Searching for Clues to English Engines in the Woods of California
As a result of seeing an advertisement for the book Steam Power on California Roads and Farms (1858-1911) in Iron-Men Album, I purchased a copy. The author is Jack Alexander, Gilroy, Calif., and my particular interest in the book was that I knew a venerable Aveling & Porter 6 HP steam traction engine, number 916 of 1873, still existed in California. It had been found in the woods near Red Bluff, Calif., by Lloyd Burr in the mid- to late 1950s and subsequently renovated.
I was also aware that it was presently located in the Arthur Bright collection near Le Grand, Calif., and that in this important collection it was accompanied by a very early and delightful little Brown & May portable steam engine (for which no number has been established) a relatively recent import that at one time was one of the large number of engines that were owned by the late Chris Lambert at Horsmonden in Kent, England.
An inspection of this engine at Le Grand by David and Paul Viewing (custodians of the 'Iron Dinosaur' -the remains of the circa 1865 tram engine that came out of a Staffordshire mine) revealed it to have a 'Z' type of base to the firebox i.e., no foundation ring, and this appeared to be original, not a result of being re-boxed in America. The remains of a boiler of the fifth-wheel steer engine identified on a remote Welsh mountain top near Blaenau Festiniog also has a firebox of this nature. These two obviously connected facts perhaps serve to illustrate that our current knowledge of the construction of some of the early traction engines is very scant, and we should not assume they were all constructed as we see them today.
As I awaited the arrival of Jack Alexander's book, I hoped he might have found out something more about this remarkable Californian Aveling & Porter survivor or that his book might even contain details of other English products, particularly Fowler plowing engines, that were known to have made their way to the West Coast of America in the early years of the last century. The Spreckles Sugar Co. of Salinas, Calif., for example, bought eight sets between 1907 and 1917, including a pair of 25 HP Z7S (super-heated) types.
Upon receiving the book I quickly looked over the chapter headings. I was disappointed, however, for although the 1873 Aveling & Porter merited its own chapter in the book, there was nothing new about it for me. What was the subject of a later chapter, however, was something quite inspiring and wholly unexpected.
The Aveling & Porter steam engine
What I found were two photos taken more than 10 years later of an Aveling & Porter steam engine in a form I had never seen before. With a huge, tapered and very non-original chimney complete with spark arrester together with an American-style locomotive headlight on the front of the smoke stack the engine looked more like a railway locomotive than a road steam engine. In one picture the engine was shown with its crew hauling logs, and the other showed the engine hauling huge timbers on two rough trailers over a trestle-style bridge in California lumber country. From other research I have carried out on Aveling engines, I recognized this engine as a big one - at least 10 HP.
Closer inspection of the two photos and their captions indicated the first was a 'large Aveling & Porter engine [that] was reported delivered in June 1886 to the Oroville, Calif., area.' The text associated with the picture indicated the photo had come from the Haggin Museum in California and that it showed an Aveling & Porter engine at Lumpkin Mill in Butte County, Calif., hauling what was said to be sugar pine timber. It also stated that the 1886 engine was reported to weigh 12,000 pounds.
The second picture of the engine with the two trailers was an 'unmarked photo' from the collection of the late F. Hal Higgins at the University of California at Davis. This showed the engine with what appeared to be a slightly different canopy arrangement, and other individual features (such as the chimney) also appeared to be different. I initially assumed these were items that perhaps had been damaged in the course of use and then replaced at some time during the engine's life. However, I then spotted something below the engine's boiler and in front of the firebox on one of the pictures that got me thinking in a different direction.
To start with, I could not quite determine what I was seeing because of the angle from which the shot was taken. It looked as though it might be a water tank, but I was not sure. The photos in the book were not particularly good reproductions, but the discovery of this item - which was not apparent on the other engine - made it all the more intriguing. I then began to wonder whether there were actually two different engines pictured.
