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US Steam Tractors


Mar 3, 2005
Somerset, UK

I don’t post so much on forums now, having accepted that there isn’t enough interest in the stuff to sustain a conversation. Apologies to those who encourage me to post oddball items. However, I expect that this thread will stir some interest. It concerns observations on US steam tractors.

US-made traction engines are very rare sights in the UK. I don’t know if any ever came over here new, but people are now importing old ones from the US for restoration.

I saw my second one yesterday, a 1910 Reeves. I found it very interesting, being very different from UK traction engines, which are all much of a muchness. There are some surprising features to British eyes, and I will highlight some of them here. I would like to know how well these features stood up in service.

Corrosion-wise, it’s in remarkably good condition, as far as I can see.

I was surprised how thin the boiler plate is, and also surprised by the tendency to screw important things into the boiler shell with, apparently, no compensating (thickening) plates or bosses. Some pipes and fittings are screwed straight into the shell. Apart from anything else, it’s not ideal for sealing!

To be honest, I’m not all that familiar with UK traction engine details either, but I was having a look at a Marshall portable boiler today, and the only unreinforced openings were for small plugs and inspection covers. Anything which might transmit external force had a boss riveted on.

The owner of the Reeves tractor told me that US engines used higher strength plate than UK engines. This gives lighter weight, lower cost, and easier forming of complex shapes (when hot!). The downside is that corrosion is no respecter of tensile strength, so a thinner boiler is more vulnerable to corrosion.

US makers used much wider plates. This has to be a good thing - fewer seams in the barrel. Also, note the name OTIS - I’ve never seen a steel mill’s name rolled into plate before.

One thing that impresses me about old American ‘commercial’ vehicles was the tendency not to waste time and money on unnecessary finish. Long ago, this led British engineers to be sniffy about the apparent quality of US locomotives, etc. The impression was given that if the parts that show looked bad, what about the hidden parts? However, informed comment at the time often reported that the finish and accuracy of parts that mattered was usually first class.

The lathe operator must have been in a hurry!

It’s clear that the Reeves was designed to be light and cheap to build. Its uses included direct hauling of many-furrowed ploughs. In contrast, typical domestic British traction engines must have been too heavy for direct ploughing.

Overall, I was impressed by the concept and design. They surely did the job, and were clearly lighter and cheaper than their British counterparts. This led to some cases of British manufacturers following suit, with lightweight, cheap, basic traction engines for export, such as the Marshall ‘Gainsborough’, which adopted many American tractor principles. However, I think US makers would have had a job selling their engines in the UK. They ‘looked’ flimsy (and I know appearance is probably misleading), and I’m sure some of the boiler design features would have been simply unacceptable.

Some of the ‘money-saving’ features:-

The smokebox is an extension of the boiler barrel, rather than being a separate riveted-on item, making repair more difficult when corrosion took hold (although repair is easy nowadays, by welding).


The front axle trunnion is bolted to the pressurised part of the boiler. Did this cause problems - looseness, leakage, cracks? On British engines it was usually riveted to the (unpressurised) smokebox, and the smokebox itself was usually replaceable without too much difficulty.

Marshall (I think).

I was very impressed by the wheels, which seem a good example of ‘value engineering‘. Steel or wrought iron spokes cast into iron hub and rim. However, to the unfamiliar eye, they look delicate. I know they're not.
I’m told that the cast iron rims were chilled.
I think it would have been hard to sell the idea of cast iron rims to British customers, who would not have known that American foundries could produce very tough cast iron.

I know some US makers used wheels with riveted flat spokes (e.g. Kelly, Buffalo-Pitts).

Slight over meshing of the pinion!

US steam tractor's engines often had their own bedplates, which seems better than the British arrangement of having the cylinder and crankshaft bolted separately to the boiler. Also, US engines had steam domes, while UK domestic engines didn’t. I suggested to a UK traction engine owner that these seemed like good features. He disagreed, pointing out that by having the cylinders fixed directly on the boiler, steam-jacketing was easily accommodated, steam going directly from the boiler into the cylinder with no pipework.

UK domestic engines didn’t have friction clutches. No-one I spoke to could understand why a clutch would be needed, but I found some reasons in W J Hughes’ A Century of Traction Engines. He says that if the engine was burning straw, and was driving a thresher, it needed to kept well away from the unthreshed grain, so it needed a very long belt. Having a clutch apparently allowed finer control for positioning for belt tensioning, and also allowed the tension to be altered by moving the engine without stopping threshing. Also, a clutch allowed easier starting when direct ploughing. Good points.

