In 1869, Douw D. Williamson started a five-year effort to produce a successful American steam plow, a goal he described in an article titled “Plowing by Steam” in Van Nostrand’s Magazine in 1878: “Perhaps no branch of engineering has been more fascinating to mechanical engineers than that of steam plowing. The thought of inventing an implement which would supersede the common plow and revolutionize a process which is older than Christianity itself has, for many years, stirred the hearts and brains of ingenious men and incited them to patient labor and extraordinary effort.
“None have struggled more with this problem or met with greater disappointment than American engineers. The cheapness of our prairie land; the size of our farms; their natural adaptation to steam cultivation; the high cost and uncertainty of labor and many other reasons made it appear probable that this country would bring forth the steam plow and perfect it. The records of the Patent Office show how many men thought they had accomplished it. The fact that, in the year 1870, not a steam plow was practically working in the country proved the value of these patents,” Williamson stated.
A Visit Abroad
Williamson’s quest to develop a steam plow in America began in Scotland in 1869, where he investigated the Thomson road engine, a then-new steam traction engine concept. It could not only carry heavy loads over soft ground, according to A Century of Traction Engines by W.J. Hughes, but also travel on a good road over 20 MPH when built for speed. Williamson described his experience when he first saw the Thomson engine near Edinburgh, Scotland:
“In the year 1869, I saw a ‘Thomson Road Steamer’ with its broad rubber tires draw a train of heavily loaded wagons over a soft wet field in Scotland. I rode upon the engine when it drew the same load through the yielding deep sands on the shore of the Firth of Forth, and when it climbed the steep slippery streets of the old town Edinburgh. I spent many days with it striving to find a fault with its peculiar tire, but the more I examined its workings the more I was convinced that its camel-footed, elastic tread solved the great question of maintaining its footing, whilst working in soft soil and drawing plows behind it.”
A Steamer of His Own
“Having arranged for the right to work under the American Patents, I imported an engine from Scotland in 1870, and commenced a series of experiments with it,” Williams continued. “Whilst the rubber tire did all and more than I had expected, I found the difficulty of maintaining steam a most serious drawback. Calling to my aid some of the best engineering talent in the country, I succeeded, in 1871, in producing what was afterwards known as the ‘Williamson Road Steamer and Steam Plow.’ The engines were built by the Locomotive Works of Paterson (New Jersey), and were far ahead of anything that had been attempted before in either hemisphere.”
A total of 12 Williamson steam engines were manufactured by Locomotive Works: two went to California, one to Minnesota and one to Pennsylvania. Williamson stated, “Two of the engines were sold to parties in Great Britain and are being worked as road engines. Being of American build they have naturally been very closely criticized, and it has been freely conceded that no such perfect engines have been made in that country.”
In other parts of the U.S. they were introduced with every prospect of success. Difficulties which arose (in large part having to do with steering) were mostly overcome with practice and it was believed that their permanent success was assured. The rubber tires worked to a charm, and so long as the ground was dry enough for horses to plow the steamer would hold its own. Turning at the ends of a field was reduced much below that accomplished by teams (of horses) in actual competition.
Williamson’s American sales to Minnesota and Pennsylvania were to wealthy land owners interested in plowing their large acreages. The Williamson engine in Minnesota was purchased by Col. Thomson to break the virgin prairie. In Pennsylvania, the purchaser was the owner of America’s premier seed and nursery company, Landreth & Son. In 1871, Williamson also successfully demonstrated the ability of his engine to pull loaded barges on the Erie Canal.
West Coast Demonstrations
In California, the first Williamson steam engine, along with eight heavy plows, was purchased by the Tide Lands Reclamation Co., of Oakland, Calif. When delivered to G.D. Roberts, president of the company, it was transported from San Francisco over the Central Pacific Railroad Bridge. On Jan. 14, 1871, Pacific Rural Press reported, “Last Saturday, the steamer was taken out by Mr. Roberts, for a little trip over the worst roads and across fields, and was attached to the plows in one case, where the soil was very soft, to see if it would be able to get through. It performed all of its evolutions to the perfect satisfaction of those present, plowed a little, ran through ruts and mud-holes, ran off at a lively rate with a 5-ton road roller, and otherwise acted in a brisk and happy manner.
“The regular trial, however, is yet to be made, and as the Press has been invited to attend when this comes off, our readers will have a full account. We have only to add, that D.D. Williamson, 32 Broadway, N.Y., is the exclusive manufacturer (of this engine) for the United States,” the Press reported.
Noted agricultural historian F. Hal Higgins wrote that, “Jones & Hewlett Co., a prominent California pioneer importer of agricultural machinery, with a New York office and 20 years in the farm machinery business was the natural choice to represent the Williamson steamer on the West Coast. H.H. Hewlett was responsible for the Stockton, Calif., end of the business, which was the largest and most extensive in the San Joaquin Valley at this period, according to the editor of California Farmer, who had known Hewlett for 18 years at the Stockton, Calif., location, as importer, merchant, ship owner, real estate dealer, farmer, miner, manufacturer, contractor, banker and insurance broker.”
A Williamson engine was delivered in 1871 to Jones & Hewlett, which sold and promoted the engine with advertising in the California Farmer and Pacific Rural Press agricultural publications. Plowing demonstrations by the Williamson steam engine were conducted in June 1871 near Stockton on the ranch of Hiram Fisher. In September 1871, plowing demonstrations were held at the California State Fair in Sacramento, Calif., and at the Stockton County Fair.
Read part two of the history of the “The Williamson Road Steamer and Steam Plow” in the next issue of Steam Traction.
Jack Alexander is the author of Steam Power on California Roads and Farms, The First American Farm Tractors and The Caterpillar’s Roots. Jack can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org