from an 1880 issue of The Rural New Yorker. This ad contains a very nice cut of a small (perhaps 6-8 HP) portable, with no mention made of any other type of engine being available. No mention is made of how long the company had existed at that time. The ad ends with the admonition: “For Special Circulars address E.M. Birdsall, Penn Yan, N.Y. USA.”
The next chronological bit of information comes from a photograph of a Birdsall steam engine with the notation on the back, “Don Gridley 1895.” Shown is a small, perhaps 10 HP traction with chain steering and no visible means of carrying any water or fuel. The builder’s plate on the cylinder jacket is almost illegible – even under magnification but possibly shows “#1657, Auburn, N.Y.” This is a lot of guesswork, however. The engine shows a lot of caked-on grease and oil and was probably at least a few years old in 1895.
The next source of information is an 1899 price list, and the address is Auburn, N.Y. In the earlier ad the company is listed only as “E.M. Birdsall,” while in the 1899 price list it is called “The New Birdsall Co.” Perhaps the company had been reorganized in some way as well as relocating to Auburn.
The 1899 price list also lists Birdsall branch houses in St. Louis, Mo., Toledo, Ohio, Fond du Lac, Wis., and Baltimore, Md. Semi-portable and skid engines are listed in eight sizes ranging from 6 HP to 25 HP and priced from $600 to $1,200. Portable engines are listed in six sizes from 6 HP to 18 HP with prices ranging from $700 to $1,050. Traction engines are offered in 12 HP, 15 HP and 18 HP sizes. The least expensive was the chain-steered 12 HP at $1,300, and the most expensive at $1,900 was the 18 HP straw-burner with suspended water tank and “patent steering gear.”
What Birdsall called their ‘patent’ steering apparatus consisted of a worm and sector on the left front wheel spindle and a tie rod running to a spindle arm on the right wheel. Later on, as the automobile became more common, the company described this apparatus as an ‘automobile’ steering gear, thus making it sound more up-to-date. Birdsall claimed to be the only traction engine builder to use this system.
Also listed in the 1899 price list is their Seneca Chief line of threshers, the smallest being a 28-inch by 45-inch machine at $450. The largest was a 40-inch by 60-inch machine at $575. Two friction-feed sawmills are listed; an 18-foot carriage at $250 and a #1 with 24-foot carriage at $350.
Our next source is a copy of a much later, undated catalog contributed by Roger Boldt. I believe the catalog dates from the late teens, and I base this assumption on the fact the catalog states that Birdsall’s ‘new’ factory was located on the Barge Canal in Newark, N.Y. – the Barge Canal was completed in 1918 and was the successor to the famous Erie Canal.
This catalog shows Birdsall’s new factory as very modern in appearance, rows of windows and skylights running its length. The main section was 100 feet wide by 565 feet long. At this juncture the company appears to have been quite successful, or at least planned to be. The last time I inquired the building was still standing, occupied for many years by the Jackson & Perkins Company, famous the world over for their hybridized roses maybe the sunlight coming in all the skylights makes roses bloom.
In this last catalog portable engines are offered in eight single-cylinder sizes and three double-cylinder sizes. Skid engines are listed in 11 single- and double-cylinder sizes, and traction engines are offered in four single-cylinder and two double-cylinder sizes.
Additionally, the catalog says Birdsall had, at the time, been satisfying customers for 52 years. If my guess as to the age of the catalog is correct, then Birdsall was founded shortly after the end of the Civil War. The catalog goes on to mention a multitude of features unique to Birdsall engines, among them the claim of building the only engines having no gears attached to the boiler plus spring-mounting front and rear.
My personal roster of existing Birdsall engines is out of date, but stands as follows:
– 12 HP traction exhibited at Kinzer in 1950 by Bill and George VanAtta. I believe this might be the Elmer Ritzman engine that later went to North Carolina and then resold again.
– 10 HP traction once owned by H.W. Waber of Kalamazoo, Mich.
– 18 HP traction owned by Leroy McClure, Colchester, Ill.
– 6 HP portable in Washington, pictured in the January/February 2002 issue of Iron-Men Album.
– 6 HP portable in Levanna, N.Y.
– 10 HP(?) traction at the Mount Washington (New Hampshire) cog railway, pictured on the cover of the January/February 1995 Iron-Men Album. I believe this engine to have originally been in Springfield, N.Y., until the early 1960s.
– A traction engine in Australia pictured in the March/April 1981 Iron-Men Album.
– A boiler from a Birdsall traction engine, currently used to heat a home in Edmeston, N.Y.
– An 18 HP traction engine in the collection of the New York State Museum pictured in the November/December 2002 Iron-Men Album.
The Birdsall was a very good engine and featured many well thought-out engineering ideas. For one, they were very generous with flues as I remember my old engine had 63 flues in a 28-inch barrel. This made for a very easy steamer. The Birdsall boiler was designed to carry water above the level of the barrel, but the downfall of the Birdsall was the use of thin boiler material. One-quarter-inch is what I remember as boiler shell thickness, which will suffer very little corrosion before becoming unsafe. I remember a local thresher steaming up an old Birdsall in a stone quarry in Bridgewater, N.Y., one day. All was well until they went to cross some plowed ground, and when the front wheels hit the soft ground the bottom of the smoke box gave way the axle folded under and the old girl put her nose in the dirt. She was broken up on the spot and carted off to the junkyard. This took place in the 1930s.
Filling in Holes in Birdsall’s History
There are, it seems, odd discrepancies in the Birdsall history. According to Jack C. Norbeck’s Encyclopedia of American Steam Traction Engines, Birdsall began operations in 1860 as H. Birdsall & Son, Penn Yan, N.Y., building threshers and related equipment. Traction engines were evidently added to the line in 1874, and in 1881 the company moved to Auburn, N.Y. At some point
Birdsall moved to Newark, N.Y, and it would appear this move occurred shortly after the renaming of the Erie Canal to the Barge Canal, as Steve Davis notes. But there’s still the question of when the company was actually founded. Steve’s circa 1918 catalog alludes to a founding of roughly 1866, versus Norbeck’s reference of 1860. If anyone can fill in the holes, we’d like to hear from them. Editor
Contact Steam enthusiast Steve Davis at: 654 Route 20, West Winfield, NY 13491, or email:firstname.lastname@example.org.