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The Iron Mule

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Before ranchers and farmers descended on the last open land in Texas, huge buffalo 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 their hides.

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 chugging.

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 train.

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 engine.”

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.

Locals told 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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