Letting Off Steam


| June 2007



Richard Backus

There are few among us lucky enough to have memory of viewing a brand new steam traction engine making its first pull in a field or watching as it was belted to a thresher for the first time. By my reckoning, 1940 witnessed the last new steam traction engine in the U.S. - a 25 HP Kitten manufactured by Ferdinand Iron Works in Ferdinand, Ind.

In the intervening 67 years, steam power, at least in agriculture, has been wholly superseded by gas or diesel tractors, and in the past half century no one in the U.S. has even considered building a new steam traction engine. And who could blame them? With no market, it's simply chasing windmills.

But over in England, where the passion for steam preservation is at least as active as it is here, a company called Great Northern Steam has built a new steam traction engine.

Based on a century-old design, it's a visual treat. And better yet, Great Northern Steam is planning on building a series of engines for British enthusiasts. As you'll learn reading Mike Dyson's excellent accounting of the engine (including a road test - surely a first for us!), the decision to build new was motivated by the high prices of vintage engines in England.

We may think engine prices have gone through the roof here, but across the Atlantic they're paying upward of $1 million for prized engines. Suddenly, $100,000 for a new engine doesn't sound so crazy.

Selfishly, I hope engines never become as valuable here as they have in England, or I'll never get to own one. But the decision by Great Northern to build a new engine (which, by the way, complies with all European regulations governing its use) represents an interesting opportunity for steam enthusiasts in Europe who might not want the challenge of restoring an old engine. Turn to page 18 to read more about this fascinating new engine and the company that's building it.