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The Steam Shovel: The Story (Back Bay and Back Bay Fens)

| 4 min read

The development and improvement of two pieces of heavy equipment that made the filling of the Back Bay and Back Bay Fens possible – the steam locomotive and the steam shovel.

Otis Chapman Steam Shovel

From: “Boston’s Back Bay – The Story of America’s Greatest Nineteenth Century Landfill Project” (Recommended Reading) by William A. Newman and Wilfred E. Horton

“Ingenious Yankee inventors would meet this challenge.

The Steam Locomotive:

Although locomotives were improved quickly, early rails were woefully inadequate and dangerous for heavily loaded gravel trains. Heavier and more powerful steam locomotives required more durable and stronger rails.  

The Steam Shovel:

William Smith Otis conceived of his steam shovel at the age of twenty. Using various machine shops around Canton, Massachusetts, he built a working model of his machine in 1835.  Mr. Otis’ invention duplicated the motions of a man with a shovel. Steam power, however, was used only for scooping and lifting the bucket of sediment.  The movement of the boom to the left or to the right was controlled by two men on the ground pulling ropes attached to each side of the boom. When required, a team of horses dragged the steam shovel forward.

William Smith Otis married Elizabeth Everett in Canton, Massachusetts on June 22, 1835.  Among the wedding guests was (cousin) Oliver Smith Chapman, a railroad contractor who would soon work on the construction of the Eastern Railroad and on the Boston and Albany railroad. Mr. Otis moved to Philadelphia, where he improved his original design and persuaded Joseph Harrison, the general foreman of the locomotive firm of Barret and Eastwick, to build a prototype for him.

On February 24, 1839, Mr. Otis received a U.S. patent on his invention, which he described as a ‘crane excavator for excavating and removing earth.’ Later that year he died of typhoid fever in Westfield, Massachusetts at the age of twenty-six.

In January 1844, Oliver Chapman’s wife died, and a little over a year later, on March 23, 1845, he married Elizabeth Otis, the widow of his cousin William Otis. The following year, Mr. Chapman placed a steam shovel on the Vermont Central Railroad while he worked in Claremont, New Hampshire, and Burlington, Vermont.  During this time Mr. Chapman renewed Otis’s patent on the steam shovel, which gave him the right to build and sell it.

In the 1850s Mr. Chapman was involved in railroad construction.  While in Boston, Mr. Chapman was given the loan of a desk at John Souther’s Globe Locomotive Works, located at the corner of A and First Street in South Boston.

During one of these Boston visits, Oliver Chapman approached John Souther about strengthening the steam shovel’s numerous weak parts. Together, Mr. Chapman and Mr. Souther worked to perfect the Otis steam shovel.

Under Mr. Chapman’s direction, Mr. Souther strengthened all parts of the machine, increasing it weight by about ten tons so that it could excavate hard and compact materials. Beginning 1859, John Souter’s  locomotive works began the production of the improved and heavier steam shovel.

The newly improved Chapman steam shovel required only two men, one engineer and a helper, to operate the crane. It consumed about eight hundred pounds of coal in ten hours and accomplished as much work in one day as could be done by fifty to sixty laborers.

Powerful locomotive and highly efficient steam shovels allowed rapid delivery of sand and gravel to the Back Bay (and Back Bay Fens), and so faster ways of unloading gravel car were required.  The delay in the development of side-dumping cars or tip cars, to transport and unload gravel, was due more to the weakness of the rails than to complicated mechanics of tipping the car’s loaded gravel boxes.

Footnote: In 1852 Elisha Otis, cousin of William Smith Otis,  invented the safety elevator, which automatically comes to a halt if the hoisting rope breaks. The first Otis Elevator installed in Boston was in the Ames Building at One Court Street.

When completed in 1893 the Ames Building was considered Boston’s first skyscraper at fourteen stories, making an elevator necessary. It is the second tallest masonry load bearing-wall structure in the world. Designed by the architectural firm of Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge in Richardsonian Romanesque. An Otis Elevator Company worker coined the term ‘escalator.'”

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