ranchers and farmers descended on the last open land in Texas, huge
herds roamed the Panhandle.
The shaggy animals fed and clothed Plains Indians, but as the U.S.
pushed farther west, professional hunters began killing them for
One day in 1874, a party of hard-case buffalo hunters noticed an
unusual amount of smoke in the distance. Possibly they took it for
an approaching prairie fire, but then came the sound, a loud, rhythmic
As the hunters sat their horses wondering what in the world was
happening, the monster appeared: A huge metal machine slowly lumbered
toward them. Dark smoke belched from a solitary stack, sending a
long plume over the stretched white canvasses covering a string
of wagons in tow.
“It’s a steam engine!” the more urbane of the buffalo hunters pronounced.
Thirteen years before the first railroad locomotive puffed and hissed
into the Panhandle,
a rolling steam engine with giant rear wheels had been figuratively
harnessed to do the work of draft horses or mules – pull a wagon
As the number of buffalo hunters in the Panhandle
increased, so had the flow of supplies from the nearest town of
any size – Dodge City, KS. So, while supply wagons were not an unusual
sight, a wagon train pulled by a steam engine was another matter.
Thinking he could revolutionize commerce with trackless trains,
some entrepreneur hatched the idea of using a steam engine on wheels
to traverse the plains. Traveling “Back East” to Massachusetts,
he put together a group of investors and ordered construction of
an “iron mule.” Today, such a machine is known as a tractor. Back
then, the term of art was “traction engine” or “self-propelling
The notion of using a steam engine to pull freight-laden wagons
was sound, but it had not been thought through. The engine burned
logs to heat water and create steam. Obviously, logs come from trees,
and trees are not profuse between Kansas and the Panhandle.
Enroute to Texas, the Iron Mule quickly devoured all the hard wood
that had been loaded as fuel. Crew members collected brush and anything
flammable they could find, including dried buffalo dung, but 25
miles from their destination, they gave up. The Iron Mule, unlike
flesh and blood beasts of burden, could not survive on grass, abundant
as it was. It needed hard wood.
The engineer arranged for teams of horses to be brought from newly
established Fort Elliott
in present Wheeler County and abandoned the Iron Mule on the south
side of the Canadian
River near the trading post of Adobe
Walls in present Hutchinson County.
More than 15 years passed before someone had another bright idea:
With settlement of the Panhandle
in full bloom, the Iron Mule could be hitched to a sawmill to supply
badly needed lumber. The traction engine was hauled to near Lefors
in Gray County, but the mill didn’t last long in a still virtually
treeless part of the state.
The old Iron Mule collected rust for a quarter century, largely
forgotten. Then, in 1926, an oil company survey crew happened to
be working in Hutchinson County when one of the men came down with
a severe gastrointestinal issue. His coworkers took him to a nearby
farmhouse to recuperate. While there, team member Paul Endacott
walked to a nearby stand of cottonwood trees to see if they shaded
a water source.
The oilman did not find a spring, but he did encounter the rusted
remains of the Iron Mule, surrounded by rotting pieces of cut timber
and other remnants of the short-lived sawmill operation. While Endacott
studied the mechanical hulk, a cowboy rode up and filled him in
on what he knew of the machine’s history, including its 125-mile
trip from Kansas to Texas.
By the 1930s, Endacott had become an executive with Phillips Petroleum
Co. When he happened to read a magazine article about what the author
said was the earliest tractor in the Panhandle,
he remembered the Iron Mule. After some research into back issues
of the Dodge City newspaper, he determined that the Iron Mule predated
any other contender.
Further, he thought the old steam engine would be a great addition
to the newly opened Woolaroc Museum on Frank Phillip’s ranch near
Bartlesville, OK. Endacott returned to the Panhandle ranch where
he had discovered the engine only to find a producing gas well on
the site. The Iron Mule had been scrapped.
him they thought parts of the engine had been placed in gullies
to prevent erosion, but he never found them. He did locate the large
drive wheels, which some farmer had laid on the ground for his wife
to use as flower beds. The boiler was said to have been hauled to
Pampa for use
in a steam laundry, but he was unable to locate it. What parts he
could find went on display at the museum, rusty reminders of a good
idea that could have used a little more thinking.
© Mike Cox
February 5, 2015 column
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