Early Steam Traction Engines Vied for Supremacy in America's First Road Race

| May/June 2004

  • The Oshkosh in front of John Morse's shop

  • Steam traction engine
    1874 patent drawings for Cowles' two-cylinder, four-wheel-steer, four-wheel-drive steam traction engine.
  • Steam traction engine
    Steam traction engine.
  • An Oshkosh

  • The 1878 race started in Green Bay

  • A Cowles pole road locomotive

  • The Oshkosh in front of John Morse's shop
  • Steam traction engine
  • Steam traction engine
  • An Oshkosh
  • The 1878 race started in Green Bay
  • A Cowles pole road locomotive

The Oshkosh in front of John Morse's shop on Ceape Street in Oshkosh, Wis. Although not proven, it's generally believed this photo was taken at the time of the race. Unfortunately, no photos of the Oshkosh's rival, the Green Bay, are known.

A few of the players in this drama are identified in the photo, including Alexander Gallinger (seated at the wheel), Anson Farrand (bearded man standing on the wagon tongue), and Frank Schomer (standing on tongue to Farrand's right)

Notice the fake smoke coming from the stack. The Oshkosh Public Museum has two versions of this photo: one with smoke added in, and another without.

The steam traction engine was, for all practical purposes, still in its infancy in 1878. That year, the J.I. Case Threshing Machine Co., Racine, Wis., manufactured its first steam traction engine, a rudimentary, horse-steered machine. Indeed, six more years would pass before Case introduced a self-steering traction engine. Yet, that same year a seemingly unknown event occurred in Case's home state, an event that Case whether directly or indirectly inspired: America's first road race. Not only was it the first road race before automobiles, it was a race between two steam traction engines.


In 1871, John Wesley Carhart, a physics professor at Wisconsin State University, designed and built a steam-powered buggy. Powered by a two-cylinder steam engine, Carhart's buggy was the first self-propelled vehicle to come from the Badger State, and according to at least one source, Carhart's vehicle (nicknamed 'Spark') was the result of collaboration between Carhart and J.I. Case. If true, Case assumed-ly supplied the engine for Carhart's machine.

Inspired by Carhart's machine, the Wisconsin legislature passed an 1875 act authorizing the payment of a $10,000 bounty to 'any citizen of Wisconsin, who shall invent, and after five years continued trial and use, shall produce a machine propelled by steam or other motive agent, which shall be a cheap and practical substitute for the use of horses, and other animals on the highway and farm.'

The act was amended in 1876 and again in 1877, with the final version removing the 'five years continued trial and use' requirement. In place of this ambiguous clause, requirements for a successful trial were spelled out. Specifically, the act required contestants to complete a 200-mile route at 'not less than five miles per hour working time,' and it required that any machine competing be able to function in both forward and reverse. Competing machines would be put through a series of trials (including plowing and pulling loaded wagons), with appointed state representatives in attendance to verify performance. The act called for trials to commence in July 1878 and to end 10 days thereafter.


On July 16, 1878, the contesting engines lined up in Green Bay, Wis., for the start of the highly anticipated race. A 200-mile course had been laid out, running south from Green Bay to Appleton, Oshkosh, Waupon, Watertown, Fort Atkinson and Janesville, then turning north and ending in Madison.

Six machines originally registered for the race, but only two actually competed: the Oshkosh and the Green Bay (the machines were referred to by their town of origin). A third machine, the Madison, supposedly made for Green Bay but got stuck in mud along the way. A fourth, the Milwaukee, simply failed to work, and a fifth, the Fond du Lac, was never completed. The origin of the supposed sixth entry is unknown.

The 1878 race started in Green Bay, ran south to Janesville then north to Madison. The Oshkosh covered 201 miles in 33 hours 27 minutes.


Contemporary reports give some description of the two machines, but a complete mechanical account has been lost to time. The Oshkosh, described at the time by the Post-Crescent of Appleton as 'queer looking,' was a 12 HP, two-cylinder unit with a vertical boiler, similar in appearance and design to the Champion traction engines built a decade or so later by D. June & Co. The July 15, 1878, Daily State Gazette (Green Bay) provided further details, noting the Oshkosh had engine cylinders of 6-inch bore and 8-inch stroke. Weight was a claimed 5,000 pounds.

Further description comes from an Aug. 14, 1921, account of the race by The Milwaukee Journal, which said the Oshkosh's vertical boiler had '150 1-3/4-inch tubes with a box heater rounding at the bottom. Two engine cylinders, with link motion, were attached on top of the heaters. The propelling device was a sprocket pinion on the crankshaft. The driving chain was similar to that used on motor trucks today. The wheels were of wood.'