The Reeves engine only had single speed reduction gears. UK domestic engines usually (not always) had two or three speeds, but cheaper export models only had one.

I was surprised to see that the Reeves engine only had one safety valve. Was this normal in the US?

A minor point: the Reeves engine had a cast iron chimney, smoke box end plate, and smokebox door. All were cracked. UK engines used steel or wrought iron for these items (except the chimney base, which was CI).

Note the valve for admitting HP steam direct to the LP cylinder for extra torque, operated by gear sector-and-rack using a foot pedal.


An Advance engine, seen last year on its first outing after major restoration.

Note the extent to which parts are bolted to the shell. Are there stiffening plates inside??

In contrast, British engines tended to have components riveted to the boiler/firebox, like this example:-

Hi Asquith,

I like this article and am interested in those noisy beasts.
Did have the opportunity to steer on of these, i can tell you it was fabulous.
The only thing wrong was the white striped polo shirt that looked a bit more splatter finish after the ride, but well worth it and would not have missed it even the polo shirt needed throwing away.
And about sustaining a conversation, that is because we are spread all over the world and work interferes a lot what we really would like to do.
Please keep on throwing those oddballs of nice old machine material on this forum, i like it.
A question are you related to the asquith machine manufacturers?
Regards Bernhard.
Asquith, I would encourage you to continue posting on various subjects. Very few comments from me...really have no real knowledge. But I am fascinated, and read it all...carry on!
Hello Asquith,

I make a point of reading all of your posts since I have become a member of this forum. The photos are always first rate and the information is very interesting. I don't always comment because some issues I am not qualified to comment on such as this latest post concerning American Steam Tractors. The link below will take you to a website that has many knowledgeable people on this topic.

Antique Engine and Old Iron Photo Gallery

If the link does not work in the Uk then go to http://www.smokstak.com/gallery/

In July of 2001 a steam tractor exploded at a County Fair in Ohio killing 5 people. The following link is a report of that incident.
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It is a bit far for some of you, but a place to see a lot of these engines is the Old Thresher's Reunion

Midwest Old Threshers

One time I counted 40 steam traction engines in motion in the daily parade. There are also rows and rows of other tractors and anything that pertains to farming.

When I was a very small boy, we were driving from St. Louis to my mother's home in Bunker Hill, Illinois. Off in the distance, I could see some sort of activity and heard a strange sound, sort of chuff, chuff. I asked my mother what it was and she said they were threshing. Only many years later did I realize I had seen one of the last steam threshings.

I once got a ride on a steam traction engine in the parade. As big and heavy as they are, you would expect a fairly smooth ride. It isn't. With no suspension, it is bone jarring. The steering was the standard worm gear driving a winch taking up chain attached to the front axle. The driver, who had not steered one before, commented that the mechanic should tighten the chain. The response was that if the chain was tight, he couldn't steer it at all. As the axle rocks back and forth, it alternately pulls against the direction you are trying to turn, then slacks off. The worm gear locks during the pull and then takes up the slack on the opposite rock. The driver moves the steering wheel in a series of jerks as the axle rocks in the direction of turn.

Many of the engines did not have drives to the wheels, but were towed to the field where they were used to power threshing machines, etc. The old threshing machines were terribly dangerous. A boy I went to high school with got his arms caught in a belt. He saved them, but could not raise them above shoulder level.

The boilers have thin skins, but there are a lot of internal ties that keep them together.

One time driving around in the Spokane, Washington area, I saw a number of these engines parked on display near homes. At first, I was puzzled that there would be so many in a mountainous area, then I realized that they were used by sawmills.

I have some knowledge on this subject having helped re-boiler a 16 hp Baker engine that belongs to a friend. It was bought new by his Grandfather.

The parts bolted on an engine are attached to the shell without additional reinforcement inside. They used boiler taps for all holes for mounting. They are tapered and all are 12 tpi regardless of size.

The front end mounting was not a item that I have heard any problems of. Of greater importance and disagreement was the rear axle mounting. It was said that no manufacturer went from rear mount to side mount.

The Reeves being an example of the rear mount while the Advance has its axle brackets attached to the sides of the boiler.

This Reeves is a cross compound to have an intercepting valve to put HP steam to the LP cylinder. As long as you could keep pressure up that is!

