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Preservationist discovers rare ‘steam’ link to Watertown’s industrial past

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The Watertown-made link to the nation’s Industrial Revolution sat gathering dust in a northern Wisconsin barn for decades, its working days of powering manufacturing long gone and its novelty days of being trailered in parades more recently gone. But late last summer, when that barn door was opened for Mark W. Lakie, the first step was taken to reclaiming the machine’s former glory.

“I was like, ‘You’re kidding me,’” Mr. Lakie said. “I’ve seen one built around the same era, and it was shot.”

Mr. Lakie, of Camillus, Onondaga County, is a collector and refurbisher of portable steam engines; specifically “steam traction” engines. The first portable steam engine in the U.S. was built in Watertown by Gilbert Bradford in the 1840s. The manufacture of portable steam engines became one of the city’s chief industries, with the company that Mr. Bradford created leading the way.

To find one of those machines so well preserved, and will be in running condition in a few years, is amazing, Mr. Lakie said.

He plans to restore his steam traction engine — which were advanced portable engines — to its original glory and bring it back to visit its birthplace. He hopes to bring it to the 2013 Jefferson County Fair in late June for people to view.

“It’s believed this is the only Watertown steam traction engine in existence,” he said.

Mr. Lakie, a building mechanic for the U.S. Postal Service and a volunteer at the steam engine exhibit at Camillus Erie Canal Town Park, owns three other steam traction engines, one of which sits in his backyard. The self-propelled steam engines were early farm tractors, but they could run a variety of machinery.

“Traction engines were an advancement over portables because they were capable of being self-propelled through a series of gear arrangements. They could be driven from site to site and were the first machines to plow a field,” Mr. Lakie said.

Mr. Lakie explained the earlier portable steam engines were typically mounted on some type of secure platform and made portable by attaching wheels to the platform. Horses had to pull them because of their weight.

“Self-propelled traction engines did not make a big appearance until the late 1870s,” Mr. Lakie said.

Gilbert Bradford’s obituary in 1885 noted he first made a crude steam engine in 1848 — which led to the portable engine — when he was a foreman at Goulding’s machine shop.

A year later, the portable machines were being manufactured in Watertown by Hoard & Bradford, located on West Main Street. The company was founded in 1849 by Mr. Bradford and C.B. Hoard.

Their portable steam engine was the first manufactured in the U.S. and also the first engines used for driving such machinery as printing presses, according to Times files. Horace Greeley, founder of the New York Tribune, visited Watertown in 1850 and was amazed when he witnessed a demonstration of one of the engines running a printing press at the Democratic Union, churning out 1,200 sheets an hour.

He was fascinated that it could likely run “a fortnight, day and night on a ton of pea coal.”

“The time must be at hand when every thrifty farmer and nearly every mechanic will have such an engine of his own, and chopping straw, turning grindstone, cutting wood, churning thrashing, etc. will have ceased to be a manual, and become a mechanical operation,” Mr. Greeley wrote in the July 13, 1850, issue of the Tribune.

Mr. Lakie said the steam traction engine from Watertown that he found in Wisconsin is important because it’s a relic of America’s Industrial Revolution. He estimates his engine was manufactured around 1882.

Mr. Bradford, the person credited with building the first portable steam engine in the U.S., later sold his share of his company to Mr. Hoard and the firm became Hoard & Sons.

The company prospered. In 1866, a stock company was organized called the Portable Steam Engine and Manufacturing Co. The business turned to making portable engines exclusively.

In 1872, the firm was sold to a new company, the Watertown Steam Engine Co. Until 1889, the business occupied the site later used as the plants for J.B. Wise lock factory and Sloat & Greenleaf Lumber Co. More room was needed and the operation was moved from West Main Street to 17 acres on VanDuzee Street. Two hundred machinists were among those employed in three acres of buildings.

A traveling preservationist

Mr. Lakie became interested in steam engines in the 1980s when he visited the Pageant of Steam in Canandaigua, Ontario County, hosted annually by the New York Steam Engine Association.

“I call myself a preservationist,” Mr. Lakie said. “When I take these things to a show or a parade, nine out of 10 people had never seen one before. They know about steam trains, but they never knew there was a whole other facet around the same era that plowed fields and broke the prairies.”

He found out about the engine in Wisconsin while reading back issues of steam engine magazines, which he also collects.

“I saw a story about this gentleman, with a picture of him and his son, about a steam engine that was acquired in the woods of northern Wisconsin,” Mr. Lakie said.

His researched showed it was a very rare find.

This past summer, Mr. Lakie went to the Midwest to attend some steam-engine shows and on the way back, he stopped in Wisconsin to visit the owners of the Watertown-made engine.

“It was love at first sight,” he said. “I said, ‘Wow! I gotta have this!’ It was beautiful.”

The former owner of the engine didn’t wish to be identified, but he said he was 5 years old when his father bought it near the Michigan/Wisconsin state line, about 40 miles from his home.

The machine was taken to parades, various festivals and several times to the Wisconsin State Fair. But its public showings ended decades ago. It has been sitting in storage since.

“It hasn’t seen any public place for 40 years or more,” the former owner said.

Mr. Lakie declined to say how much he paid for the steam traction engine, which was delivered to Camillus on Nov. 29. It’s about 15 feet long, more than 6 feet wide, 10 feet high with stack and weighs between four and five tons.

“It’s special,” Mr. Lakie said. “It’s all intact. There are a few castings that are missing that I can reproduce and there’s a few broken pieces I can have recast.”

He assumes his newly acquired machine, which he said has no visible serial numbers, spent most of its life running a saw mill and believes it was delivered by train from Watertown to a distributor in Iowa.

“It’s unfortunate that there’s really no surviving documentation,” Mr. Lakie said. “Other companies, like Case and Frick, had a lot of documents that survived. But unfortunately for Watertown Steam Engine Company, it went out of business early on.”

The Watertown Steam Engine Co. shut down around the beginning of the 20th century. Mr. Lakie hopes readers of the Watertown Daily Times can help him find out more about his engine and the company that created it.

“Maybe someone can help with archived artifacts somewhere in their basements,” Mr. Lakie said.

He estimates it will take about four years to refurbish the Watertown engine. When he brings it to the county fair next year, he will have a fund set up so people can donate. Mr. Lakie said he estimates refurbishing the Watertown engine will cost approximately $60,000.

He also hopes to take it to the 2013 New York State Fair and eventually, to the Pageant of Steam.

“It’s going to be quite the attraction,” he said. “It’s going to be one of the oldest, if not the oldest, running steam traction engines in America.”

He noted a few older portables pulled by horses exist. One is at the New York Museum of History in Albany and another is owned by a LaFargeville resident, he said.

Mr. Lakie said he is fascinated by the old steam engines because of their quality and the advancement in technology they represented.

“Because of the large cost of these items, farming families worked together,” he said. “One family would buy and engine. Another would buy a threshing rig, and they would take turns to harvest each others’ lands.”

He added, “These steam engines were built so good. If these people who built these things were alive today, they’d be pretty proud to say, ‘Hey, I built that 130 years ago.’ No car or vehicle you buy today is built with that kind of quality. It always fascinates me that something so simple can run so good.”




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