“I Was the Boy”: Part 2

Retired Holt engineer-serviceman looks back half a century from his California ranch to recall his role in steam and gas tractor history.

article image
courtesy Library of Congress.
The largest sag pipe of the Los Angeles Aqueduct passes through Jawbone Canyon, shown here during construction in 1913.

In a 1953 issue of Iron-Men Album, agricultural historian F. Hal Higgins shared notes of a conversation with Paul E. Weston who had worked for Holt Mfg. Co. in the early 1900s. Higgins, who witnessed firsthand the development of mechanized agriculture in the U.S., got his start as a news editor for Caterpillar Tractor Co. in 1925.

Continued from Part 1: F. Hal Higgins’ Letter to the Editor

As Told To F. Hal Higgins in Interviews; Angels Camp, California, 1953:The big balding man flashed a smile of welcome as the writer asked if he might be the Paul Weston “who was there” when the famous Los Angeles Aqueduct was built across desert and mountains to bring water to the mushrooming West Coast city that was beginning to attract the U.S. population from the east and south nearly half a century ago.

Percy Ferguson, an old ex-Holt office man, had referred to him as one of the engineers who had been on the delivering end of a lot of early steam tractors in both wheel and crawler days before the Aurora engine began powering their gas tractors.

“I was the boy who took that first Holt steam Caterpillar to the desert to start the aqueduct job when (Los Angeles Water Department Chief Engineer William) Mulholland and his staff of engineers decided it was worth giving the ‘new Caterpillar’ idea a trial to see if they could beat horses and mules at freighting materials and equipment from the railroad stations out to the construction jobs,” Weston said.

“I don’t know what you might call me today, but I did a sales-service-diplomatic job back in the pioneer days of the Holt company soon after the turn of the century. I had three two-year jobs out on the frontiers of farming, heavy construction, mining and freighting. And those jobs covered hardware, mule, steam and gas power; wheel and track, in the U.S. and Mexico.

“I was sent up to the Holts’ Spokane branch about 1903 and was there for two seasons as the combined harvester was introduced by Holt. You know these Palouse hills of eastern Washington and western Idaho, and on down into eastern Oregon, of course. Well, that was all horse- and mule-power before the track-type tractor came along a little later. Hence, 32, 33 and on up to 40 animals out in front of a driver, sitting on a ladder swaying out over the wheelers, as he kept them all pulling together and turning corners up and down hill by good honest mule skin. He knew the language and kept a pile of pebbles that he unerringly tossed at a lagging animal from one to five rows out in front of him.

“Of course, there were little acts of God, like rattlesnakes, bumblebees’ nests, or a sudden startling flight of a flock of game birds, that would occasionally start a fresh team running. That’s when the nerve and skill – plus good and bad luck – decided whether the driver would live to drive another day and the outfit would be in one piece for further harvesting the same day. You’ve seen combines that fell out of those fields, of course, so I don’t need to tell you that the development of the side-hill combine also needed the assistance of a shifting human crew at times to prevent the machine from turning over and rolling to the foot of an extra steep hill on some of those corners.”

‘A two-year epic of desert battles’

“But that was just part of the job of frontier wheat farming. When I got down to Mexico in 1906, that was mostly mine freighting, taking out ore and hauling in supplies. Those were all steam wheel tractors, and the mountain roads were not too good. But that Mojave Desert was a two-year epic of desert battles and the start of a revolution in heavy construction.

“I was the boy who was sent down there by Ben Holt to demonstrate the new and revolutionary Holt Caterpillar traction engine to the Los Angeles Aqueduct engineers as they sought a way to cut the horse and mule freighting bids of 40 cents a ton mile. Back in the Gold Rush, heavy freighting up the mountains to the mines from Stockton over the bad roads was done at a dollar a mile per ton.”

After construction of the aqueduct began in 1908, the Holt Caterpillar hauled equipment and materials up steep grades and over waterless areas to cut freighting costs and start the “big un-hitch” of animal power in favor of mechanical power for freighting over rail-less areas in heavy construction.

A special dump wagon was built by Holt for the Los Angeles Aqueduct job to be pulled by the Holt Caterpillars. It was Holt’s first big sale of crawler-type tractors led by the first steam Caterpillar sent down to this waterless desert job.

“The Holts always considered this aqueduct job a huge success in proving the principle of the crawler-type tractor and they pointed to it in getting their factory production rolling, from this point on to their destiny in World War I, when orders from Great Britain, France, Russia and the U.S. lifted the firm to world prominence. By World War II, the merger of Holt and Best in 1925 had brought the idea to the top in revolutionizing war, agriculture, road building, oil field development, etc.”

‘We pulled some ungodly loads’

Weston lived at the Harvey House at Mojave for two years while he sold and delivered those 28 Holts that followed that first steam Caterpillar he took there for that first trial.

“Every steam tractor tried out in the desert, from the British Arizona Special sent over in 1859 to haul gold ore from Mexico, failed on the water problem even if and when they didn’t have an insurmountable fuel problem,” he recalled. “So, while the first Holt was a steam Caterpillar on this famous job, and it performed okay on pulling and climbing, the orders that followed were for the gas Holts with the famous Aurora engines that could eat a lot of dirt in the days when there were no such things as cleaners, filters, etc.

“We pulled some ungodly loads over those mountains. They could not have been handled in any other manner. We took those big Marion steam shovels and Ingersoll-Rand compressors up those steep grades and across deserts without their having to be torn down and re-assembled, as would have been done without this new Caterpillar power. FC

Continued in Part 3

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