Where Is the Oldest Traction Engine


| November/December 1991

R.D. #1, Box 149A , Ellwood City, Pennsylvania , 16117

The idea for this article came from a long distance off. Sweden to be exact. A man there named Tore Blom owns a couple locally built rare traction engines by Munktells, a predecessor of the firm that builds Volvo cars today. A color photo of the larger one was used on the cover of Iron Men Album several years ago. A lavender colored paint job on the jacket insulating the boiler was its most obvious and perhaps memorable characteristic. Some of you probably will recall it for that reason. Most will not know that virtually the same photo was used on the British magazine, Steaming, at about the same time. Also the engine was shipped to England to appear at several shows that summer, 1987 or 1988, I think. Funds to underwrite that truly international project were gathered in England from several groups and individuals and the company which builds Volvo helped too. I believe it was an anniversary of some sort for them and they 'needed some extra advertising splash'. At any rate Mr. Blom and several English enthusiasts have become fast friends and travel back and forth a good deal. It may seem like a lot of travel but is not likely as far as our trip to Waterloo, Iowa last summer. Anyhow Tore Blom sent a letter to the Editor of Steaming and it is quoted in the Winter issue which I received recently. In it he questions where the oldest traction engine in operating condition resides. He also suggested it may be a Tuxford 'road locomotive' engine of English manufacture circa 1861, at the Hagfors railway museum in Sweden.

Tuxford's built engines in Boston, England and there are some nine portables listed in the Traction Engine Register published by England's Southern Counties group, but no tractions. By the tone of parts of his letter as quoted, I expect Tore was needling the sometimes stuffy British a bit while at the same time seriously suggesting a research and some articles on existing 'ancient engines'. They definitely feel they have a corner on steam engines and that none built elsewhere are up to their standard. Sometimes they even seem to consider foreign engines nearly worthless.

Well the idea worked although a long way off. I got to work and dug through some of my materials and books and tried to find out where the most ancient operating engines are in this country. As has been mentioned before a time or two, traction engines seem to have developed in the 1870's and come into their own in the decades from 1880 to 1910. After that they were in decline and were virtually gone by 1925 or shortly after. But we are not looking now at that aspect except as the limiting factor for our search. Since no register of engines exists for North America, I mainly used Norbeck's Steam Traction Engines in the USA and Canada for my research. I realize that it was just a listing of makes and was not in any sense concerned with age of engines. It is however, the most recent major collection of photos of engines. The oldest engine I find mentioned there is a C & G Cooper engine in the Museum of the successors, Cooper-Bessemer. It is reportedly a model from 1873. Several companies of course, take themselves out of the running by getting into the game a bit late. Certainly dates 1900 and after are out of the running. Also not surprisingly Ford's Museum in Dearborn has some oldies and theirs would be in running order as I presume the Cooper is. Their 1888 Birdsall and similar aged Wood, Tabor and Morse are not only old but extremely rare four wheel drive machines. Other one of a kind survivors include the Greencastle and Blumentritt, both favorites of mine. The Blumentritt was built in 1878 and Norbeck says rebuilt in 1952. Does anyone know if it is still running or able to be steamed? It was in Iowa then. I have seen the Greencastle in steam and probably could have run it a few yards if I had not been too timid to ask. It hails from 1885. Other old companies that could have engines in the running are Heilman, Frick, Case, Garr-Scott, Huber, and D. June. I saw a D. June portable in running order at the Au Glaize Village Museum in Defiance, Ohio and understood from Marvin McGeorge and others that the late Gilbert Enders of West Lodi, Ohio had a traction engine. Does anyone know if it is in a museum somewhere? Norbeck says no tractions are known. Westinghouse was another old time company and the late Morgan Hill and Ford's Museum seem to have a tie with 1885 models. C. Aultman of Canton, Ohio was very early too. How old is the Monitor at Pawnee? My friend, Jim Malz's, 14 HP Huber is listed by Norbeck as 1886 which makes it a very early Huber. Are there any older running? The Canadian, George White Company, seems to go back to the early days of 1880 or before. What are the oldest engines in the western museums up there? Portables as usual tend to predate traction engines and the British Register lists one as 1840 but in 'derelict' condition and of unknown manufacture. Perhaps further investigation will shed some light or it. The oldest Tuxford portable is listed as 1855 while a Humphries is listed as 1850, Fowler plowing engines as 1869 and 1870 (are the;, traction?), and at 1862 a Barrows & Stewart portable and an Aveling and Porter traction.

Charles Burrell and Sons Limited seems to have a special niche with some 27 engines listed as pre-1900, all traction, plowing and showmens engines which would be self propelled. I expect the British may have us there at least. The Register does not say whether the engines listed are running or 'derelict' so that could be a problem depending on the requirements for Tore Blom's honors.

I'm getting a bit long again but since that is nothing new for me. I'll mention in closing one of my favorite railroad pieces, the venerable locomotive, John Bull. First run on the Camden and Amboy Railroad September 15, 1831 it was in regular service until 1866 which is a very good record though not the longest for railroad engines. After that it was out for the 1876 Centennial celebrations, a rail show in 1883 and the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893. B. & O. used it as a feature exhibit in a Centennial of their own in 1927 and she had the honor of being copied in a full scale replica by the PRR in 1940. For the 150th year anniversary in 1981 the staff of the Smithsonian took her out on some scenic track age and ran her under her own steam once more. They said she did right well and that makes her the oldest of her kind still running. Some people have all the luck with that kind of toys to play with. By the way, the replica is at the Pennsylvania RR Museum in Strasburg, Pennsylvania, across the road from the station of the 'Railroad to Paradise' and is steamed regularly. I saw it back in to the building there a couple of years ago. Being over 50 it is somewhat of an antique in its own right.


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