Traction Engine Troubles

| May/June 1987

Oh what a difference a century makes! In the 1880s, when steam traction engines were rather new in some localities, the only way to move them from one farm to another was under their own steam, on the public highways.

This caused problems. Eventually, they were resolved. We found, however, an account issued in 1888 which reflected the troubles of the times. It appeared in the volume, 'Agriculture of Pennsylvania', the official book containing reports of the State Board of Agriculture, and several statewide organizations.

Here is what it said, verbatim:

The introduction of steam for thrashing and the convenience of traction engines as combining power for driving the thrasher and for moving the machinery from farm to farm, has led to a frequent appearance of this kind of machinery on our public roads. In most cases it has been been found difficult to drive ordinary farm horses past such engines. The Legislature of 1885 was presented with a draft of an act intended to give greater security to persons passing along our public roads, but to a certain extent it has failed in its purpose. The second section provides 'That in every case when such machinery propelled by steam is being moved upon a public road or highway it shall be the duty of the owner or owners in charge of such machinery, upon the approach, in either direction, of all persons traveling in vehicles or in charge of teams, to move such machinery as far as practicable to the right or left of the road to a position where the said approaching vehicle or team may pass with the greatest safety, and stop the same before such persons traveling in vehicles or in charge of teams shall have arrived within three hundred feet of such machinery, shall assist such passing vehicle or teams until they are safely by the danger, and if there be any obstruction to the view of the road it shall be the duty of the owner or owners or persons in charge of such machinery not to approach such obstruction nearer than three hundred feet without going to the place to see that the road is clear, or sending some competent person for the purpose.'

At the recent meeting of the Board attention was called to cases wherein the parties in charge of traction engines has neglected or refused to comply with the provisions of the law above quoted, and cases were stated in which damage had been done to carriages by this disregard of the plain provisions of the law. The defect which appears to need a remedy is that there is no special penalty attached to a violation of the law. The party in charge, in many cases, is an irresponsible person, and the theory that he can, under common law, be held personally responsible for all damages, does not hold good and is of no value to the damaged party.

If a disobedience of the provisions of the second section of the law was made a misdemeanor, the difficulty would, in a great measure, be removed, as in that case both the owner and the party in charge would be liable for punishment.


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