Editor’s note: This column first ran Aug. 9, 2012, in the Times-News and on Magicvalley.com, and has been edited to reflect George Paxton’s current age.
If you float the Snake River when the water is low, you might get a glimpse of a steam-engine tractor lying on its side in the river east of the I. B. Perrine Memorial Bridge.
But the details of how the tractor came to rest in the canyon have been as murky as the river itself – until now.
Some say the steam engine was used to build the rim-to-rim bridge, and was pushed off the bridge when the work was completed in 1927. Others say it was driven over the canyon rim when the state of Idaho purchased the bridge in 1940, to celebrate the end of the toll to cross the bridge.
As it turns out, the steam engine’s dive into the river had nothing to do with the bridge at all.
“I remember it as clear as day,” said George Paxton, whose father drove the machine to the edge of the canyon before it took the plunge. The event, Paxton said, was a publicity stunt to mark the end of the steam engine era.
Steam-engine tractors, which revolutionized farming in the late 19th century, operated much like the steam-engine locomotives of the day. Coal or wood was shoveled into a firebox under a boiler, heating water to create steam to power the machine’s engine.
The tractors were finicky, difficult to maneuver and dangerous to operate. So when the internal combustion engine began to replace the steam engine, manufacturers of farm equipment were quick to embrace the new technology.
In the early 1900s, small tractors that ran on fuel oil were developed for use on the farm. By World War II, steam-engine tractors were all but obsolete.
Paxton, who turns 90 on April 15, was about 10 years old when his father, John Paxton, and farm-equipment dealer Harley Williams, made plans to drive a steam engine over the canyon rim.
Williams, owner of Williams Tractor, had taken the steam-engine tractor in on trade for a new Case tractor.
Williams and the elder Paxton were good friends. Paxton was an expert operator of the steam-engine tractor — and Williams needed someone who could drive the tractor to the canyon rim, without going over the rim with it.
The year, to the best of the younger Paxton’s recollection, was about 1938. A large group of partiers gathered on the north side of the canyon, upstream from the bridge.
“It was a big promotion for the (Williams) dealership,” Paxton said. There was a barbecue and a band played. Finally, the steam engine was fired up and readied for its last job.
The elder Paxton tied down the steam whistle, and let ’er go. The tractor drove over the edge and its boiler exploded in midair. The tractor bounced off the canyon wall, then sank silently into the river.
“What would the environmentalists say if that were done today?” Paxton mused.