The Caldwell Cyclone Stem Snow Plow, or Why We Hate Promoters

With winter coming on us, I felt that this, coming from another of my sites, might be interesting.  I always wondered why my family instilled in me such an intense dislike of promoters, those uniquely American creatures so prominent in our landscape.  I think I discovered why.

Vulcan Iron Works started out as a foundry, and from that evolved into a company primarily manufacturing pile driving equipment. Yet throughout its history it engaged in the manufacture of a wide variety of products, as the Special Products Division is evidence of. Sometimes things didn’t go according to plan with these “special products,” and few illustrate that more than the Caldwell Snow Plow.

The “Cyclone Steam Snow Plow” was the brainchild of E.P. Caldwell, who set up the Cyclone Steam Snowplow Company in Minneapolis, Minnesota. On 27 December 1888 (almost exactly seven years after the Warrington brothers had incorporated the company) Caldwell and Vulcan entered into a contract to produce an experimental snow plow. The purpose of the device was to clear railroad tracks of snow.

Above: a diagram of part of the snow plow, from George Warrington’s patent on the lubricator he developed for the plow. Vulcan produced most of the machined parts; the boiler came from Baldwin Locomotive and the machine was assembled at Wells, French and Company.

Although Vulcan did develop some improvements to the plow, the basic design, configuration and base patent were Caldwell’s, and this was to prove crucial in subsequent litigation.

The snow plow had been completed but not delivered it when, on 11 October 1889, Caldwell brought an action of replevin and subsequently took possession of the device without payment. By the time the action went to trial on 24 January 1890, Caldwell had sent the plow to California and sold it to the Southern Pacific railroad.

The journey was, if nothing else, eventful. The plow was too heavy for the light rails of the Illinois Central between Chicago and Council Bluffs, Iowa, and damaged the track. Things in this regard improved after the plow crossed the Mississippi.

The 4 February 1890 Sacramento Record-Union (as reported in the 16 February 1890 New York Times) gave an ebullient description of the plow’s arrival in the West:

The Cyclone steam snowplow arrived here yesterday morning in charge of Engineer John Goldy for repairs. the Cyclone is the largest and widest snowplow yet built for any road, making a path 10 feet 4 inches in width. Its capacity is something marvelous. When the fan and auger are running at the rate of 500 revolutions per minute it will throw out 130,000 cubic feet of snow per minute. The car is 48 feet long, the width of the wheel being 10 feet 4 inches. Within the cab are three engines of 600 horse power each, or a combined force of 1,800 horse power. Two of these engines drive the fan which expels the now. The third one connected direct with the auger, which draws the snow into the cylindrical case in which the fans revolve. The discharge pipe is 33 inches square, the spout being 14 feet above the rails. This throws the snow almost perpendicularly for 30 feet before it begins to curve over in its fall, clearing the telegraph poles with east. It is provided with the largest Baldwin locomotive boiler for consolidated engines, the whole length of the boiler being 28 feet, having 1,500 feet of heating surface. It has a 12-foot fire box and 185 flues 2 inches by 14 feet.

It has a flanger on the front end which works by air and gathers the snow from the centre of the track and from each side of the rails, taking it in to the inner portion of the plow, whence it is expelled through the spout on the top, leaving a perfectly flanged rail. The trucks are extra heavily built, having 5 1/2 by 8 journals. The plow weights 75 tons 300 pounds. It is entirely under the control of the engineer, who stand at the front end, on the inside, and operates and communicates with the pushing engineer by the use of his whistle, without having any gongs, signals, or bells, as it is customary on the rotary plows. The engines are capable of traveling 700 revolutions per minute, and being connected directly with the fan and auger it is possible to revolve them with the same rapidity.

The inventor of the Cyclone steam snowplow, E.P. Caldwell of Minneapolis, Minn., is General Manager of the Duluth, Huron and Denver Railroad, and has had large experience in railroading, having worked himself up from a locomotive engineer to his present position. Speaking of the general workings of the Cyclone, Mr. Caldwell said: “On approaching a snow bank the large auger at the front is put in motion, and its tendency is to draw the snow into the auger, passing it back into the fans, whence it is thrown out through the spout on top to either side desired. In order to divert the stream from one side to the other, it is only necessary to reverse the engines which propel the fan and at the same time reverse the cut-off valve in the spout. While it requires several engines to keep the rotary up to a bank of hard snow, we have never yet had over three engines on the plow in the heaviest work, and there was no necessity of having over two, while on ordinary work one twelve-wheeler will be ample power to propel the plow into the hardest snow banks.

“We arrived in Odgen on the 23rd of January and immediately commenced work on the Salt Lake Division. We passed through snowbanks on the Pequot Mountains on the Salt Lake Division, ranging from 10 to 14 feet in depth, and the snow was hurled to a distance from 100 to 175 feet down the mountain side. Passing over the Salt Lake Division we were accompanied by Superintendent S.N. Knapp, Roadmaster Fitzgerald, and the train crew. The first snowbank that we came in contact with was light snow, having just allen and drifted into the cuts. The auger running independently from the fan permitted us to pass through the snowbank at the rate of ten miles an hour.

