Searching for clues to log hauling English engines in the woods of California.
Editor’s note: Derek Rayner’s first article on log hauling in California ran in the May/June 2003 issue of Steam Traction. We continue this issue with his fascinating account of tracking down Aveling & Porter steam engines in the U.S.
Readers of my article on “Log Hauling in California” (Steam Traction, May/June 2003) may recall its origins lay in the discovery of two photos of Aveling & Porter road locomotives in Butte County, northern California, not far from the town of Oroville. This community is located about 150 miles to the northeast of San Francisco. These two photos had been used by author Jack Alexander of Gilroy in his book Steam Power on California Roads and Farms (1858-1911) published in 1998.
My subsequent research in the Aveling records at Lincoln had revealed the identities of the two road engines in question as Aveling works no. 2146 of 1886, which had been delivered to the order of George Gable at an unspecified destination. The other was Aveling no. 2259 (with under-belly tank), which had been supplied by W.C. Oastler of New York to the Merrimac Mill Co. and it was pictured at the Lumpkin Mill in the same area.
Further research had led me to a book on lumbering, Endless Tracks in the Woods by James A. Young and Jerry D. Budy. The book referred to an article by Philip Macdonald and Lona LaHore on the commercial activities of one Andrew Martin Leach, which was said to include a photo of the Leach residence at Challenge, Calif., outside of which was another image of a four-wheeled traction engine that could possibly have been an Aveling. I followed up with the book’s authors in 1999 but they unfortunately drew a blank as to where a copy of this article might be located, so the trail went cold. Or so I thought at the time.
I had long held an ambition to visit California in order to see one of the earliest known Aveling & Porter engines – works no. 916 which dates from 1873 – located near the community of Le Grand, Calif. This engine was pictured by Peter Love in Steaming, Vol. 46 No. 3. It is in Arthur Bright’s museum collection, not far from Merced, Calif., some 65 miles to the southeast of San Francisco. Other personal and holiday commitments prevented this visit until the summer of 2004, and during the planning of this trip I decided to include Oroville on the itinerary in the vain hope of turning up something more on the wonderful pair of 1880s 10 HP Aveling engines in Butte County.
A chance discussion with another English road steam enthusiast during a visit to Europe in late 2003 revealed a major coincidence, in that he had a friend who actually lived in Oroville. This friend was asked to help. He did so by supplying two very large scale and detailed maps of the area, as well as some extracts from the local newspapers of 1886-1887 from the Oroville Public Library. His message included with these was that all traces of the 1880s buildings at Merrimac were gone; there was nothing left, only a sign by the side of the road in the Plumas National Forest!
Thus, the scene was set for an exploratory Californian visit. With a car and motel rooms booked, our arrival at Oroville was in blistering heat, so it was good to get into the library where the air conditioning was working very hard to cope with the high temperatures outside. I was disappointed to find nothing for Macdonald or LaHore in their computer system. A look through their reference shelves on the subject of local history brought forth nothing of interest either. Further searches were abandoned, pending the planned journey the following day to the spot on the map labeled Merrimac.
After a drive of just over 30 miles, on arrival at the place, that’s just what it was! A cross road on the highway to Quincy where two dirt roads, one from Rogers Cow Camp and the other from North Little Fork, came out of the forest – no buildings or signs of habitation could be seen at all, just the sign Merrimac. Then, on a sudden whim, I turned the car around and drove to Challenge, in Yuba County. The home of Andrew Martin Leach – some 44 miles distant – became the next destination.
On the way into the village down a narrow, twisting mountainous road, I spotted a sign for a museum pointing back up the way we had come. Stopping outside the local store in Challenge where a local sat toying with a cup of coffee, I showed him a copy of my original Steaming article, plus photos of the Aveling engines and the reference to the Leach residence. He told me that if anyone would know what I wanted to know, it would be Marilyn Devore, who was the director of the museum, just up the hill. If she wasn’t there, he gave me her phone number and directions to the museum in Forbestown, Calif., which was run by the Yuba-Feather Historical Assn. He said to call in at the post office if all else failed.
