Steam Donkey

Steam Donkey Exhibit at the Museum – Written by Lionel Youst

In an issue of the Coos History Museum’s quarterly publication, Waterways, we mis-stated that the Coos History Museum’s Dolbeer steam spool donkey was the “only one built by Marschutz & Cantrell.” For the record, that is not correct. And when it was pointed out to me that words clearly cast into the spider of the donkey said “Moore and Scott,” I decided to check it out.[1]  In communication with Merv Johnson, author of In Search of Steam Donkeys, and especially with John Taubeneck, an authority on the Dolbeer spool donkeys, I received information that more clearly places our donkey into its historical context, and corrects some errors in the record. The contributions by Merv and John to the following are acknowledged with thanks and appreciation.

A steam donkey in operation near Davis Slough in Coos County about 1914 [CHM 992.8.0459]

Marschutz & Cantrell of San Francisco (aka National Iron Works) built many Dolbeer spool donkeys between 1889 and 1905.[2]   They also built logging locomotives and other heavy equipment. In addition to ours, a Marschutz & Cantrell spool donkey is on display at Camp 18 Logging Museum at Elsie, Oregon, and another is at the Roots of Motive Power Logging and Railroad Museum at Willits, California. Both of them have been restored and have been fired up for demonstration.[3]

Between 1883 and 1889 the first of the Dolbeer steam spool donkeys were manufactured by Murray Brothers Machine Works of San Francisco. They manufactured nearly 100 of them, one of which was recently acquired by the Tillamook-Oregon Coast Scenic RR. [4]  In 1889 Marschutz & Cantrell took over the Dolbeer patents from Murray and manufactured the donkeys until selling out to Moore & Scott Iron Works in 1905.

A July 24, 1899 letter from Marshutz & Cantrell listed three models.  The 6X12 such as ours – the piston has a 6 inch bore and 12 inch stroke – weighed 8500 pounds and sold for $1200 (about $30,000 in today’s money).  There was a larger model, 7X12, for $1300 and a deluxe 7X12 model weighing 11,900 pounds for $1500.  It included a haulback drum which would replace the horse and solve the problem of returning the rigging back to the woods for another turn of logs.[5]

A steam donkey in operation at a McDonald & Vaughan logging camp in Coos County. [CHM 992.8.0508]
A steam donkey in operation at a McDonald & Vaughan logging camp in Coos County. [CHM 992.8.0508]

Moore and Scott Iron Works of San Francisco, which had been manufacturing the donkeys since 1905, became Moore Shipbuilding Company of Oakland, California in 1918.[6]  The spool donkey at Collier State Logging Museum in Klamath County was manufactured by the Moore Shipbuilding Company.[7]  That a shipbuilding company was manufacturing these logging machines seems quite appropriate.  From at least the 1850’s vertical steam engines used as auxiliary power on some sailing ships for hoisting or pumping were called “donkey engines.”[8]  They were first adapted for use in logging under the 1882 and 1883 patents by John Dolbeer of Eureka, California.

The editor of the May 1892 edition of West Coast Lumberman had this to say about the Dolbeer logging engine.  “It weighs 8,000 pounds, and careful loggers state that it will do the work of 90,000 pounds of horse flesh.  That is about 70 horses or 80 oxen.  It yanks 10,000 or 12,000 feet of logs around apparently as easy as a politician makes promises.  There are a goodly number of these engines of which the writer knows, and they are all doing satisfactory work.”[9]

Besides the above, John Taubeneck also provided me with information relating to a 1913 logging crew of a Dolbeer operation.[10]   To fire the donkey, there was the woodbuck who sawed the woodlogs into lengths and split them for burning in the firebox.  He received $40/month.  The engineer received $50/month. In 1904 my grandfather held that position at a logging camp near Centralia, Washington and said of the job, “All I had to do is open the throttle!” Higher paid (and harder working) than the engineer was the spool tender, who received $65/month. The “lookout” received $45/month.  That position, probably manned by a boy, morphed into the whistle punk of the later ground lead and highlead logging days.  (My first job in the woods at age 15 was whistlepunk.) The line driver, who drove the line horse returning the rigging back up the skid road for another turn of logs received $45/month. To open new skid road, three swampers were employed at $50/month each. Finally, the logger himself received $100/month. The line horse was reckoned to cost $1.50 per day. This comes to a payroll of almost $600 per month, about $15,000 in today’s money, which means they had to put out a lot of logs to make ‘er pay.

This logging camp operated their steam donkey alongside a railroad spur. [CHM 992.8.0485]
This logging camp operated their steam donkey alongside a railroad spur. [CHM 992.8.0485]

It was in 1902 that our donkey was reportedly purchased directly from Marschutz & Cantrell (National Iron Works) by Simpson Lumber Company of North Bend.[11]  In an email to me, John Taubeneck said of it, “the boiler and engine are Marshutz & Cantrell but the spider is marked Moore and Scott.  Odds are it is made up from parts of two or more machines.  Since it was in use for over 40 years this is not unlikely.”[12]

Some of the provenance of the machine appeared in the lumber industry trade journal, The Timberman, vol. 51 (1950): “Museum Piece. One of the few remaining specimens of the capstan type donkey used in the early days of steam logging on the Pacific Coast has been presented to the Coos-Curry Pioneer and Historical Society of Coquille, Oregon, by William Vaughan, pioneer Coos County lumberman.”[13]

The Coos Bay Times p. 1, August 2, 1950 elaborated, with both accurate and inaccurate information, under the heading, “Vaughan Gives Old Donkey to County Historical Group.” Probably relying on fading memories, it said that the donkey had last been purchased in 1905 by McDonald and Vaughan from “Charles Pierce and Emmett Bradbury who were then logging on the north fork of the Coquille River.”  My researches indicate that the names are confused, that it was Emmett Pierce, not Charles, who had the logging camp in 1905, and that it was on the North Fork of Coos River, not the Coquille River. There was no “Charles” in the Pierce family, but the family home was on the North Fork of the Coquille.[14] That may have led to an assumption that the donkey was logging there in 1905 but it was almost certainly on the North Fork of the Coos River instead.[15]

The donkey was reportedly last used in 1935 at Vaughan’s Old Town Mill in North Bend, and for the next fifteen years remained derelict at the foot of California Street.  Upon its donation to the historical society in 1950, it was restored by William Leathold (which may help explain how and when the Marschutz & Cantrel boiler and engine ended up with a Moore and Scott spider).[16]  After restoration, it was taken to the Coos-Curry Pioneer and Historical Society in Coquille, and in 1957 it was moved from Coquille to the new museum in North Bend.  In 1992 a new, authentic sled was donated by Menasha Corporation.  The machine is now displayed in its enhanced exhibit at the western edge of the south plaza of the Coos History Museum in Coos Bay.


[1].  Steve Greif brought it to my attention that “Moore and Scott” was cast into the spider of the donkey. I thought that probably Marschutz & Cantrel merely had the spider cast at Moore and Scott, but John Taubeneck offered the suggestion that our donkey, having been in service for so many years, may have ended up with parts from two or more machines.  That may have occurred during the restoration in 1950.
[2].  Personal communication, Lionel Youst and John Taubeneck, email 4/16/2018.
[3].  Merv Johnson, In Search of Steam Donkeys: Logging Equipment in Oregon (1996), p. 18.  Also, and personal communication, John Taubeneck, email 4/20/2018.
[4].  Personal communication, Lionel Youst and Merv Johnson, email 12/26/2017.
[5].  Toubeneck,  4/20/2018.
[6].  Taubeneck,  4/16/2018.
[7].  Merv Johnson, In Search . . .  , p. 23.
[8].  Richard Mayne, The Language of Sailing (2000), p. 93-4.  Earliest citing of the term “donkey engine” attested by OED is 1858, Mercantile Marine Magazine, V 49.
[9].  Taubeneck,  4/20/2018.
[10]. Ibid.
[11].  Merv Johnson, In Search . . . , p. 20.
[12].  Taubeneck,  4/16/2018.
[13].  Taubeneck, 4/30/2018.
[14].  The photograph of the Emmett Pierce logging camp taken in 1905 is at the mouth of Matson Creek on the East Fork of the Millicoma River, about 11 miles above the head of tide at Allegany. The tidewater portion of the river, now known as Millicoma River, was in 1905 known as the North Fork of Coos River.
[15].  Orville Dodge, Pioneer History of Coos and Curry County, Biographical Appendix, p. 73.
[16].  Coos Bay Times, August 2, 1850, p. 1.