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Updated: Monday Morning Mechanical Mystery Machine Quiz

Updated: This piece of equipment is a moveable power plant with a gasoline engine that drove a winch and apparently was used in lumbering operations outside of Madera, California. The City is located east of Fresno in the San Joaquin Valley.

The top tank on the far-right of the machine is for gasoline storage, and the large tank located underneath it was used for cooling water for the engine. The box visible on top of this second tank may be an open surface radiator coolant was pumped through.

The photo is courtesy of the Michael J. Semas Collection.

Every once in a while an image of an oddball piece of machinery crosses the desk here that is beyond unique. We know how it works and have a good idea of what it was used for, but thought this self-propelled rig might be a perfect mystery for our readers to try to unravel.

The two-cylinder vertical engine was produced by C.E. Traves of Fresno, CA, although that doesn’t mean the complete machine was built by Traves. The picture was taken by a professional photographer apparently just after this contraption was completed. A close look at the enlargeable images (below) reveals all the details and the ornate pinstriping.

Share with us how you believe this machine operates and what type of work was it used for?

38 responses to “Updated: Monday Morning Mechanical Mystery Machine Quiz

    • I believe it is an early locomotive for industrial areas; probably narrow gauge. It is not much different than the Burton Locomotive

  1. That is intriguing. It’s clearly a friction-drive service cart for a railroad. But the tanks to the right look too large to be fuel tanks — there’s no reason the thing would need a 500 mile range. And the wheel is clearly not used for steering. So . . . releasing some sort of chemical onto the bed?

    Or . . . a coolant? There is also that power takeoff just behind the motor that was driving something. Could this be a rail grinder, to put a new surface on worn rails?

    Whatever it is, I think I want one.

    • Now that I look at it again, I can’t see any signs of grinding wheels fore or aft of the drive wheels. So, unless the grinding wheels were to be attached later (to the central shaft?), not a rail grinder.

      As to how it works, the operator stood behind the “steering wheel.” The lever to his left, the one closest to the camera, looks like it pushes the drive wheel against the rear flywheel. I’d guess the other lever moves the drive wheel back and forth, to change speed.

      It looks like the drive wheel then drives that shaft immediately below it, which connects to the front and rear axles through that variable-length belt. The central shaft may be a tensioner for the belt. And the “steering wheel” was clearly meant to put a lot of pressure on something, so I’m thinking that’s the brakes.

      But what about the belt-drive power takeoff? And the tanks? I notice that the pipe coming out of the largest tank is at the top, so there would have to be a pump involved. Perhaps that’s what the power takeoff drives — it looks like the belt is currently on an idler pulley and would be pulled toward the driver to engage. So, spraying something on the ballast? Perhaps creosote to preserve the ties?

      A fun puzzle, David, thank you. Certainly beats working on a Monday morning.

    • The tank on top is gasoline probably gravity feed to the carburetor tank on the bottom is coolant water the “steering wheel ” is actually the brake you twisted to pull the brake shoes on to the wheels.

  2. IMO it is for some sort of railroad building or maintenance task. There is a brake on all four wheels. Whatever it does they wanted it to stop.

    I will make my guess that it is a railroad inspection car. It likely does some sort of maintenance operation as well but either attachments are not present in the photograph or the equipment is on the other side where that belt power take off is.

  3. Perhaps a self-propelled tower car for servicing overhead wires or catenary on a trolley or interurban system. It looks like that structure on the right continues upward out of the frame. Just a guess on my part, though.

  4. The ‘steering wheel’ is a handbrake, much like those on early boxcars that extended north of the roofline. Application of device? Two guesses: 1) it’s an experimental power source for pulling maintenance-of-way equipment from point a to b, or 2) it was an early attempt at an industrial mule, used to move rail cars at a factory, grain elevator, etc. In any case it seems reasonable to believe a two cylinder engine would not be up to the task of pulling and pushing upwards of 100 ton railcars efficiently, thus accounting for the scarcity of the contraptions.

    • I thought about it being a tug/mule of some sort but it lacks the equipment to push or pull without being damaged itself.

  5. It appears to be some sort of pump unit electrically powered. If I had to guess I would say it was for pumping refrigerant, possibly an ammonia system.

  6. Agree with the other posters that this machine is meant to run on rails because of the flanged wheels. There also appears to be no significant suspension system to provide any sort of “smooth” ride. The operator stands on the platform at the right end of the vehicle and operates the (not)steering wheel (maybe applies the brakes?) and the two large levers meaning the vehicle would proceed forward to the left in the photos. The two large flywheels on the engine itself are probably there to ensure consistent rpm. The smaller pulleys and belt drive appear to increase the drive rpm. One of the large levers looks like it engages and disengages the right angle friction drive with the driven wheel transmitting power somehow the to link belt that runs to the front and rear wheels. Below the lower portion of the link belt at the centerpoint is some sort of driven mechanism that I would venture to guess is somehow related to the large tank(s) located behind the driver’s position. Creosote for the ties? Weed killer for the road bed? The partial view of the overhead roof/canopy suggests that the vehicle operates at a fairly slow speed and provides some cover for the operator. Also interesting is that while all of the moving parts of this machine being iron or steel and obviously substantial in weight, the primary frame rails of this unit are wood. Other possibilities for this machine might be setting the rail gauge (distance from one rail to the other), driving spikes or removing them?

