The Wright family, who emigrated from England, made key changes to steamroller
In front of the Cooke Locomotive factory in Paterson, N.J., is one of the prototype William C. Oastler steamrollers produced in 1899. These machines featured steam-jacketed cylinders and specially patented drawbars and spring scrapers. While the roller featured does not show a water tank beneath the boiler, Oastler rollers could be equipped with such tanks by special order. This view is taken from the Oastler Steam Road Roller catalog of that year.
In the following article, regular contributor Robert Rhode and Raymond Drake relate the tale of Englishman Thomas Wright and his sons, Edward T. and Frederick W., all of who were to have some considerable influence on various aspects of steamrollers in both the United States and Britain.
Having made recent contact with Virginia D’Antonio and Tom Wright, two of Thomas Wright’s great grandchildren, we have received considerable amount of family information, records and photos.
According to these materials, Thomas Wright was born in Lincolnshire, England, in 1838 and by the early 1860s was employed as an engineer. Thomas’ eldest son, Edward, was born in 1865. By 1870, Thomas was working for Taskers at Andover, Lincolnshire. In 1873, he moved on yet again and was a manager at the Aveling & Porter works in Rochester, Kent, and Edward later became an apprentice engineer there as well.
Virginia and Tom have both said family tradition indicates Thomas invented the split conical front roller – used by Aveling in 1871 – although this has not yet been confirmed from research within the United Kingdom.
In February 1889, Edward immigrated to Harrisburg, Pa., where he was joined by his fiancé that summer. The couple later married in Harrisburg where steamrollers were first built. Coincidentally, Edward also worked as a draughtsman. It seems likely he was employed by the Harrisburg Car Co., given his background in the steamroller industry.
In July of that same year, Thomas also emigrated from Rochester, with a daughter and three sons. Between 1890 and 1891, the extended Wright family moved to Springfield, Ohio, and while Virginia and Tom are unsure about Thomas’ employment at that time, they are well aware of what Edward was doing – he had gained employment with the firm of O.S. Kelly Co. and was designing steamrollers.
The first of these new machines rolled out from the Kelly works in 1892. Ten years later Kelly-Springfield Roller Co. broke away from O.S. Kelly and, in 1916, Buffalo Steam Roller Co. of Buffalo, N.Y., merged with Kelly-Springfield to create Buffalo Springfield Co. These two firms had courted one another prior to the merger: Beginning as early as January 1913, rollers with Buffalo parts were in production at the Springfield facilities.
Oliver Smith Kelly was a pre-eminent figure in American steam history. Striking it rich in the California gold mines, he had ample capital to risk in establishing a series of industrial enterprises to further his interests. The Kelly name would thus come to be associated with traction engines, threshing machines, road rollers, piano components, trucks and tires.
With just a small portion of his earnings, he also bought a wholesale grocery business. In 1857, Oliver relinquished the grocery concern to join the farm implement firm of William Whitely and Jerome Fassler. The name was soon changed to Whitely, Fassler & Kelly, manufacturing a well-received line of reapers and mowers. Satisfied with the progress of the company, Oliver stayed with this manufacturing business until 1881.
Prior to 1882, Oliver had served as president of Rinehart, Ballard & Co. Threshing Machine Works. In 1882, he invested part of his wealth in Rinehart & Ballard, a firm that sold threshing machines licensed through John Pitts, one of the famous twins from Buffalo. With Oliver as president and his son Oliver W. as superintendent, the firm reorganized as Springfield Engine & Thresher Co. As a result, profits increased and the business expanded. In 1889 or 1890, the name changed again, this time to O.S. Kelly Co.
Around the time Oliver’s lucrative firm bore his name, Edward convinced Oliver to improve his products along British lines. Edward, with Kelly’s crew of mechanical engineers, began to replace the Springfield design of agricultural traction engines with a new style of Kelly engine, closely modeled on British concepts. These included such changes as locating the valve above the cylinder, encasing both in a large steam jacket, fitting the shafts on thick hornplates and supplying a manstand with a surround entered from the engine’s left side.
In about 1892, all indications in factory literature suggest Kelly began producing steam road rollers in addition to agricultural engines. Like the Wright redesign of the Springfield engine, the new rollers boasted British features including a solid, large-diameter flywheel typical of British manufacturing practice.
According to the 1880 census, Clark County, Ohio, had a population of 41,947 – with some 20,729 living in Springfield – a far cry from the population of 500 back in Oliver’s boyhood. Springfield was fast becoming a city of factories within the state that, of all states in the U.S., was the location of the highest number of steam engine manufacturers. The Kelly company occupied 10 acres and was located on the line of the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis Railway.
From 1898 until approximately 1905, Kelly experimented with a triple-cylinder, cross-compound, cable-plowing road locomotive. A rare photo appears in Floyd Clymer’s Album of Historical Steam Traction Engines (page 58) and in Jack Norbeck’s Encyclopedia of American Steam Traction Engines (page 160).
The engine could develop 120 HP; all three of its cylinders could receive steam direct from the boiler, producing a so-called “simple” engine for bursts of power; alternatively, the two outside cylinders could take exhaust steam from the center cylinder to form, in effect, a single, low-pressure cylinder. A lever changed the engine from a simple to a presumably more efficient compound machine by routing the exhaust to the outside cylinders’ steam chests. The connecting rods were attached to the crankshaft at 120-degree intervals. The engine used a radial valve gear and had no flywheel since the weight of the reciprocating parts was sufficient to ensure smooth revolutions.