I could not recollect seeing either of these two photos before and I was fairly sure they had never been published outside of the U.S., so I decided to seek Jack's help in trying to acquire reproduction-quality copies that could be shared with enthusiasts in the UK and elsewhere. Jack was very pleased to help, and with his assistance and contacts I made a request for copies and permission to publish them in Steaming. When the prints were delivered I looked them over intently under a magnifying glass, and I discovered that the item under one of the boilers was definitely an under-boiler water tank. Also, the pictures reproduced in the book just gave a hint of a brass horse on the front of the engine. These better quality prints showed a horse on the smoke box door - much bigger than the size of Aveling horse we are accustomed to today and of the very old style, some 15 inches high, complete with a proportionally sized 'Invicta' scroll to match.
At this point I needed archival assistance. I already had a list taken from the Aveling & Porter dispatch book of all exported engines produced in the 1870s and 1880s. This list somewhat remarkably indicated that of all the many traction engines and steam rollers sent to America in the later years of the 19th century, only two 10 HP traction engines were recorded. The first, Royalty No. 2146, went to W.C. Oastler, Aveling & Porter's American agent, on March 5, 1886, with no recorded further customer. This date matched surprisingly well with the June 14, 1886, date on which Jack Alexander's book indicated George Gable had taken delivery of the Aveling engine in California. What amazed me more, however, was that the only other similar engine, Aveling Royalty No. 2259, was sent from England on May 3, 1887, also to Oastler, and this was specifically recorded in the dispatch book as being for the Merrimore Mill Company. Thus, if there were two engines, I had found both numbers without really trying very hard!
Jack's book indicated that the pictured engine worked for the Merrimac Mills - a slightly different name. Looking again at the Aveling records, there seems to have been a transcription error by a clerk somewhere along the line, and the correct name is certainly Merrimac. In the copper plate script in use at the time, some unsuspecting clerk has obviously confused "more" with "mac."
I decided that a look at the exact specifications for Aveling & Porter number 2146 and number 2259 might help to prove something. I hoped it would enable me to find out whether one of these engines was fitted from new with what looked like a water tank. And if it wasn't a water tank, perhaps I might get some clue as to what it could be. A visit to the Lincolnshire Archives revealed some interesting facts.
Details from the Royalty Book pages indicated that number 2146 had a cylinder 10 inches in diameter with a 12-inch stroke. The boiler working pressure was 110 psi. It was given boiler test number 505 and was classified as a DS Agricultural (DS = double speed). It was also fitted with a spark arrester in the smokebox and it had a patent loose winding drum on the axle with drop pin and brake. Guide rollers and brackets were fitted to the tender and the drum was equipped with 75 yards of 5/8-inch steel wire rope, as well as having a compensating gear (a differential) fitted. The driving wheels were 6 feet 6 inches in diameter, the front wheels 4 feet in diameter and the flywheel was 5 feet in diameter with a 7-inch face. 'Old pattern' direct-acting governors were fitted. There were 58 tubes, 5 feet 6-1/2 inches long and 2 inches in diameter. The 'remarks' section on the appropriate page also indicated the engine was fitted with a wrought iron frame round the tender for carrying wood. In addition, the engine had an extra large firebox.
The Royalty Book entry for number 2259 of 1887, however, definitely showed it as being for Merrimac Mills Co., giving credence to my supposition about the transcription error in Aveling's dispatch book. This engine was given Boiler Test No. 652 and also had compensating gear but no winding drum or spark arrester. Surprisingly, no hand brake was shown to be fitted. Other items, such as the wheels, were the same as number 2146. The injectors differed - number 2259 had a Madans small pattern, whereas number 2146 had a Gresham A pattern fitted. The tubes were the same. In addition, a 'wrought iron under tank' was fitted, the specific description being given as "extra large tank under boiler connected to tender with 1-1/2-inch pipe and CI [cast iron] cock for shutting off with GM [gun metal] plug." The engine's manufactured weight was recorded as 12 tons 15 cwt [12-3/4 tons]. This engine also had the wrought iron frame around the tender for carrying wood and an extra large firebox.