The creative talent behind the Oshkosh lay in the minds of at least six men: Martin T. Battis, Anson Farrand, Alexander Gallinger, John F. Morse, John Owens and Frank Schomer. The six were residents of Oshkosh, and their professional occupations perhaps provide a clue to their interest in a successful steam-powered machine. Battis and Morse ran their own boiler shops (the Union Steam Boiler Works and the Union Iron Works, respectively); Farrand was the steam engineer for the Oshkosh fire department; Gallinger ran a successful lumber operation; Schomer contracted wood sawing; and Gallinger and Schomer were also partners in an enterprise selling McCormick reapers and mowers. Owens' occupation is unknown.

The exact details surrounding the Oshkosh's construction - and the roles the men played individually - are unclear, but all six men are mentioned in contemporary accounts of the race. In later interviews, Gallinger credited Morse as the Oshkosh's builder, but another source credited Alexander Burns' Oshkosh Boiler Works, and yet another source credited Martin T. Battis' Union Steam Boiler Works. Possibly confusing the matter even further, Burns' shop was located across the street from Morse's boiler shop. Additionally, while citing Morse's involvement in the Oshkosh, Gallinger took credit for the machine's inspiration.

Gallinger evidently possessed a strong streak of mechanical ingenuity. An Aug. 21, 1931, article in The Milwaukee Journal credited Gallinger with the invention of the mechanical differential. In that article, Gallinger claimed he invented his differential specifically for the Oshkosh, and he took credit for the Oshkosh's inspiration, as well. Gallinger, who was 84 years old at the time, told the Journal: 'In the summer of 1876 I built an engine for threshing, and the next spring John Morse, who had a foundry here, and I determined to build another and make a claim for the award.'

In another undated interview reprinted in the December 1955 issue of Engineers & Engines, Gallinger again took credit for the Oshkosh, saying: 'I had built a machine for threshing the year before and in early '77 I and a couple of the other boys here in Oshkosh decided to build another, put her on wheels, and win that prize money. It took us 60 days to get her ready. We took her up to Green Bay where we'd decided to start and where the one other competing machine had been made.'


The Green Bay is credited to one person, inventor Edward P. Cowles of Wequiock, Wis. (a small town just northeast of Green Bay), who in 1874 was awarded patent no. 154,846 for his traction engine design. Cowles' engine was at least in concept quite advanced, featuring four-wheel drive, four-wheel steering and a three-speed transmission. Cowles' two-cylinder machine was said to weigh in excess of 14,000 pounds. The machine's horsepower output is unknown.

While there's no verification the engine Cowles used in the race was the same machine spelled out in his patent, contemporary descriptions of his entry suggest it was. The July 21, 1878, edition of Green Bay's Daily State Gazette referenced a report from Oshkosh's Daily Northwestern, in which that paper reportedly said of Cowles' machine:

'The machine is the most clumsily built and contrived concern it would be possible to imagine. Without the slightest prejudice whatever it is pronounced a perfect curiosity by the best mechanics that look at it. It exhibits the most curious specimens of ingenuity, the ingenuity of puzzling movements and complications rather than simplicity and mechanical economy. All four wheels are on a sort of ball and socket joints and each turns in and out independently of the axle. The boiler is horizontal and the general outline, with cab and all, is much like a miniature railroad locomotive. Instead of propelling with an endless chain the motion is reduced from the cylinders by a succession of gears. It is massive and homely in the extreme, if any comparison is allowed with the Oshkosh machine.'

From the start, Cowles' Green Bay suffered one mechanical failure after another. An injector failure kept the Cowles machine from even making it out of Green Bay on the first day, and it ended up traveling by rail to Oshkosh. And while mechanical failures plagued the Green Bay, the Oshkosh generally performed flawlessly. In fact, any problems experienced by the Oshkosh appear to have been self-inflicted.

Reporting on a hauling and speed match between the contesting engines held in Watertown (a little more than halfway to the final destination of Madison), the July 21, 1878, edition of the Daily State Gazette, again quoting the Daily Northwestern, wrote: 'Both machines were going along finely ... when the Oshkosh turned out of the road and undertook to pass the Green Bay machine. In doing so a wheel on the loaded wagon dropped into a hole which broke the log chain which attached the lumber wagon to the road wagon. A toggle was made and the next start, which was something of a jerk, broke a pin somewhere about the machine which necessitated sending to the shop for a new one.'

