Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part story about the renovation of a historic machine. Part one examines the history of the machine and the degraded condition before restoration efforts began. Next week, part two will focus on the attempt to bring the machine back to life.
By Clark Fair
David Thornton stood in the yard of a Moose Pass widow and examined the ancient tractor she no longer wanted any part of.
Grass had woven up into and around the base of the machine — a 1928 Caterpillar tractor — and now, on a cold February day in 2000, the dead blades of grass poked up through the snow or curled limply over the metal tracks. To the eyes of most, the tractor was a ruin, a rusty vestige of its former self, and even to Thornton, who hoped to restore it, the Cat was in sorry shape.
“It was a seething pile of rust, full of crud and gunk,” he said. “The engine was froze and busted. It was a mess because it’d been sitting down there for years with the stack uncovered and water running in it.”
The incoming water froze and thawed, froze and thawed, and the inner workings were demolished by the actions of the seasons.
“The engine, forget about it,” Thornton said, “but the rest of it I could see was workable. It was preserved in grease and oil and yuck, but it was something that was there and was workable. The engine was the primary thing that had to go. It had to be replaced. The cylinders were busted. The jugs were busted. It wouldn’t hold water, and the pistons were seized. It would never run again.”
Beyond the engine, however, Thornton spied hope.
He also spied a piece of Alaska history.
Thornton had become acquainted with longtime Moose Pass resident, Edward Estes, who had told him that the Cat had arrived in the port of Seward in 1928 — when it was a new machine, when it was still painted in original Caterpillar battleship grey with red trim, and when even the now world-famous Caterpillar name had been trademarked less than 20 years earlier.
The tractor, complete with a specially ordered set of ice tracks, had been purchased by Alaska’s Bureau of Public Roads, which planned to employ the 10,000-pound, 30-horsepower machine in the maintenance of the main road out of town.
In the 1920s, the former wagon road between Seward and Hope was upgraded to support automobile traffic; however, until the late 1930s, passage along that road was interrupted at about Mile 18, where the Snow River entered the upper end of Kenai Lake. At that point, until the road bridge was constructed and the 10-mile highway “missing link” completed, vehicles were loaded onto rail cars and hauled down the tracks to Moose Pass at about Mile 29. From Moose Pass, vehicle owners could drive on to Hope.
The 1928 Caterpillar made its road-maintenance debut between Seward and Kenai Lake, and about a decade later expanded its
territory to the fuller length of highway between Seward and Moose Pass.
Road maintenance consisted of towing a nonmotorized road grader — essentially a large steel blade suspended between two pairs of steel wheels rolling beneath a platform on which sat an operator who made all necessary adjustments to the angle and the bite of the blade. The grader’s long towing tongue connected to the back of the Caterpillar, on which sat a second operator, controlling speed and direction and braking.
Since the top-end speed of the Cat was 2.62 miles per hour — and likely even slower when towing the heavy grader — road maintenance in those days was likely a one-way, all-day affair, with operators starting at one end, overnighting at the other, and then returning home the following day.
Eventually, the 1928 Cat became outmoded or obsolete and was replaced with more modern equipment. The tractor was then sold to a man who used it in some of the mines around the area, such as Crown Point or Falls Creek. It was also used for dragging big logs down out of the mountains for lumber-making in local sawmills.
At some point during all this time, the entire machine was repainted with “Hi-Way Safety Yellow,” which had become the Caterpillar standard in December 1931, when the company began taking on more and more highway construction projects. Today that color is known as “Caterpillar yellow.”
Finally, the Cat wound up in the hands of two mechanics, both of whom lived in Moose Pass, and both of whom dreamed of one day making it like new once more.
The mechanics were Don Smith and Bob Wood. Smith worked during the week as a diesel mechanic for Bud Dye’s Kenai company, Mukluk Freight Lines, and then returned home on the weekends. Wood, the brother of Kenai’s Betty Ames, had a wrecker and owned an automotive repair shop in Moose Pass.
“I had the impression that (restoring the Cat) was one of them back-burner projects that you keep pushing back to the back burner,” said Thornton, who’d met Smith because Thornton’s wife, Mary, worked as the bookkeeper at Mukluk Freight Lines.
Thornton, now 80, had been mechanically inclined as far back as he could remember, and he had a natural affinity for others who were talented with machines. He also had seen the old Cat years earlier when it had been sitting in another yard near the Ptarmigan Creek area by the community of Crown Point. Even then, he had wondered about buying it, had dreamed of the possibilities of renovation.
When he connected the Cat to Smith, he inquired about purchasing it, but Smith and Wood were not interested.
Later, the Cat was moved to Smith’s yard, where it sat, ravaged by weather and the passage of time, awaiting a moment that would never come — the time when Smith and Wood would go to work on it and bring it back to life.
Instead, Smith suffered a heart attack and died, while Wood suffered ailments of his own. Smith’s widow, Shirley, looked out of her window into the yard and saw beyond the rusting metal. She saw a reminder that her husband was gone.
“It brings anguish to my heart,” Thornton said that Smith once told him.
So Shirley Smith “put the bite on Bob Wood,” Thornton said.
She told Wood: “If you want that old tractor, get it out of my yard.”
He told her that, since he had retired, he no longer owned a truck big enough to haul it away, and besides, he lacked the energy to do the work.
Wood talked to Thornton: It was time to let the tractor go. If Thornton still wanted the Cat, it was time to strike a deal.
But Thornton wanted to be sure first, so he asked whether Wood was certain that he didn’t want to attempt a restoration himself.
“No, David, I’m too old,” he said.
So the deal was struck.
Thornton paid Wood $250 and promised to find a way to remove the Cat from Shirley Smith’s yard. A piece of Alaska history was about to get a facelift.