Retracing our route back up the hill, we found the museum in the previous village without a problem – and it was closed, it being a weekday – so the post office was the next stop. There, I introduced myself to the postal worker, Nedra Dubach, and explained my quest for the photo of the Leach residence and the traction engine included in it. Imagine my surprise when she said, “Oh yes, it’s a big one, about this big by this big,” gesticulating like a fisherman with her hands in the air. Not only did she know of the photo, she actually knew how big it was as well! I was over the moon!
She looked at the photos of the Avelings in my article and volunteered that the museum had copies of them, and she thought more besides. My search for that elusive needle in a haystack in Northern California had borne fruit. Not only had I found a source of the elusive photo of the Leach residence, with the possibility of it having another view of an Aveling road locomotive on it, but there were possibly other contemporary photos as well!
Unfortunately, my elation was somewhat short-lived as our new-found friend was quick to tell us there was no way that access could be gained to the museum during our unplanned visit to Forbestown. However, details were obtained for an e-mail communication later, so I would have to wait and see what else transpired.
In the fullness of time, I got in touch with the museum, explaining the reasons for my research. In reply, a letter arrived from Jim Lague, the museum’s historian, which contained more photos and much more information including a reference to the Macdonald/LaHore article, and where to find a copy of it. It had been published in a journal known as The Pacific Historian and a copy would be available from the library at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, a town we had stayed in earlier on in our travels for other reasons.
Contact was made with the library regarding the article and, as I waited for a response, the contents of Jim’s letter were assessed. He had included six photos, two of an Aveling, three of a huge Best three-wheeled engine hauling lumber – and there was the first of my two “needles in a haystack,” a copy of the photo of the Leach residence with a most strange looking traction engine outside which, unfortunately for me, was definitely NOT an Aveling!
Jim’s letter included considerable information about logging on three separate ridges in an area to the northeast of Oroville in the late 1880s. These were: Area 1 – The Bidwell Bar, French Creek, Merrimac and Meadow Valley areas, which were on the road to Quincy; Area 2 – the Mooretown, Feather Fall and Lumpkin areas; and Area 3 – in the vicinity of Forbestown, Woodleaf and Clipper Mills.
Relating to Area 1, Jim confirmed the first engine (called a steam wagon in the local press) to the order of George Gable arrived in Oroville on June 14, 1886. (The date of dispatch from Rochester for road locomotive no. 2146 was noted in the Aveling records as March 5, 1886.) Gable hired a Frank Bean with an eight-horse team to tow it to Merrimac Mill. The bridge at Bidwell Bar would have presented an obstacle to the progress of the engine because of its weight, 12,000 pounds, but it is possible that they forded the river.
In May 1891, this engine was sold to Henry South of Challenge, who worked for the A.M. Leach Lumber Co. On this occasion, during the engine’s delivery run to Challenge, when they got to the Bidwell Bar suspension bridge, the wheels and some other parts had to be taken off the engine as the bridge keeper, Mr. Ketchum, would not allow it across in its complete state because of its weight. It had to be drawn across in a dismantled condition on well-greased rollers and timbers by a windlass, a task which took them nearly all day.
In Area 2, A.J. Glidden’s “Great North American” traction engine arrived at Oroville from England on June 30, 1887. (Aveling’s records noted the date of dispatch of the second engine, Aveling no. 2259, from Rochester as May 3, 1887.) Glidden’s engineer, H.S. Curtis, drove it to the Lumpkin Mill. This mill was owned by three gentlemen by the names of Farnham, Chappell and William Kitrick, the latter being the half owner. Logging was done by Glidden under contract. By 1892, the lumber market was depressed and the company was mortgaged for $23,556, and on Nov. 10, 1892, William Kitrick committed suicide. The company was subsequently sold by court order and was purchased by a John Brown. Glidden had assigned his logging equipment to the company and still owed $4,700. What happened to his traction engine is not known.
Also, in Area 3, a James R. Young (1876-1923) was logging near Forbestown and was using a traction engine that may have been the Henry South Aveling engine. The A.M. Leach Lumber Co. closed in 1892 because of the depressed lumber market.