Reeves used boilers built by vendors. Broderick being one I can recall off hand.

Engines destined for Canada met more stringent construction standards to meet Canadian boiler laws.

Yes one safety valve is all that is required. It must be sized in accordance with the steam capacity of the boiler.

The friction clutch is nice having run an engine without a working clutch. It is not a complete necessity however.

Few had more than 1 speed. Harrison Jumbo being one I can think of.

The Advance is a nice engine as well. The one I am most familiar with is equipped as straw burner.

Granted some of the machine work on these engines is a little and sometimes a lot rough. They did a lot of work however in their day.

Many many companies built them here in their time and sales were very competitive. Price was a big factor.

I must admit I have always been biased toward the North American steam engine as I never liked the look of the British engine. Just my preference.

I used to think the American traction engines were ugly and spindly-looking machines by comparison with the English engines that I was used to seeing - but in recent years my tastes have broadened (and improved!) to include almost anything :D Now they interest me greatly, thanks for the photos and questions.

The Reeves boiler does look dodgy! I am doubtful about them "using stronger steel", my guess is they were built for an economic life, not 50-100 years? Attempts in locomotives to use higher tensile steels (1950's?) were troublesome I seem to recall.

Strangely enough, the engine on the Reeves looks like a substantial design in comparison to the rest of the machine, and quite different to the high speed, overhung crank, side-mounted US engines I am used to seeing. This one has centre-cranks, is compound, and has a Corliss-type frame (as per Franco's article). I think the "Corliss frame" means the cross head guides continue towards the crank shaft, curving outwards to clear the crank webs and become the main bearing supports, so tying the whole engine together, in a straight line (England = "bayonet frame"). Corliss started using these girder frames from 1859. No clutch on this one that I can see.

By the way, although the clutch allows the operator to move his engine to tension the belt, without stopping the belt, I am pretty sure in NZ you would do the same thing using a "timber jack" on the rear wheel strakes. This is a method I have used several times to move engines out of the shed prior to lighting the fire, easy on flat ground. But, I have never done any threshing, so I am guessing.

I am intrigued to read in Franco's article that the Reeves rear axle turned with the drivers. I wonder why - there is a gear drive to each wheel on Asquith's engine. Perhaps there is a difference in the two Reeves engines.

Regarding the Advance engine, I read that this company used a short stroke engine, and a "sidemount" design for the rear wheels, I think so they could move the engine itself further forward on the boiler and get a bit more weight up front. Instead of having a single rear axle behind the firebox, Advance used stub axles mounted on the sides of the firebox. This also made for a shorter wheelbase, and Advance advertised how maneuverable their engines were. Sounds dodgy, but they sold 12,000 engines by 1911 before merging with Rumely, so they must have been OK!

ps, Kevin has posted while I was writing this, I see I am repeating some of his comments.
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Context that may be of interest.

1. In the U.S., things like boiler regulations are apparently set by the states, not by the federal government. So the standards for things like safety valves may not have been the same in all states. (But may or may not have since been regularized.)

2. In the part of the midwest (rural and agricultural) where I grew up, there was lots of talk about old threshing machines, somtimes steam powered, but all discussion about pulling plows seemed to begin with gasoline tractors, mostly John Deere, and in the early days using 2 cylinder gasoline engines. I don't recall any talk of steam engines used for plowing.

All of these stories were told to me in my youth, which was a suprizingly long time ago (:-(, so I might have forgotten bits.

Threshing machines, and their modern successors combines, are indeed very dangerous devices.

3. Many american farms were homesteads - which meant that the farmers were most certainly NOT gentry, and often had zero capital. They got the land for free by showing up and staying. The farms seemed to often be inherited, and often the heirs had no capital except the farm itself.

Sooo -> the pressures for "low cost" would have been very very high.

Technical Question - Assuming they are torqued properly, and perhaps retightened by the user during maintence, why would bolted fastenings now be as strong as rivets for this purpose?

(I recall a TV show that talked about a report in the 1950s that found for buildings, bolts are as strong as rivets. And then went on to show air powered devices for torquing the nuts.)

A rivet cannot come "unscrewed", but of course fretting could still wear the hole loose, no? With a bolt vibration might unscrew it, but if caught in time, you could tighten it. I wonder if the bolt has an actual advantage in keeping the joint steam tight? If nothing else, you could take the bolted part off, and do work on the boiler and part, and then bolt it back on. Rather a pain with riveted construction, no?
A rivet cannot come "unscrewed", but of course fretting could still wear the hole loose, no? With a bolt vibration might unscrew it, but if caught in time, you could tighten it. I wonder if the bolt has an actual advantage in keeping the joint steam tight? If nothing else, you could take the bolted part off, and do work on the boiler and part, and then bolt it back on. Rather a pain with riveted construction, no?


