History of Birdsall Engine Co.

A bit about Birdsall steam engines


| July/August 2003



Birdsall traction engine

A Birdsall steam traction engine, probably a 10 HP or 12 HP, photographed in 1895. This unit is equipped with chain steering instead of Birdsall's patented 'automobile' style of steering gear.

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.