Lavosier Spence

An Overlooked Manufacturer of Steam Traction Engines in Martins Ferry, Ohio


| September/October 2004



L. Spence factory

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.'

THE EARLY YEARS

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)