Of the Green Bay's performance, the Northwestern wrote: 'The trials of speed at the Fairground this afternoon resulted in a total failure for the Green Bay machine. She was totally unable to make a mile without stopping either for want of steam or from heated journals ... the general opinion is expressed that the Green Bay machine cannot reach Madison in the required time should she start out.' Pointing out the Green Bay's shortcomings with a certain pride, the Daily Northwestern was clearly rooting for the Oshkosh and playing to the hometown crowd.

However, the paper was willing to give Cowles' machine some measure of respect, stating: 'In regard to the hauling test, it is due Mr. Cowles to say that some who witnessed that test and described more accurately its details affirm that his machine gained more of a victory in hauling than appears from the foregoing. They claim the Cowles machine pulled a heavier load, and with greater ease; also that the Oshkosh machine on a soft road can only start a heavy load with a jerk while Cowles' machine starts off easily and smoothly.' In hindsight, had that statement been made a few days later after trials in Fort Atkinson, it would have had an entirely different meaning.

According to Gallinger's interview reported in the May 1955 issue of Engineers & Engines, the Oshkosh crew wasn't above resorting to some sleight of hand if it worked in their favor. Gallinger related: 'A bunch of farmers at Fort Atkinson put us through our paces. They had nine wagons lined up which they wanted us to pull up a grade. There were men in the wagons. I looked at the grade and knew I'd never make it. The pull was on an inch rope. I started the machine real fast to bust the rope. I busted it. Tied on again and busted it again. Once more. Then I told those men they'd better walk up since the rope wouldn't take it and then started real slow so the rope wouldn't part, and made it all right with the empty wagons. Those men figured they walked because of a weak rope not because of a weak engine.'

This photo of an Oshkosh 'Hog' was published in the March/April 1955 issue of the Iron-Men Album. This is thought to show a later version of the engine used in the race.


At 11 p.m. on Saturday, July 23, 1878, the Oshkosh arrived in Madison. The official rules required a working speed of no less than 5 mph, giving the Oshkosh 40 hours to complete the 200-mile route. The Oshkosh travelled 201 miles, and its official time of 33 hours, 27 minutes gave it an average running speed of 6 mph. The Oshkosh finished alone and ahead of schedule. It seemed to be a clear victory ... Or was it?

Race commissioners met after the race to discuss awarding the prize but failed to reach a consensus. According to the diary of one commissioner, George Marshall, the governor did not want to award the $10,000 to the Oshkosh. In his 1931 interview with the Milwaukee Journal, Gallinger said commissioners wanted the Oshkosh crew to split the prize money with the Green Bay crew, but the Oshkosh crew refused.

An Aug. 1, 1878, editorial in the Appleton Post lashed out at commissioners, calling for the Oshkosh crew to receive their due reward. The refusal to award the money apparently hinged on the machine's supposed impractical nature, but, the Post opined, 'If any one of the latter has met the conditions imposed, he is entitled to the award whether his invention becomes of practical service or not.'

A Cowles pole road locomotive appeared in CM. Giddings' Development of the Traction Engine in America. According to Giddings, Cowles introduced this design about 1880.

The matter was ultimately deferred to the next legislative session, which voted to give the Oshkosh crew $5,000. However, $1,000 of that went to the Green Bay crew. 'It galled us like thunder,' Gallinger exclaimed in 1931.


Interestingly, little became of either machine after the event. Gallinger returned to the lumber business, but Morse at least through 1879 manufactured and marketed perhaps six more Oshkosh engines. According to a pamphlet for 'Steam Road Wagons' circulated by Morse, these later engines (a few sources identify them as the Oshkosh 'Hog') were available in 12, 14 and 16 HP versions. They were effectively identical to the 1878 machine.

According to CM. Giddings' Development of the Traction Engine in America, Cowles continued to develop his design. In the early 1880s, Adams & Price of Nashville, Tenn., and later Spangberg & Pendleton of Warren, Ohio, manufactured pole road locomotives (so named for the 'poles' or trees that were used as tracks) based on Cowles' patents.

Special thanks to Jack Alexander for supplying clues, and to Scott Cross and the Oshkosh Public Museum for their help in supplying newspaper clippings and photos. Contact the Oshkosh Public Museum at: 1331 Algoma Blvd., Oshkosh, WI 54901 2799; (920) 424-4731.

In partnership with the Wisconsin Historical Society, Wisconsin Public Television has produced an excellent video chronicling the race. It can be viewed by going to the Wisconsin Stories Web site at:


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