This confirmed there were definitely two 10 HP engines of more or less the same specifications and that the second one was fitted with a "belly" tank (Aveling's defined this as an "under tank"), and therefore the photo from Haggin of the engine with the one trailer was that of number 2259 while the other, ex-Davis on the low trestle with its two trailers was the earlier number 2146.
Neither engine was recorded as having been supplied with an awning (canopy), so we must assume these additions along with the locomotive-style headlights were fitted during their operations in the forests. Helpfully, Jack commented that these headlights were of a style advertised by the Boesch Lamp Co. of San Francisco as "Mining, Mill, Driving and Locomotive Headlights" and they came in sizes of 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 17, 20 and 24 inches.
Rather interestingly, the later engine, number 2259, was recorded as having been supplied with a nameplate reading: "W. Churchill Oastler Agent, 43, Exchange Place, New York." This was the first indication I had found of more of a name for the redoubtable Mr. W.C. Oastler. I idly speculated at this stage whether his first name might have been Winston!
In the process of my investigation Jack tipped me to another book, Endless Tracks in the Wood (1989), by James A. Young and Jerry Budy. This book references an article by Phillip MacDonald and Lona LaHore on the lumbering activities of Andrew Martin Leach in California's northern Sierra Nevada Mountains. A photograph was supposedly included in this article of a road engine pulling a log truck in front of the Leach residence in Challenge, Calif. This engine apparently had widely spaced front wheels and small driving wheels and appeared to be an Aveling & Porter engine. This book also suggested that, based on records held in the Oroville Public Library in Oroville, Calif., the Aveling & Porter engine was imported to the Feather River Mining district rather than the Redding or Red Bluff areas in the far northern end of the Sacramento Valley. Supposedly, George Gable purchased the engine from the Merrimac-Pea Vine Lumber Company, which in turn had imported it from England. The engine originally cost $5,000 and was shipped from England to San Francisco. According to a report in the Oroville Mercury, George Gable took delivery of his Aveling & Porter "steam wagon" on June 14, 1886. This was 13 years after the first reported use of the original Aveling steam tractor in Northern California. The report went on to say the engine was moved to the Merrimac Mills by a team of eight horses rather than under its own power, but once it was put into service it hauled some 30,000 to 50,000 board-feet of wood from the forests to the mills on a daily basis. In reading this book, it was clear the authors believed the engine referred to was the 6 HP example that is now at Le Grand. It seems their research had not clearly established that three, different Aveling & Porter engines were involved.
With the help of James Young, co-author of Endless Tracks in the Woods, and the internet, it was discovered that his original research papers for the book were deposited with the American Society of Foresters at Missoula, Mont. I made contact with the ASF Archivist, Scott Kuhen, who very kindly searched through these papers, but he was unable to find a copy of the MacDonald/LaHore article, or any related photograph, so I wasn't able to glean anything further from this. A third picture of an Aveling engine at work in California remains as yet undiscovered, but it is nevertheless an interesting possibility.
In my first reading of Jack Alexander's book, I missed another engine that had a connection with the same area where the Aveling engines worked. Jack pointed out the locally produced 1887 Leland road locomotive a four-wheel-drive, four-wheel-steer engine patented by William Lester Leland of Oroville, Calif.
Despite the fact this machine bears no resemblance to the Aveling that arrived in June 1886, the fact the dates are so close and the place name of Oroville is mentioned in connection with both must be of some significance. Perhaps Leland himself was working in the same area when the Aveling engine appeared in mid-1886 Leland may have thought he could improve on the British product that had already been put to work at the Merrimac Mills.
The Leland four-wheel-drive, four-wheel-steer engine may not have been the first of its type in California three earlier patents were granted to California residents for similar engines. These were M.A. Halstead of San Francisco in 1871, O.A. Olmsted of Sebastopol in 1872 and W.H. Milliken of Sacramento in 1875. Illustrations of all these machines exist, but it is not known whether any of these engines were actually constructed. It is also possible that Leland drew on these designs for his own machine.