  7. Charles E. Traves of Los Angeles received a patent in 1889 for an oiler, along with a Webester F. Traves. I haven’t found any certain connection between the Charles E. Traves of Los Angeles and the C E Traves of Fresno, but someone else may have better sources than I do.

  8. Hi All. Yes the wheels indicate RR or Trolley track use. It appears as if the third flywheel from the left is making a friction connection to the wheel viewed in profile. It looks as if front to back movement engaged the drive mechanism. The tallest lever, behind the “steering” wheel appears to run the brakes. That covers moving and stopping. The non-steering wheel set up may have been an adjustment mechanism for….? track grinding, spike driving or rail alignment. Although I see nothing hang below the frame rails to do any such jobs. The tank or is it two tanks (upper/lower) may have multiple compartments. Fuel yes. And? Hyd fluid? I see no pump. Handy dandy DDT track sprayer? I see no nozzles. I guess I’m rather stumped from there. It does appear to be a fairly Narrow Gauge track and the drive wheels and stripping are rather? flashy. Hmmm good one David !

  9. I don’t see this as a piece of rail equipment, at least not railroad. To me the size is smaller and the rails aren’t tied together properly . To me it looks more like a captive donkey used around a plant to pull heavy wagons or carts along rails. Lots of torque with the heavy governors and wheels and chain drive.

    Either that, or it is an early popcorn maker on wheels, missing only the organ grinder and steam whistle.

  10. Built in Fresno, and not the kind of contraption that would have hence travelled to some distant location, it could have been associated with the Fresno Traction Company which, starting with horse drawn rail service, developed into an advanced street car operation as decades progressed.

  11. I definitely like the popcorn option, and that was my first guess. However, I think the other person correctly felt that this rig is spraying oil to keep the weeds down and oil the ties at the same time. Wonderful photo challenge, none the less.

  12. I believe it is an early gang motor car, to pull several lary cars of tools and supplies. I believe the two wheels at the right are an infinite speed friction transmission, similar to early Plymouth gas-mechanical locomotives. I own a “whimsy” 1953 Fairmont A-5 that a retired marine engineer mounted a 1980 Semple steamboat power plant on that roughly looks like this that may be seen on my Facebook page (June 9, 2019).

    • Hi Steven, I think you are right, it certainly pulled something. In the back hanging down looks like the old “link and pin” type coupling. I read a lot of fingers were lost with those.

  13. It’s an early industrial locomotive that would have been used at a factory, small pit mining operation, construction site etc.

  14. Several people have suggested that it was a mule, used to pull other cars to a repair site or within a factory or something. But I can’t imagine that the friction/belt drive would deliver much usable torque to the wheels. And there are no signs of pneumatic brakes, so it couldn’t be pulling much weight. That hand brake wheel is probably geared pretty low, but it would still have its limits.

  15. Fresno is not real far from the gold mines of Placer and Amador Counties, located east of Sacramento. This machine nay have been used in heavy work needed in setting up the machines or the sluices used for all the devastating hydraulic mining they did back then. This type of hydraulic mining basically washed away the entire mountain hillsides, and the resulting tailings were run through elaborate apparatus to extract the gold. The runoff from these operations caused massive environmental damage many miles downstream from massive mudflows during heavy rains. I think this finally resulted in a judge ordering a stop to this activity, in the first legal environmental action of its kind.

  16. The key to figuring out the purpose may be the small outboard pulley just right of the engine, which may have been used to drive an attached piece of equipment such as a sickle-bar mower or a pump (possibly to spread a chemical from one of the tanks on the right).

  17. I don’t see a motive source for this rig, so I suspect it is either pulled or pushed with the belt drive from the wheels turning all the flywheels, etc. The big flywheels on the left are connected by an axle that runs through the C.E. Traves box, perhaps running a mixer? The two cylinder like objects run alternately to pump something out of the box perhaps. The other big bog may be just a drip applicator for weed killer or oil, etc.

  18. Gasoline engine, chain driven overhead cam intake valves , F head exh valves with one rocker arm. Variable speed forward and reverse friction drive, level ground only. Way cool! I want one too !

  19. I like to imagine this was used in connection with the Sugar Pine Lumber Company & Madera Flume. The flume carried milled lumber the fifty-plus miles from the sawmill in Oakhurst to the rail head in Madera. Maybe it was used to move railcars to the loading station, or possibly to load bundles of lumber onto them.
    I don’t really have anything to offer in the way of plausibility to support my notion. It merely pleases me to imagine this, because the concept of a fifty mile flume built to carry lumber is so fantastic. Anyway, it’s my story and I’m sticking to it. My respect goes out to all my fellow posters’ theories.

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