I don't know the answer as to strength comparison, but I used to spend time back in the 1980's driving traction engines and rollers, these engines were driven on the open road on steel, i.e. no rubber treads in those days. Mind you, all being two and three speed, they probably went alot faster than the US engines. The ride was certainly pretty rough, just the sort of ceaseless pounding and shaking that might loosen off nuts? And who wants to fool about with loose fasteners that go into a steam space? Not recommended.

I think it is vital that a rivet fills the hole, so in theory no movement or fretting is possible? Perhaps the US engines used reamed holes, and machined bolts with no clearance for these appplications, maybe even rivetted over the end of the fastener once tight? (Just some random thoughts, would be happy to be corrected).
Many thanks for all the comments and information. I can only address a small number of points at the moment.

I had a quick look at Dinosaur’s Antique Engine link and noticed photos of a Holt steam-powered caterpillar tractor. Now that would be worth studying!

Regarding the practice of securing important items to the boiler shell by bolts tapped into the shell: I don’t know the exact thickness of the Reeves boiler shell, but let’s say 5/16". At 12 tpi, that’s less than four engaged threads! It seems like bad practice, but I suppose the answer is, it worked OK. Maybe! I can’t imagine anyone adopting that approach nowadays. Mind you, regardless of different detailed practices around the world, the whole concept of using a thin pressure vessel, packed with a massive amount of energy, as the main structural element of a machine that’s subject to all sorts of strains, would never catch on today. I suppose it’s lucky that the concept was accepted by our ancestors a couple of centuries ago!

By the same token, if the concept of driving a thin metal box at 100 mph, containing with pressurised petrol/gasoline in close proximity to hot metal, was introduced today, I suspect that would have quickly been ruled out of court!

Another difference between US and UK traction engines that comes to mind is that British engines invariably(?) had a winch built in. This was simply a cable drum inboard of one of the hind wheels. It normally went round with the wheel, but the wheels were readily disengaged for winching, by removing some drive pins.
Asquith, being a licenced traction plant operator in Ontario, this is a great thread!

There was considerable variation in sheet thickness used by North American traction engine manufacturers. The 1914 Case catalogue lists shell thicknesses ranging from 9/32"for their 30 hp engine to 3/8"on the 110 hp engine. The Canadian manufacturer, George White, also used relatively thin 5/16"sheets, a concern for preservationists with original boilers in Ontario owing to the current minimum thickness requirements. Huber return flue engines employed shell sheets up to 7/16" and Nicolls & Shephard used up to 1/2" on the shells.

To be fair to the manufacturers building lighter boilers, not only was cost a factor in the market place but the state of fields, roads and bridges - there were many incidents of heavy traction engines breaking through flimsy bridges or becoming mired for considerable time on unstable roads travelling between farms or wet fields. Those problems could result in heavy losses for both the custom operator and farmer.
That being said, I too wonder at some of the boilers I´ve come across.

While most North American traction engines were single speed, here in southern Ontario where roads were (marginally) better in the first two decades after the turn of the last century, two speed side mount (ie, drive wheels mounted to stub axles on the firebox wrapper) were not unusual and several are preserved.

I noticed that cross and Woolf compounding appears to be fairly common on British traction engines. Use of compounding in North America seemed to fall out of favor after the first decade of the last century. When compounding was employed the tandem configuration seems the most common, at least here in Ontario.

The ride was certainly pretty rough, just the sort of ceaseless pounding and shaking that might loosen off nuts?

Peter - surely so. my impression is that none of these machines run all that smoothly even when at rest.

On reflection, one wonders if it's one of those things where the simply tried it (for whatever reason) and it worked.

Your link mentions Daniel Adamson’s machine having a race with ‘J W Boulton’. It was actually with the larger-than-life Isaac Watt Boulton, dealer in used locomotives, and occasional manufacturer, of Ashton-under-Lyne. Believed to be the first recorded race between powered road vehicles. Boulton also invented a type of traction engine wheel with rubber pads, which became quite popular.


Interesting to hear about the boiler thicknesses. 9/32" ..... hmm.