Jack, as well as pointing out these various patents, also kindly supplied a copy of a sales brochure produced by Leland detailing the Leland engine. This brochure also mentions Merrimac by name, so Merrimac it must be not Merrimore as recorded in the Aveling dispatch records.
The brochure contained an engraving of the Leland road locomotive as built by the Fulton Iron Works, 220 Fremont St., San Francisco, Calif., based on a patent issued to Leland in January 1887. The engine had four, equal-sized wooden wheels (all driven), and the chassis was articulated in the center beneath the boiler so it could be steered. One cylinder was located on each truck frame, which could be equally and simultaneously turned via the steering gear. The cylinders drove each pair of wheels independently. There did not appear to have been a differential fitted, but an 'ingenious device' was incorporated to allow a differential effect when turning. Although the previously issued patent drawing showed the steam supply to each cylinder could be controlled by its own regulator, this did not appear to have been the case in the later engraving of the engine as constructed. There were other detail differences, indicating that what was actually built did not appear to exactly match the details in the patent design.
The boiler of the Leland engine, as produced, was of the marine pattern, return-flue type, 4 feet 6 inches in diameter and 10 feet long. The rating of the engine was 30 HP and the machine had a weight of 30,000 pounds. It had equal weight distribution on each wheel. Details of some of the ancillary equipment fitted to the Leland engine are worthy of note, with such items as Ashcroft steam gauges, nickel-seated pop safety valves, Corliss-balance throttle valves, a double-acting Hancock injector and ejector (water lifter) and a spark arrester. The engineer was at the front, the fireman at the other end. Water was carried at one end, fuel at the other.
The sales brochure praised the engine's potential for plowing, harvesting and working on loose ground, and commented that its design was far superior to a conventional two-wheel-drive engine. It was said that engines could be arranged to burn straw, wood, coal or petroleum (!) to suit the customer's requirements. And despite the fact the engine may have been twice as heavy as a conventional machine, the engine had a claimed advantage of equal weight on each wheel, giving it better traction and making it less likely to rear up at the front end. The wheels on the machine constructed for Merrimac Mills were smaller than what would have been used for agricultural work.
The brochure claimed the engine illustrated was designed and constructed specifically for hauling logs and lumber on the tortuous mountain roads at Merrimac Mills in Butte County, Calif. From the details given, logs were hauled over an ordinary wagon road - in some places on an upgrade of 480 feet in a mile - at about a quarter of the cost of using horses. On this basis, it was expected the engine would pay for itself in about four months.
An engraving from an advertising brochure for the Leland steam engine. There are several differences between the patent drawings and the machine pictured in the brochure, particularly the boiler design. Courtesy Jack Alexander.
That nothing further has been heard about the Leland engine, while Aveling & Porter engines went on to become quite successful, may be very relevant. I wonder if there might still be unpublished photos of these engines in personal collections, and would welcome any additional information or photographs.
Grateful thanks to Jack Alexander, author of Steam Power On California Roads and Farms (1858-1911) for his assistance in acquiring copies of the two Aveling & Porter photographs used in his book and for providing the copy of the Leland sales brochure. Also, to the helpful staff of both the Haggin Museum and the University of California at Davis, and to Dr. Robert T. Rhode for his encouragement and assistance in the preparation of this article. ST
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2002 issue (Vol. 45, No. 3) of Steaming, the official magazine of the National Traction Engine Trust in England. Many thanks to Derek Rayner and the publishers of Steaming for the opportunity to publish this article in these pages. - Editor
Contact steam enthusiast Derek A. Rayner at: 9 Beagle Ridge Dr., Acomb, York Y024 3JH, (phone: 0044 1904 78519; fax: 0044 1904 331926) or e-mail: email@example.com