The boiler barrel was made from 7-1⁄16-inch-thick steel plate and measured 43 inches in diameter. The seam was double riveted. The boiler had 360 square feet of heating surface area and carried a pressure of 180 psi. The engine’s massive plate wheels were 8 feet in diameter with a face of 2-1⁄2 feet and each weighed almost 3 tons. The wheels used three driving pins, not a differential gear. The cable drum held up to 1,350 feet of 1-inch diameter wire rope.
Scientific American, July 29, 1899, featured a photo of this remarkable engine. The accompanying article, entitled “A Huge Over-land Traction Engine,” states such engines were shipped to Cuba. They could haul up to 112 tons each (not counting the weight of the engine and wagons), and were sold to remote plantations and mines far away from railroads.
Included with this article is a previously unpublished photo – owned by Virginia and Tom – of one of the Kelly triple-cylinder road locomotives. Family tradition holds this particular engine was used in the construction of the Panama Canal.
Records indicate Frederick did in fact spend the winter of 1906 at the canal site in Panama, but documents have recently come to light suggesting he also spent a season in Cuba, which raises the possibility that the photo could have been taken in that country.
Although multiple cylinders were commonplace in marine practice, the Kelly triple-cylinder engine must have been one of the first, if not the only, traction engine to be so equipped. The fact that the Kelly firm attempted to design such a behemoth attests to Oliver’s willingness to explore unknown territory.
At the turn of the century, Oliver sensed his company’s future would benefit from diversification. He thus began manufacturing piano plates in Springfield. O.S. Kelly Co. gradually phased out its agricultural equipment production to focus on these piano components. Even now, the harp frames used in Steinway pianos have come from the same Kelly factory in Springfield.
In 1894, Oliver’s son Edwin joined his brother, Oliver W. and inventor Arthur W. Grant in founding Rubber Tire Co., forerunner of Kelly-Springfield Tire Co.
As early as 1903, O.S. Kelly Co. had built a small number of steam wagons. Following in his father’s footsteps, in 1910 Edwin organized Kelly Springfield Truck Co. He stayed with the firm for only two years, but remained with O.S. Kelly Co. until 1921. The man who gave his name to the Kelly-Springfield steamroller, Oliver S. Kelly, died in 1904.
Meanwhile, William Churchill Oastler of New York, who had long imported and distributed Aveling & Porter’s products – both steamrollers and traction engines – had introduced a steamroller named after him.
Timing is everything and as luck would have it, Derek Rayner, vice-chairman and archivist of the Road Roller Assn. and Old Glory technical editor, recently discovered a rare 1899 catalog of Cooke Locomotive Co. of Paterson, N.J., which depicts the first Oastler type of steamroller. This machine conformed so closely to British design practice that some historians of American steamrollers suspect the parts were shipped from England and assembled in the U.S.
Shortly after the prototype models were produced at Cooke Locomotive, Oastler came into control of Monarch Co., Groton, N.Y. Until about 1901, the first Monarch model of roller was identical to the Patterson roller. This follows, because Oastler controlled the Groton works at approximately that same time. In 1901, a new design of Monarch roller – the “King of the Road” model – was introduced by Oastler, which was configured along American lines and lasted throughout the production of that firm.
Some types of tandem rollers manufactured by Kelly-Springfield found their way to Europe – one recorded as being used in Switzerland and another in Belgium. The latter, a 1911 no. 2499, survived into the preservation era by virtue of having its worn-out boiler replaced by a diesel engine. It is now restored to its original steaming condition in the Netherlands.
In 1903, continuing his steamroller traditions, Edward became superintendent of American Road Roller Co. – also known as Wright Roller Co. – in Groton. His father, Thomas, joined him to work part-time as a draughtsman and two of Edward’s younger brothers also found employment with the firm.
In August 1903, the Monarch firm in Groton became known as American Road Roller Co. – with which the Wrights were associated – and the following month, Monarch Road Roller Co. evolved from American Road Roller.
Forming the firm of Charles Longenecker & Co. of New York, Edward and Charles Longenecker produced a machine called a Longenecker roller, which in reality, was a Monarch roller with a British-inspired bunker based on a patent by Edward and Charles. Previously, it was thought this design was produced from 1907 to 1910, but according to Wright family records these machines were built from 1905 to 1908. Charles Longenecker & Co. continued to offer the Monarch three-wheel design of steamroller until 1910.
In 1909, Edward formed a traffic signal business in New York City that continued to flourish until his death in 1948. His father, Thomas, had died in England in 1916. Virginia and Tom have identified at least 10 patents issued to Thomas or Edward in which they are listed as British citizens; most of these patents involve improvements in steamrollers.
The members of the Wright family certainly brought about the joining together of British and American steamroller designs and their influence spread throughout the American compaction industry. They deserve special recognition for their distinguished contributions to the history of steam power and, in particular, to steamrollers.
Contact steam enthusiast and historian Robert Rhode at 990 W. Lower Springboro Road, Springboro, OH 45066;
Contact steam enthusiast Ray Drake at (719) 689-3000; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this article previously ran in England’s Old Glory magazine (www.oldglory.co.uk), January 2007 issue.