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After a dozen years, replica of ‘World’s Largest Traction Engine’ to debut

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Photos courtesy Kory Anderson.

Nobody has seen one in close to a century, and they’d know it if they had: With eight-foot-tall drive wheels, a boiler a full-grown man could walk under, and the capacity to pull 50 tons, the Case 150 HP steam engine laid claim to the largest road locomotive of its time. That will change later this year when one of the Case’s admirers plans to unveil his entirely hand-built 25-foot-long, 10-foot-wide full-size replica.

Despite the proliferation of railroads across the United States during the Twentieth Century, rails still didn’t reach everywhere. Remote locations, quarries, and other places that were hard to reach or not economically feasible for a railroad typically went unserved, but still had a need for heavy haulage. Just after the turn of the century, officials at J.I. Case in Racine, Wisconsin, believed they could fill that niche with a massive steam-powered traction engine that could pull double duty plowing fields.

So in 1904, at a time when the company offered a line of steam engines ranging from 9 HP to 80 HP, it built the first Case 150 HP road locomotive, serial number 14666. The mammoth of a vehicle used a 14-inch-by-14-inch steam engine that turned a 50-inch flywheel through a two-speed transmission. Its bunker capacity of 1,200 pounds and water tank capacity of 1,000 gallons could keep its massive firebox and boiler running for about three hours. Impressively – and imperatively, for such a large vehicle – the road locomotive featured a power steering mechanism to turn its five-foot-tall front wheels. In low gear, it could reach a speed of 2.64 MPH; in high, 5.69 MPH.

As George Hedtke noted in his history of the Case 150 HP, the factory first demonstrated its brute power by chaining it to four of the company’s 15 HP engines and sending it up a 13 percent grade just behind the factory. It apparently pulled the combined 57,600 pounds with ease. Case advertised the 150 HP as “The World’s Largest Traction Engine” and offered 14666 for sale for $3,600, four times the cost of a 1904 Cadillac. Every Case 150 HP built afterward sold for $4,000.

In total, according to Hedtke, Case built eight or nine of the behemoths (he indicates nine total, but only lists serial numbers for eight total). The first went to a copper mine outside Folsom, New Mexico, where it was pressed into service hauling ore from the mine to the nearest railroad siding 55 miles away; the others went to Kansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Wisconsin, and New York state to perform duties as diverse as plowing beet fields, threshing, and hauling stone from a quarry.

Case, as Hedtke wrote, discontinued production largely due to the inadequate metallurgy at the time. Though the company advertised that “the driving gears were cast from a special steel mixture, had extra wide face and heavy cogs to insure the requisite durability,” those gears quickly wore out, sometimes within a matter of months. Case officials decided to instead focus on its less powerful but more reliable 110 HP traction engine.

Owners of the big 150 HP road locomotive soon discovered its fatal flaw, and by 1920 many had been cut up for scrap. Hedtke wrote that one was shipped overseas, its fate unknown; otherwise none were known to exist, and only the boiler of 14666 remains extant.

Enter Kory Anderson. As Anderson wrote for the James Valley Threshers Association, he grew up listening to Hedtke’s stories about the Case 150 HP road locomotive, which in part inspired him to restore a Case 65 HP steam engine while in his teens. With that accomplished, he then decided in about 2006 to take on a “seemingly impossible task:” He’d build the first brand-new Case 150 HP road locomotive since 1905.

Somehow, even though Case scrapped its last stock of parts for the 150 HP, the company has held on to all the drawings for the traction engine, so Anderson made it a priority to visit the archives in Racine and make copies of the drawings.

“Immediately when I got back home with my drawings I started to recreate them into 3D CAD where I could generate a complete 3D model of this great machine and also run FEA (Finite Element Analysis) to test areas of high stress to determine what type of material would be the best to use,” Anderson wrote.

Two years later, Anderson was able to begin making mahogany patterns for the various steam engine pieces, which he had cast at Dakota Foundry. Construction of the boiler was trusted to Jonas Stutzman from Middlefield, Ohio, an Amish craftsman described as one of the best boiler builders in the country. Actual casting of parts began in December 2013; Anderson said he had all the gearing cast from ductile iron specifically to counteract the fast-wearing transmission gears of the originals.

Since then, he’s largely been concerned with machining the parts and getting them ready for assembly. Earlier this month, he wrapped up the construction of both rear wheels, each of which weigh more than 6,200 pounds and require 640 rivets.

In all, Anderson said he expects this project to cost $1 million.

And after 12 years, he expects the project to wrap up soon. This September, he plans to have the Case 150 HP assembled and ready for its public unveiling at the James Valley Threshing Association’s annual show in Andover, South Dakota. For more information on the unveiling, visit its Facebook event page.