Thomson Road Steamer: Douw D. Williamson Attempts an American Steam Plow

The Thomson Road Steamer in America – Part II

| Winter 2007

This issue, we continue with the history of Douw D. Williamson’s effort to produce a successful American steam plow. 

As stated in “Plowing by Steam” from Williamson’s 1878 Van Nostrand’s Magazine article, “The first really great achievement of the Williamson steam plow was in the testing trials of one sold to Col. Thomson of Minnesota, when with a gang of five 20-inch breaking plows, it actually plowed four acres in an hour of virgin prairie. The power exerted may be estimated from the fact that a 20-inch breaking plow is usually drawn by four yoke of oxen, and the amount plowed is not over an acre per day. Of course the four acres per hour was an extreme amount, but Thomson afterwards reported 30 acres per day of 10 hours as being the regular work of the engine.”

In the Aug. 31, 1871, edition, Pacific Rural Press reported, “A steam plow built at the great locomotive works in Paterson, N.J., has been successfully introduced on the great western plain in Minnesota. The plows turned the turf at the rate of about 40 acres per day. The machine is said to be capable of drawing 10 loaded wagons over an ordinary road as rapidly and safely as the same could be done with 10 pairs of horses. It was invented by Mr. Thomson of Edinburgh, Scotland, and has been patented in Great Britain and America.”

Williamson’s engine was not only impressing in the field, but also along waterways. Engineering magazine, June 23, 1871, reported: “A very interesting experiment was made on the 11th by D.D. Williamson, of New York, in the application of his road steamers to the towing of heavily loaded boats on the Erie Canal. The result of the trial proved that the road steamer is perfectly able to run along on the present tow-path and draw three of the largest canal boats fully loaded at the rate of 3 MPH, at which speed no detrimental effect was produced by the wash on the banks.”

In New York, a committee was specially appointed by the Farmer’s Club of the American Institute to examine the Williamson engine’s practical operation in the drawing of heavy loads. They reported in American Artisan in 1871 that the utility of the engine for tractive uses was highly commended.

Landreth & Son near Philadelphia

Acclaimed in Minnesota, the steam engine was also proving capable in the changing soils of Pennsylvania. In the 1878 Van Nostrand’s Magazine article “Plowing by Steam,” Williamson stated, “The peculiarity of their special crops required a continued shifting of work, and the ability of the engine with its plows to go from one field to another was of great importance. In addition to the plow furnished with the engine, the Landreths constructed a very ingenious cultivator for stirring the subsoil without turning it up. It worked admirably, thoroughly breaking up the hard pan and loosening the soil to a depth of 14 inches. It made a heavier draft on the engine than did the gang plow. They also used their engine for drawing manure from their docks on the Delaware (River) to the fields, taking up to nine tons at once.”