Interesting to see that compounding fell out of favour in N America, and that tandem compounds were most prevalent in your area. I suppose tandems would fit in with the minimal cost approach, since it allowed the use of a single disc crank. British compounds were mainly of the two cylinder type, although at least one manufacturer made compounds with annular pistons, such that only one crankpin was needed. Interesting machining job on the cylinders, though! Another type of compound had one piston above the other, again requiring only one crankpin.

Fowler made a three cylinder compound for the War office. I don’t know why.

As for rough riding, rubber tyres or pads and spring wheels were tried, but most UK makers provided sprung axles from about the 1880s. I expect there were some interesting arrangements for accommodating the axle movement without compromising gear train meshing too much.

How common was it for North American engines to be fitted with springs?

What about brakes? Did they ever catch on in America, or were they an expensive luxury?

Regarding direct plough hauling as opposed to the much more common method in the UK - using two engines hauling a plough to and fro across the field, I found a 1910 article which elaborated on this. It related to compound engines and tackle made by McLaren for direct ploughing. Its intended markets were ‘Argentina, Hungary, Russia, &c, where the summers are long and dry, the ground bakes hard enough to carry the engine without any injurious effect to the land.’

The article claims a fuel-saving advantage of the cable-hauled (indirect) ploughing system over the direct system, because in the cable system the engines are just moving the plough, while in the direct system they have to move their own weight around while ploughing. Cable-hauled ploughing was generally done by contractors, as the equipment was too expensive for most farmers.

I must say I like the idea of the ‘undermounted’ traction engines, made for example by Avery. These had a chassis, leaving the boiler to be a boiler. Were there any major drawbacks? Presumably they were more expensive.
Avery engines were and are popular, but as double simples the joke is they are only useful in valleys with a river on one side and a coal mine on the other. The under-mount designs detractors will point out that the engine is down in the dust and dirt.

Frick's had their engines built on a frame on top of the boiler and that makes them an easier engine to re-boiler.

Brakes were not an option on engines that I can think of. A parking brake would be the most useful as your reverse lever serves as a very good brake. A good engineer on an incline can demonstrate that.

Huber's return flue design had it's following as well. Their motto was "follow me" as their engines could ford water crossings that would put out the fire in a locomotive style boiler.

Some years ago I read a story involving an engine set up to run a sawmill. After a few years in place the owner decided to put a concrete floor in the engine house. The wheels were poured into the concrete and the engine ran for a long time. After it was out of service it was bought by a hobbyist who removed it from the floor. The wheels and axles were worn oblong from the motion of the engine moving in the clearance in the wheels. Machine work had to ensue to correct the wear.
Did anyone notice the disc crank on the Advance engine? I started looking in a couple of books, and find variations on this type was widely used. Any ideas on why the "complete circle" was used? Strength? Flywheel effect?

Case (below). This type appear to be one-piece. Note how the disc is larger than required (so are the other makes), but there is already a flywheel on the other side of the engine. Perhaps the size is to accomodate the necessary counterweight. Cast steel perhaps or would you try cast iron?


This is the most interesting I have seen so far. (below) Avery 110 hp undermounted engine, two cylinder. It looks to me like the crank shaft is a 'normal' steel forging,with minimal rectangular webs. The counterweight and rim are a one piece casting, held on by a single U-bolt. There is a slot in the rim to allow the u-bolt to be fitted. Thats all a bit of a guess.

Unusual crank disc to suit the name - Keck-Gonnerman (below). Foundry showing off?

Port Huron (below):

Baker uniflow (below). Apparently the only maker to try this design. Note the uniflow exhaust pipe which runs from the centre underside of the cylinder, forwards to the smokebox. It looks like the drawing office forgot the governor belt and someone made a quick-fix....

Returning to the Reeves engine in Asquith's first post - I read that the valve gear was designed by Harry C. Clay who worked for Reeves. Apparently this design was widely copied.

It would be interesting to know if the British owner intends to steam this engine, and if any modifications are required for a UK steam ticket. I imagine there might be some changes made.

I was thinking about those bolts and rivets. I notice that English engines do bolt items like the cylinders onto the boiler, and bearings are bolted to mounting plates. However the English use of horn plates means there are few parts attached to the boiler directly.

The American engines seem to have separate brackets for everything, almost like the old British portable engine designs.

Here is another guess - rivets are cheap and reliable and so used where ever parts are fixed for life.

Example of Fowler construction: