Bettendorf Steel Gear Wagons

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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In February of 2013, I profiled several patents that International Harvester Company (IHC) hadtaken out on a steel wagon gear.  As unique as the designs were, though, they were far from being an exclusive idea.  Some readers may be asking, "What does this have to do with America’s earlywestern wheels?"  Believe it or not, metalgears were introduced to U.S. markets at least as early as the Civil War.  Metal wheels, even earlier.  So, following the history of our first transportation industry, we’lloccasionally look at the background of other metal wagon gear makers – hence thetopic of this week’s blog.  Since IHCwasn’t formed until 1902, they were clearly not the first to exploreopportunities with metal gears.  Initially, the interest in metal geardesigns was a product of weaknesses found in wood.  After all, timber had a tendency to check(crack/split), was not always well-seasoned, could include imperfections such as knots, wouldshrink and move with shifts in environmental conditions, was highly subjectto rot, weathering, insect damage, etc. Wood was also in high demand.  Inthe 1800’s and early 1900’s, it was a prominent raw material for an endlessarray of industries.  As a result, themore desired hard and soft woods needed for wagon-making were not alwaysplentiful; especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Trade publications from thosetimeframes regularly discussed real and feared shortages of quality woodstock.  As a result, the continueddevelopment of metal gears and wheels became a focus for a number of firms.

Even with the advantages of a metal gear– such as manufacturing consistency, efficiency, strength, durability, andresource availability – the designs were never well accepted by many wagon buyers.  They did, however, meet with more success asa farm truck.  By their nature, farmtrucks were highly utilitarian.  Theywere typically sold with lower and wider wheels and seemed to fit a broad range of needs on the farm.  As such, they were marketed as being idealfor hauling fruit, baled hay, wood, wheat, and livestock while also servingwell as a city dray, sheep wagon gear, spray truck, or logging camp wagon. 

 This rare, surviving card from the Bettendorf Axle Company was used to promote their steel wagon and truck gears.
One of the early companies dedicated to the use of metal in wagons was the Bettendorf Axle Company in Davenport, Iowa.  Dating to 1895, the firm was founded by William Peter Bettendorf and hisbrother, Joseph.  Like many others born during America's Industrial Revolution, William had a knack for ingenuity.  In fact, by the time he was inhis early thirties, he was a seasoned entrepreneur and inventor.  Among his wagon-related innovations were patentapplications for a pressed steel, riveted wagon gear filed as early as1891.  The May 1893 issue of “The Hub” includesa few more details and I thought I’d pass most of that article along thisweek...
The Bettendorf Hollow-Steel Wagon Axle

“Radicaldepartures from old methods and forms are not uncommon in these days ofadvancement in the vehicle industry, but it is seldom that one so marked asthat shown by the Bettendorf hollow-steel wagon axle is presented.  In this there are the combined axle andsand-board and combined bolster and stakes for the front, and a combined axle,bolster and stakes for the back as shown by the illustration.

The Bettendorfhollow-steel axle is made of No. 11 mild sheet steel of the best quality, carebeing taken to secure first-class material. Two sheets are used in the manufacture of an axle; one is pressed intoshape to form the front and another the back, when they are firmly united andconstitute the completed article.  Thisis a rough description of their method of construction, which is as follows,more in detail:  The metal is firstsheared to shape from the flat sheets; the shearing is so done as to leaveplenty of metal for the ends of the axles and for the formation of the stakesto be turned up.  During the same processof shearing, holes are punched in the sheets for riveting them together.  The sheets are then shaped in a hydraulicpress to the form required for the front and back of an axle, flanges beingturned over for the bed of the bolster and the flat side of the stakes.  These fronts and backs are then placedtogether, and while held under a hydraulic pressure of 300 tons to the squareinch, are riveted in a manner original with Mr. Bettendorf, and also secured bypatents.  By this method of riveting, themetal is drawn from one of the sheets through the hole in the other sheet andflanged over its entire circumference. This obviates the necessity of using separate rivets and causes thefastenings to be homogenous parts of the whole. The union of the two steel sheets is thus almost as perfect as if theywere welded, the axle being the only part left hollow.

The machinery bywhich these axles and bolsters are manufactured was specially designed andbuilt by Mr. Bettendorf.  It consists ofhydraulic presses, gas heating and welding furnaces, hydraulic forge and steamhammers, all adapted peculiarly to the purpose and rendering the manufacture ofthe axle simple and economical...

Every operationis conducted with cold metal, except the welding of the bearings and bending ofthe stakes...

At present, themanufacture of only 3 ¼ x 10 inch axles, with narrow track, will beundertaken.  This covers the standardsizes of wagons in common use.  Othersizes, however, will be manufactured hereafter, as the demand warrants or thecondition of trade requires.”

The Bettendorf Steel Wagon Gears were touted as weighing less and being more durable than wood running gears of similar strength.
William Bettendorf’s early careerincluded stints at Moline Plow Company, Parlin & Orendorff Company, and PeruPlow Company.  In the midst of hisday-to-day work, in 1885, Bettendorf was granted a patent for a metalwheel.  By 1886, he had secured enoughfinancial backing that he and his brother began manufacturing the wheels ingreater quantities than what had been possible while at Peru.  This new firm was ultimately referred to as theBettendorf Metal Wheel Company. Bettendorf continued to refine both his inventions and the machines thatbuilt them.  So enamored was he withproduct development that by the mid-1890’s, he established another businessreferred to as, the ‘Bettendorf Axle Company.’ It was this company that built the steel gear wagons with hollow,self-oiling axles, a pressed steel seat, and special steel reinforcement on thebox.  By 1905, the company was sold toInternational Harvester Corporation which continued to market the brand as the“New” Bettendorf Steel Gear Wagon. 

Bettendorf Steel Gear Wagons were typically equipped with wood wheels while their farm trucks were fitted with steel wheels.
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Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives.
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