Ted and Frank Crooker honor their father by taking his historic and lovingly restored Lombard Steam Log Hauler out for a ride
By Rick Ackermann
Five years to the day after Harry C. Crooker died, his family and a great community of friends fired up the Lombard Steam Log Hauler No. 74.
The ancient engine had been Crooker’s pride and joy. He had found the once broken down machine in the Allagash near Eagle Lake during the 1960s and worked years to bring it back to life. So on that cold day this past February at Marion’s Pit off the Old Bath Road in Brunswick, the group gathered to honor Harry in the best way they could. Harry’s wife, 93-year-old Marion (the pit was named for her), was there for the steamer’s revival. Family members describe their mother as Harry’s “sidekick and greatest supporter” and say she shares their father’s “zest for life and all things Maine.”
Harry’s steam log hauler is one of only 84 ever made. Owned by Harry’s now grown sons Frank and Ted, it is one of the few known surviving originals. It looks like a locomotive, a bulldozer, a giant oil tank and a treehouse – all in one. It measures 30 feet in length, weighs 19 tons and, at top speed, travels at 20 miles an hour.
“This girl is in about as nice a shape as can be,” said Ted Crooker, Harry’s son. He said that he and his brother Frank have continued their father’s effort to keep the engine in top shape and recently replaced all 82 of its heating tubes, getting the engine ready for its recent run.
The Lombard was the workhorse of the turn-of-the century New England forest. It represented a major innovation for the day. Many lumber mills were built all over Maine in the 18th century. Originally oxen and horses drew logs on sleds out of the forests, often over frozen ponds and lakes. This was a deadly practice for the animals. Many were injured or killed when runaway sleds overcame the horses with the heavy loads they carried.
In 1900, a millwright and mechanic from Waterville, Alvin Orlando Lombard, invented the first steam log hauler at the old Waterville Iron Works. “Mary Ann” was driven on cleated steel tracks that turned by a chain. The tracks rode on Lombard’s invention that he called the “endless roller chain.” Lombard’s design later became a central concept for army tanks and bulldozers, and its inventor was said to regret not having protected his design.
By 1906 the revolutionary steam log hauler was selling for $5,500 and was in high demand throughout New England and beyond. The hauler used the same logging sleds used by horse teams, only more of them. Operating 24 hours a day in all kinds of weather, the Lombard could haul up to 20 sleds, stacked with up to 600 tons of wood at a top speed of five miles an hour on the flats and up to 20 miles an hour on the downhills. The machines were operated round the clock to avoid damage caused if they were not properly shut down during sub-freezing New England winter months. (There was no antifreeze in those days.)
There was no braking system, so a steerman sitting behind a steering wheel on a bobsled at the front of the engine had to maneuver his forest train around curves and standing trees. While the engine moved slowly and was easy to slow down and stop on a flat, the trouble came when on a hill with a full, heavy load of logs. The steerman literally took his life in his hands. That’s why, Crooker said, steermen earned the higher salaries and “their life expectancy was short!”
It was eventually replaced by evolving gasoline and diesel machines, and later by heavy trucks. The last steam powered log hauler remained in service until 1918. Most of Lombard’s steam log haulers didn’t survive. Many were abandoned in the woods, becoming part of the forests they’d served so well.
Many remember Harry Crooker as a man of prodigous energy. He founded Harry C. Crooker & Sons, a Brunswick based paving company that has been a longtime member of the MBTA. He also founded and/or invested in many other area businesses, including Crooker & Simpson, Crooker Mobile Home Park, & Sales Inc., Valerie’s Boutique and two restaurants – the Taste of Maine and Estes Lobster House.
In his spare time, he traveled all over Maine, often with his three sons Larry, Ted and Frank, looking for parts for what he considered an important piece of Maine history. He spent hours restoring the machine that had most of its brass fixtures and gauges removed when Harry found it. Whenever possible, Harry (and later Ted and Frank) used original parts the Crookers found on their travels. When they couldn’t find a part, they frequently had to hand craft the replacement.
According to Ted, “it is a truly unique piece of Maine history and my brother and I know of no other working Lombard Steam Log Hauler that is this complete and original. It is priceless. Prices of six figures have been offered and rejected. For now, it’s with the family.”
For several years the Crookers’ Lombard Steam Log Hauler was on display at the Owls Head Transportation Museum. Concerned that it would deteriorate if left outside unprotected from the weather, Ted and Frank brought it back home. The brothers hope to find a place for it where their kids and their grandkids can enjoy it for years to come.