Jim Lague also advised that in 1909, the Butte County Pine & Hardwood Co. ordered two traction engines for their mill near Clipper Mills. One was to haul logs to their sawmill and the other to haul sawed timber to Oroville. On April 12, 1910, three railroad cars arrived with the two engines and other parts. These came from an engine factory at Oakland, Calif., just to the north of San Francisco – namely Best – which only made three-wheeled engines. Unfortunately, it is recorded that these engines were always breaking down and the factory had to send men to repair them. These engines were very big three-wheelers, and as a result the county road to Oroville had to be widened in places and the bridges strengthened to take their weight. These also were wood burners and sparks from them set off fires along the road, so they were altered to become oil burners. E.A. Dickey was the secretary of the company and on Aug. 27, 1910, he closed the mill for the season, as there were too many problems and complaints.
Daniel Best, the founder of the Best Manufacturing Co., was not backward about his achievements – although totally incorrect – for he is later quoted as saying: “In 1887, I built the first steam traction engine to run successfully anywhere in the world.” Perhaps the news had not yet reached him that in June of the previous year, the first Aveling & Porter engine had been delivered to northern California and by then was working very successfully – and another was on order for the same task! Aveling had been building successful traction engines since the 1860s!
Jim Lague also sent some copies of several newspaper clippings from mid- to late 1887 which were also of some interest.
– June 17: A.J. Glidden and H.S. Curtis are down from Lumpkin Mill on the lookout for Glidden’s steam wagon ordered from England some months ago. A letter has been received saying that it had reached New York some days ago and has been shipped long enough to reach Oroville. It weighs 17 tons and will be used for hauling logs at Lumpkin Mill. John F. Rowell, one of the proprietors of the mill went below this morning to see about it. (This refers to the second engine, Aveling no. 2259, dispatched from Rochester on May 3, 1887.)
– June 30: A.J. Glidden’s 17-ton “Great North American steam engine log hauler” arrived from England last night and will be taken to Lumpkin Mill where it will haul saw logs.
– Aug. 29: The headlight on the engine of the Lumpkin Mill steam wagon blew up on Saturday and (also) A.J. Glidden had a narrow escape from being crushed by a large log last week but Glidden and the engine are doing the usual amount of work all the same.
– Sept. 7: On one load, it was reported that the Lumpkin engine had hauled no less than 11,983 feet of lumber, log measure, and it was thought that if trailers could be made to carry it, the engine would probably haul as much as 20,000 feet. The engine is driven through the woods with as much precision as an ox team can be steered and it “puffs along as easily as an elephant with a clown on its back.”
– Nov. 15: A huge log rolled off a truck, horribly crushing West James and he died instantly.
– Nov. 26: H.S. Curtis, who was the engineer (driver) on Lumpkin’s log hauler, had come down for the winter, the mill having closed down for the period. Although they didn’t start sawing until very late that season, they had piled up about 3 million feet of fine sugar pine. By putting the roads, machinery etc. in good condition and getting an earlier start in the spring the following year, it was expected that the two mills would saw around 4 million feet each next season.
Some 10 years later, on Aug. 28, 1897, there was a newspaper report of an engine weighing nearly 8 tons (between 14,000 and 15,000 pounds – i.e., larger than the previously quoted weight of the Aveling at 12,000 pounds) being brought from Quincy to Oroville, a distance of some 65 miles, on the very narrow road and on which there was hardly a level quarter of a mile. Part of the journey was along very narrow mountain ledges, during which the road climbed to over 5,000 feet. Some of the difficulties encountered on the road were chronicled in detail and the three members of crew were much relieved when, after two days, the engine reached its destination. Unfortunately, neither the owner nor the identity of the engine were given but it was recorded that it was ultimately for shipment (by rail) to San Leandro – the location of Best’s works – so it may be assumed to have been a Best three-wheeler.
