While much more is now known about steam traction engines than ever before, many chroniclers of North American steam traction engines have overlooked Lavosier Spence of Martins Ferry, Ohio, which today is the area located just across from Wheeling, W.Va.
Lavosier was born Jan. 14, 1829, on a farm in a cabin his parents rented in Mount Pleasant Township, Jefferson County, Ohio. On Aug. 20, 1857, he married Elizabeth Dakan, a native of neighboring Belmont County. The couple had two sons. John was born on Nov. 3, 1862, and died on Aug. 6, 1895. John was married to Texa Arnett, who died in 1899 at the age of 24, and had two children: Elizabeth and Grover. Lavosier's other son George was born Nov. 11, 1866. George became a prosperous citizen of Martins Ferry, a city founded by Ebenezer Martin in 1835.
A book entitled Centennial History of Belmont County and Representative portrayed Lavosier as resembling 'the majority of self made men' who became a capitalist 'by climbing up a hill of toil.' With few educational opportunities, Lavosier was a laborer in his youth. Centennial History concludes that 'his struggles developed his character as well as his mental and physical being.'
He manufactured other farm machinery prior to his traction engine, but Lavosier's infatuation with steam probably had more to do with someone else's success. On Nov. 4, 1858, Joseph McCune of Warrenton, Ohio, a town about seven miles north of Martins Ferry, wrote that he drove a traction engine built by the Newark Machine Works 'out to the Cadiz Fair, and back, a distance of 46 miles.' (See related article on this early Ohio traction engine in the March/April 2003 Steam Traction.) Lavosier undoubtedly was aware of the Newark engine's amazing accomplishment, and its success may have influenced him to begin the manufacture of steam traction engines.
First a carpenter, then a machinist, Lavosier began building threshing machines in Martins Ferry in 1857, the year of his marriage. Between the 1840s and the 1870s, no fewer than six factories for the production of agricultural implements stood closely together in the narrow lowland between the steep bluff to the west and the Ohio River to the east. The location for business was ideal, with the river at First Street and the Cleveland & Pittsburgh rail line at the foot of the high cliff. Recognizing the area's advantages, Lavosier based his Ohio Valley Agricultural Works on lots bounded by Hickory Street, Walnut Street and First Street.
A view of the L. Spence factory from Eli L. Hayes' Illustrated Atlas of the Upper Ohio River, 1877. Note the 85-ton furnace engine, a horizontal stationary engine, a horse power and threshing machines. (Courtesy of the David Rumsey Map Collection, www.davidrumsey.com)
Lavosier built his first steam engine in 1867. Martins Ferry numbered 3,000 residents in 1870 when the census described Lavosier as a threshing machine builder, but by 1872 he supplied steam engines to Belmont Furnace in Wheeling. Lavosier's son George attended Ohio State University in 1886. The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer on Sept. 14 of that same year stated L. Spence employed about 25 workers, paid about $250 per week and also ran a general repair shop. In his sophomore year, George left college in Columbus, Ohio, to join his father in his engine and thresher business.
A trade card showing the L. Spence traction engine, which appears to be a double-simple with a power-steering assist shaft extending to the kingpost. The slant evident in the trade card is how it was originally printed and distributed, presumably by accident.
In 1890, George was made a partner in the L. Spence Co., and on Oct. 12, 1892, George married Flora A. McCord. The couple had two daughters, Emma and Gertrude. In the 1892-1893 Belmont County directory, Lavosier's business was listed as L. Spence & Son, manufacturers of portable, stationary and rolling mill and blast furnace engines.
The Spence traction engine appears to have featured a power-steering assist shaft leading from the crankshaft to the kingpost. Details of the engine's construction suggest that an engineer activated the power-steering mechanism when desired.
The Spences continued to produce steam engines until 1899, when L. Spence Co. merged with the Riverside Bridge Co., in which Spence held a vested interest. George presided over the Stanton Heater Co., and Lavosier also served on its board of directors. In addition to his other company interests, Lavosier was president of the People's Savings Bank and vice-president of the First National Bank of Bridgeport, Ohio. He was also a member of the board of directors of both the Aetna and the Standard Steel Works and held interests in other manufacturing firms in Martins Ferry.
Lavosier had begun to build stoves in 1873, as well, and by the following year he had accepted partners, and the firm had become known as Spence, Baggs & Co., a name retained by the firm until 1900, when it incorporated as the Spence-Baggs Stove Co. George served on the firm's board of directors, and the stove business prospered.
As a well-earned result to his hard work, perseverance and many company holdings, Lavosier built a handsome residence on the precipitous bluff overlooking the Ohio River. He staunchly supported the interests of Martins Ferry, felt proud of its achievements and looked on its future with hope. He had started out only as a common carpenter, but his infallible work ethic and business savvy truly led him to achieve the American dream of success through hard work and investment.
Today, not much is mentioned about his contributions to the world of steam, but Lavosier Spence shouldn't be overlooked for furthering the innovations of steam traction engines.
I wish to express my deepest gratitude to Stacy Anderson, reference librarian at the Martins Ferry Public Library, for her tireless efforts to ferret out long-forgotten information on Lavosier Spence.
Contact steam historian Robert T. Rhode at: 990 W. Lower Springboro Road, Springboro, OH 45066; firstname.lastname@example.org
Centennial History of Belmont County and Representative
Citizens. Chicago: Biographical, 1903.
Historical Collecti0ons of Ohio. Vol. 1. Cincinnati, Ohio: C.J. Krehbiel, 1902.
History of the Pan-Handle. Wheeling, W.Va.: J.A. Caldwell, 1879.
Knight & Co. 's Bellaire, Ohio, and Belmont County Biennial Directory 1892-93.
A Town of Grandeur: Essays on the History of Martins Ferry, Ohio. Tanks, Annie C, 2nd edition. Martins Ferry Area Historical Society, 1995.