“At Wadsworth we met Superintendent Whited of the Truckee Division, and we passed over that division, widening out the cuts and throwing out all the loose snow and small drifts that had gathered there during the night. When we arrived at Truckee the plow was put to work clearing out side tracks. Here we came in contact with the worst kind of snow, which had been shoveled and thrown off the sheds and from the main line to side tracks, and which was three-fourths ice. The most severe test of the Cyclone plow was made on these side tracks in the presence of Superintendent Whited, Superintendent of Machinery Small, and Traveling Engineer Stephenson. We first tried the plow on side track No. 4. The snow averaged from 8 to 12 feet in depth. the plow passed through the side track, a distance of 1,500 feet, in ten minutes by the watch, hurling the snow a distance of 250 feet, breaking out the glass in the roundhouse and covering up small cottages on the side near the track. It was estimated by the gentlemen who witnessed the working of the plow that it would have taken 200 men four days to have cleared this side track of snow with shovels, and we cleared it in ten minutes.

We next tried the plow on a side track leading out of the roundhouse, which passed back of the woodshed. Here the snow was frozen nearly as hard and ranged from 8 to 12 feet in depth. This track was about eighteen hundred feet long. We cleared it of snow in fifteen minutes, throwing it over the top of large buildings and breaking windows at hotels and stores on the business street, 200 feet from the track. We then opened up two or three other side tracks which were buried in about the same manner, and then got orders to come to Sacramento. We found it necessary to reduce the cab in order to pass through the snowsheds. On the trip to Sacramento we passed through some very deep snow banks, notably at Cascade. The banks had been opened up by the shovelers, small bucker plows, and the rotary, but the cuts were too narrow for the Cyclone to pass, and we widened them out from 12 to 15 inchees, permitting the Pullman cars to pass without taking off the steps, as had been necessary before. We came in contact with several slides wihch were very quickly thrown from the track.

“We had quite an experience on the plains of Nevada. We ran into a drove of cattle and the auger picked up two or three steers before we could stop. We pulled sirloin steaks out of the machine and had quite a feast.”

This destructive transcontinental jaunt, however, came to a grinding halt in Cascade. As described in the 10 February 1890 San Francisco Chronicle (and reprinted in the 17 February 1890 New York Times) the test went as follows:

Yesterday morning the Cyclone was at Cascade, six miles west of the summit, where the deep snowe [sic] recently held back the trains so long. It was ready for full operation, and was to show what it could do by clearing the buried side track there. To see this new invention in operation and to see the condition of the road in the mountains generally a large party of railroad officials want up to Cascade in two special palace oars on Saturday night, arriving there early yesterday morning. The excursion was managed by General Superintendent J. A. Fillmore, and among the others in the party were Vice President J.C. Stubbs, S.T. Gage, George F. Richardson, A.D. Wilder, Master Mechanic A.J. Small, Arthur Brown, Superintendent of Bridges and Buildings: Roadmaster Kellogg, Freight Auditor C.J. Wilder, William McKenzie, and others. the inventor of the plow, Mr. Caldwell, was on hand, and Mr. Jones, President of the Chicago company owning the patent, had made a special trip from Chicago to see the first critical test of the great invention.

The test was a sad disappointment. The snow on the side track had originally been nearly twenty feet deep, but it had packed and thawed until it had become a compact mass about twelve feet deep. After a good deal of the bright, beautiful morning had been spent in tinkering and getting 155 pounds of steam in the snow plow’s boilers, two locomotives slowly forced it to the side track and against the shining wall. The great auger which bores out its path whizzed around at lightening speed; the fans which take up the white borings and send them high and far on either side whirled faster still, and the crowd which straggled about on the cleared track and the high walls of snow on either side waited to see a resistless advance through the long bank of snow as high as the engine tops. But after a minute’s work the snow stopped flying and the plow backed out.

The steam had dropped to seventy-five pounds through some boiler defect. A later trial was also a failure and then, to improve the time, the company’s rotary steam plow, which was also there, was started in on the other end of the switch, with two big engines behind it. This was close to wehre the rotary broke down during the blockade clearing the main track, leaving several hundred feet to be shoveled out. The drift proved too deep and hard for the rotary, and all the power of the plow’s engines, whirling its blades and fans, and the power of the two locomotives crowding it against the bank, failed, after repeated attempts, to dig out more than three feet. The trouble was that the drift was too high, and the front of the plow above and around the circle of knives pressed against the wall of of snow which the blades did not disturb.

It was nearly noon, and the Cyclone was ready for another attempt. When it got fairly started a cylinder cross head broke and nobody wanted to wait an hour until it was fixed.

A subsequent attempt to modify the screw in Sacramento produced no better results.

Although there were probably other weaknesses in the design, the basic problem was that “the largest Baldwin locomotive boiler” powering the plow was too small, which explains its inability to maintain pressure. This may have been the reason behind Vulcan’s reticence in releasing the device (lack of payment probably entered into this, too.)

Caldwell wisely dismissed his own suit of replevin, which meant that Caldwell was not in legal possession of the plow and could not sell it at the time of the test. Vulcan spent nearly three years in court attempting to recover its $8,527.57 investment, but on 18 October 1892 finally prevailed, the details of which are described here in the U.S. District Court’s decision.

Caldwell must have been quite a promoter, because, even in the face of this failure and his legal problems, the Central Pacific railroad bought the machine. (The fact that a friend of his was a mechanic at the CP probably didn’t hurt!) But they didn’t find it any more satisfactory, and the machine was scrapped in 1894.

Right: railroads weren’t a complete bust for the company; in fact, railroad construction and repair were an important application for pile driving equipment, and had been before the Caldwell debacle. It’s important to remember that, before World War II, railroads were the primary mode of long-distance transportation for passengers and freight in the United States. This photo shows a Vulcan hammer driving pile for the Missouri Pacific railroad in central Arkansas.

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