Old Steam Engines

| January/February 1995

  • # Picture 01

  • Portable steam engine
    Illustration of a Tozer's portable steam engine, from November 25, 1871 issue of Scientific American.

  • # Picture 01
  • Portable steam engine

1927 Telephone Fort Mill, South Carolina 29715

If you ever hear the lonely shriek of a steam whistle you may think that the noise is coming from an old time steam locomotive. However, the sound may be coming from another kind of old steam engine. In the 1800s and early 1900s there were many other less glamorous but no less important sources of power laboring away in South Carolina's forests, fields, and factories. Most of these old engines could not move themselves around as locomotives could, but were rolled on wheels to places of work by strong teams of horses or mules. However, they could go places a locomotive could not, whether deep into the forest to power a sawmill; out into the cane path to crush sugar cane and then use the steam from its boiler to boil the sap into molasses; or out into a rice or wheat field to power a threshing machine and baler; or just to power the machinery at the cotton gin.

Other steam engines in the Palmetto State simply sat on a plinth their whole lives and lead a stationary existence tucked into the corner of some mill or factory to turn the overhead pulleys and belts which distributed power to the various looms and machines in the days before electricity. Some of the whistles on these engines could be heard for ten miles or more, to announce shift changes. The whistles on the portable engines were used to signal messages to the work crew. Of course the most eagerly awaited such signals were the three long toots which meant dinnertime!

There were steam engine factories in South Carolina. The most famous of these was the old Tozer engine works at 700-715 Gervais and later at the 600 block of Green Street in Columbia. They built farm and stationary engines, as well as a locomotive or two between 1865 and 1933. Richard Tozer died in 1884 and the company was then operated by his brother-in-law, George L. Dial, but Mr. Dial died two years later. Mrs. Dial remarried and by the late 1880s her husband John A. Willis ran the business until his death in 1916. Then Mr. Willis' stepson, Thomas Fraser Dial ran the works until 1933 when the demand for steam engines finally dried up. From 1871 up through the first world war, these steam engines always won a blue ribbon at the South Carolina state fair.

The daughter of Thomas Fraser Dial remarked that when she was a little girl, her father would always say that he wouldn't enter his engines at the fair, but at the last minute he always would. It was always a thrill to see the little Tozer engines win first prize; and other more famous makes such as International Harvester would have to settle for second place. Her greatest thrill though, she said, was to blow the whistle at the end of the fair. At one time in the 1800s, the company payroll was $4000 per week, which would translate into about $50,000 today. And by then almost 500 had been built!

Anderson County had over 54 of these machines hard at work sawmilling, thrashing, etc. The early Tozer engines had a Palmetto Tree and a lion head cast into the front of the boiler. The significance of the Palmetto is obvious, but the lion head is still a mystery. Was it the crest of the Tozer or Dial family? No surviving family members can remember. Do you know anyone who has seen a Tozer steam engine? There are two at the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia.

12/7/2010 1:32:50 AM

Hi Dean, my name is David. I'm writing to you from Italy. I saw you were looking for photos of existing Tozer engines. I have a tozer engine. If you want I can send you photos of it. Thanks


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