SOLON & BEYOND: Life as a precarious Lombard tractor steersman

Marilyn Rogers-Bull & Percyby Marilyn Rogers-Bull & Percy
Solon, Maine 04979

Here it is already time to write another column for The Town Line paper after spending several days up in Leif’s special place, Aroostook County. He grew up there and many of his relatives still live there, so we went up and spent quite a lot of time visiting with all of them. His family is truly special and lots of fun like Lief, and we truly enjoyed all the laughter and love that was there.

There were much more beautiful colors in the trees up there than we have down here yet. The vastness of the landscape is overwhelming with its beauty. We both had a wonderful time and think about how we should go up more often, but the long…long…drive up there is very tiring for both of us.

Was also hoping that I would find lots more recent news like some of you sent for last week’s column, but no such luck! And so when I looked through my old stash of “History” I came up with this article that Robert Krumn wrote for some paper called Steer for Your Life – Sam. “Some people have never heard of a Lombard steerman, but then, there aren’t many of them around anymore. Before World War I, however, the men who steered Lombards were as much heroes to youngsters in Maine as astronauts are to kids today. They lived dangerously, walked with a swagger and made up to $4 a day – for as long as they steered, which wasn’t too long for some of them.

Sam White, my 81-year old neighbor in Alaska, is almost a legend in that state as one of the original bush pilots and early game wardens. He started flying open cockpit planes over untracked wilderness and arresting wild-eyed poachers in the late 1920s. Either job would have been adventurous enough for an ordinary man, but Sam is prouder about the years he steered a Lombard Steam Log Hauler through the forests of Maine than of all his later years of adventure in Alaska.

A steamer log hauler was the original crawler-type overland vehicle. It was invented by a homespun mechanical genius named Alvin Orlando Lombard, the precocious son of a back-country sawmill operator. Lombard didn’t consider the log hauler to be his greatest invention, but a lot of other people did, for it revolutionized the logging industry. Prior to steam power, lumbermen could only transport logs by river drives or horse-drawn sleds and drays. The log hauler allowed them to move logs from one valley to another, thus opening up previously inaccessible stands of timber.

Sam will never forget his first look at a Lombard.

It was in Eustis, Maine, one afternoon in 1901. At four-and-a-half miles per hour, a Lombard – with its rapid exhaust and musical whistle – sounded like a train going sixty. As there were no train tracks nearby it was obviously something new and exciting, so Sam’s teacher dismissed class to watch the first two Lombards ever made clatter past. Sam was enthralled; he had never seen anything nearly as thrilling as those 20-ton monsters. He set his heart on becoming a Lombard engineer.

In those days a boy didn’t have to wait long to become a man. Sam started working in the woods during his fourteenth winter. He was a swamper first, not a steersman, but at least he got to listen to the steersmen’s yarns when the lumber crew gathered around the heater in the bunkhouse at night.

For a youngster, Sam was big and strong, and he soon progressed from swamper to bucker, then faller and loader. The work was challenging and the pay was good. In 1908 Sam came out of the woods after 91 days with $91. Lumbering was winter work, so, in between seasons, Sam got what schooling he could and worked at his father’s farm and sawmill. He still had an itch to be a hero, though. His opportunity came in 1914 when the woods boss asked him if he was ready to try steering a Lombard.

Sam, of course, considered the request a great favor, but, actually, there weren’t too many woodsmen eager to take the job. The pay was good; better, in fact, than that of the other three crewmen – the engineer, the fireman or the conductor. But the chances for spending the pay weren’t too promising.

Lombards didn’t have brakes. Mr. Lombard wasn’t insensible to the dangers of going downhill without brakes. It was just that brakes wouldn’t work with a Lombard log hauler followed by 15 or 20 sleds full of logs. Brakes in front would cause a jackknife; brakes in the rear weren’t practical.

This didn’t cause the engineer, the fireman nor the conductor any great concern, because they could jump. But not so with the steersman. He sat wrestling a large iron steering wheel, in a little open shed, on the very front of the steam engine. It was too far for him to jump sideways, so he either steered or got squashed between the boiler and any tree that got in the way.

I’m going to end there for this day, as I’m afraid I’ve gone over my space already! I’m wondering if any of you men can even remember those old Lombards?

Just a short memoir from Percy: entitled Choice: Our lives are songs; God writes the words And we set them to music at pleasure; And the song grows glad, or sweet or sad As we choose to fashion the measure. (words by Ella Wheeler Wilcox.)


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