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New for the 19th Century


By Collections Curator Ruth Bitner, 2003

R. Whitelaw advertisement 1880s advertisement for Whitelaw engines
WDM Collection, WDM-1973-s-22932

Steam power revolutionized life in the 19th century. Its application to industry and transportation transformed society on both sides of the Atlantic. Factories were quick to apply steam power to industrial machinery. Remarkable changes in transportation were made possible by the development of the steamship and steam locomotive.

Portable steam engines provided the first non-animal source of power on the farm. The engines were “portable” because they could be moved from place to place on their own wheels, however, they could not travel “under their own steam.” Portable engines had to be towed into position by horses; they could not pull an implement across the field. Horse-powered treadmills and sweeps would become obsolete as portable steam engines, and later, steam traction engines, took their places.

A portable steam engine operated from a stationary position. A large belt placed over its flywheel connected it to a pulley on the machine that was to be powered, usually a threshing machine. The power generated by the portable steam engine was transmitted to the threshing machine by this belt.

Canada had a thriving portable steam engine industry in the 1880s and 1890s. Many companies in Ontario vied for local and western markets, advertising in agricultural papers like The Farmer’s Advocate. But few examples of portable steam engines made by these companies remain in existence. The Western Development Museum is fortunate to have one of the best collections of 19th century Canadian-built portable steam engines anywhere.

George White & Sons

George White of London, Ontario built his first portable steam engine in the early 1870s. Hundreds more were built over the years. The western market provided opportunity for the company and White opened a warehouse in Brandon, Manitoba soon after the railway reached the prairies. White also became a well-known builder of steam traction engines. Production of steam engines continued until 1924.

The engine in the exhibit is a 14 hp model built in the 1880s. It was used in Ontario and acquired by the WDM in 1958.


Haggert Brothers

The company originated in 1849 in Brampton, Ontario and operated until 1891, manufacturing a variety of farm machinery including portable steam engines. Its Cornell engine was promoted in the 1883 Farmer’s Advocate as “the most powerful...of any engine made in Canada.” The model on display is believed to be a 14 hp. It was used in Ontario and acquired by the WDM in 1959.

L.D. Sawyer

L.D. Sawyer & Company began building portable steam engines at Hamilton, Ontario in the early 1880s. The company was much older, dating back to the 1830s or early 1840s. Over the years, hundreds of L.D.S. portables were built.

About 1895, J.M. Sanderson of Indian Head, Saskatchewan traded some horses for the L.D. Sawyer portable engine that is featured in the exhibit, New for the 19th Century. The WDM acquired the engine in 1948.

Sawyer & Massey

Sawyer & Massey of Hamilton, Ontario built the 12 hp portable steam engine in the 1890s. The WDM’s example had at least four different owners. The Termuende brothers of Lanigan, Saskatchewan were the last. They bought it at a farm sale in 1930 but never used it. The WDM acquired the engine in 1958.

Stevens, Turner and Burns

Stevens, Turner and Burns were partners in a London, Ontario plumbing shop in the 1870s. Stevens was a skilled maker of brass valves, gauges and fittings. By the early 1880s, the company was in the steam engine business. Their Western Empire portable steam engines were widely advertised in The Farmer’s Advocate as early as 1880. Success however, was relatively short-lived, as operations ceased in 1894.

The engine in the WDM exhibit was purchased second-hand by William Cross in Morden, Manitoba in 1890. It was used on his farm in the Waldron area, south of Yorkton, Saskatchewan and acquired by the Museum in 1959.

Waterous Engine Works

Waterous Engine Works Company of Brantford, Ontario built the engine in the exhibit in the 1880s. An advertisement in the August, 1885 edition of The Farmer’s Advocate boasted that the Fire-Proof Champion was the ”Best Threshing Engine in the World.” It was available in 6, 8, 10 and 12 hp sizes. The 12 hp model was the most popular. With branch works in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Waterous clearly had the prairie market in mind. A few years later, Waterous became well known as a builder of steam traction engines–self-propelled engines that were used to pull large gang plows. The upright boiler remained a standard feature of Waterous engines until 1890 when the more conventional horizontal style was adopted.


The WDM’s Waterous Fire-Proof Champion was used in Ontario. It was acquired by the WDM in 1956.

R. Whitelaw

Little is known about the R. Whitelaw Company of Woodstock, Ontario. The engine in the WDM collection is believed to have been built at Whitelaw’s Oxford Foundry and Engine Works in the early 1890s. The company built agricultural engines, threshing machines and engines used in bakeries, creameries and cheese factories in Ontario.

The Whitelaw engine on exhibit was originally purchased by Phillip Carr of Hamiota, Manitoba in 1892. It was sold to Albert Dickie and John Allan who moved it to Creelman, Saskatchewan in 1903. It was used until 1912.

When the WDM acquired this engine in 1958, a tree had grown through one of its rear wheels. You can still see part of the tree wedged in the wheel spokes.


Several men pose with portable steam engine, horses, and threshing machine Threshing crew poses with horse-drawn portable steam and threshing machine
WDM Archives, 1-F(d)-53


You might also like:

- Artifact Articles: Full Steam Ahead: Steam Power at the WDM

- About the WDM Collection

- How to donate an artifact