During our recent visit, having now driven along some of the roads in the area in question, it is obvious these have undergone considerable changes since the time, over a 100-plus years ago, when the Aveling engines were in use in the locality. There is a huge new dam at Oroville – the highest in the USA when built at 770 feet – and this, together with its attendant lake, have dramatically altered the surrounding countryside. New roads had to be built around the periphery of the lake, and although the area is still densely forested, what is there now is not necessarily in the same place as over a century ago, since the sawmills took out considerable acreages of sugar pine in the late 19th century.
When the second “needle” in my haystack arrived it was in the shape of a copy of the MacDonald/LaHore article. It had been sent by Janene Ford, the department coordinator of the Holt-Atherton Special Collections in the library at the University of the Pacific, Stockton. It revealed the photo of the engine outside the Leach residence at Challenge was dated 1892, and it was actually the same photo Jim Lague had already sent me from the Yuba-Feather Historical Assn. museum’s collection.
Research determined the engine to be a “Hamilton” traction engine, built by Owens, Lane & Dyer Co. of Hamilton, Ohio. The article also gave much detail of the business built by Leach, who generally used ox teams for moving the felled timber from the forest to the mill, but later installed a six-mile long narrow gauge railway in the Challenge area with a Baldwin locomotive to haul the timber. This locomotive was subsequently moved to his mill at Owl Gulch. There is an entry in the diary of one Lizzie Foss from Brownsville dated Nov. 7, 1892: “Father came home with Mr. Leach. The road engine came down from Owl Gulch today for the (railway) locomotive and will move it up to Owl Gulch.” Elsewhere, there is a reference to the wheels being taken off the locomotive and it being towed on a sled or similar to the Owl Gulch Mill. It is not known which road engine was being referred to, but it is likely to have been the more powerful Aveling, rather than the Hamilton, which was also in the same area at the time.
Leach was also responsible for the erection of a log flume, the length of which has been variously quoted as between 50 and 80 miles in length, to get sawn timber from his mills down to the California Northern Railroad at Moore’s Station, where he also established a planing mill. He also was responsible for the re-direction of water from streams and creeks in the vicinity to feed this flume, and thus provide the means to easily transport the wood to markets in the south. Rather disappointingly, there were no references to traction engines in the MacDonald/LaHore article, other than the photo of the very unusual Hamilton machine, but there were many instances quoted involving fires that razed various mills to the ground. It was, indeed, a somewhat hazardous business!
When questioned, Janene Ford also indicated there were more photos in the photographic collection at the Library of the University of the Pacific relating to traction engines. Four images duly came along and comprised one of a Hamilton engine, pictured at Angels Camp, some 55 miles east of Stockton in around 1948 – together with three three-wheelers. One of these was a Best, the other two were Holt engines of slightly different designs, which looked similar to the Best. One of these was captioned as working at Placerville in mid-California, some 45 miles southeast of Oroville and not far from Moore’s Station.
A second letter arrived from Jim Lague containing two more photos of Aveling no. 2146 (without belly tank) at work near Forbestown, about three miles from Challenge. The letter also contained some more information, some of which corrected details already given, and some farming photos from mid-California for my interest, which had been donated to the Yuba-Feather Historical Assn. This letter had been typed by Jim on Aug. 29, and was later forwarded to me by one of his friends, along with a note and a copy of Jim’s obituary; he had died on Aug. 30. It was his very last letter relating to historical aspects of the area, and I was very grateful to his friend for sending it to me after his death. This was a very sad loss for the Yuba-Feather Historical Assn. and the local historical community in that area of California, for his knowledge of the locality and its history will be irreplaceable.
Thus, with further investigations, and a bit of luck, more information has been found about some of the traction engines used for logging in California, together with some exceptionally good images of the Aveling road locomotives sent there in the late 1880s and their activities in the logging business. Persistence certainly pays off in the long run!
I would like to dedicate this article to the memory of Jim Lague and also to thank the various people named in it for their assistance, in a spirit of splendid international cooperation in the volunteering of photos and information, which has enabled this follow-up article to be written. Without their considerable assistance, this would not have been possible.
Contact Derek A. Rayner at: Invicta, 9, Beagle Ridge Drive, Acomb, York YO24 3JH; (01904) 781519; fax: (01904) 331926;