Ephraim Shay, the Man

By Rick Henderson

Ephraim Shay has been credited by some as a schoolteacher, physician, civil engineer, logger, merchant, railway owner and inventor. These indeed are a large variety of interesting vocations for one individual. While researching Mr. Shay, I cross-referenced from every source I could lay my hands or mouse on to build a complete profile, a majority of which is centered on his Shay style locomotive. In doing so I discovered a few interesting items regarding the development of the Shay locomotive and the life of Ephraim Shay.

Ephraim Shay c1892

Ephraim Shay, the Man

Today, Harbor Springs, Michigan still remembers Ephraim Shay as one of their prominent historical citizens, a true tribute to a man dead close to 100 years now. He passed away April 20, 1916 in Harbor Springs. His grave in Lake View Cemetery, Harbor Springs, like the man, is itself unusual. It bears two tombstones. One is the US Government grave marker for a Civil War Veteran. The other, a large black rock over four feet tall, incorrectly reputed to be a meteorite from his own property.Samples of this rock have been tested by two professional geologists and have determined it to be of earth origin.

Ephraim Shay was born on July 17, 1839 in Sherman Township, Huron County, Ohio. His parents ensured Ephraim received a better than average education. He attended a Select School, studying to become a schoolteacher after his grade school years in Shaytown, New Jersey. His first teaching work was in New Jersey and by January 1861 Ephraim Shay was teaching school in Bellevue, Ohio. The opportunity for such an advanced education in the mid 19th Century would prove extremely valuable to Shay in his coming years and may explain a lot of his successes.

1861 was a troubled time in the United States and at the age of 21, Ephraim Shay was destined to be a part of US history that would forever change our country. Ephraim was spending his free time looking for farmland in Huron County, Ohio, while the Southern States were looking to secede from the Union. In June he was traveling to look at land in Michigan and then onto Peoria, Illinois to locate the owner. It was in Peoria that Shay learned of the formation of a Union Regiment in Saint Louis. He traveled to Bloomington Illinois and joined a forming company and then onto Saint Louis, Missouri where he was enlisted for 3 years or more. Shay served as an Enlisted man, assigned first to Company D, 8th Regiment of Missouri Volunteer Infantry. Likely due to his education, Shay's assignment was with the Adjutant's office and as a clerk with the Quartermasters.

Shay's tour in the Army took him to Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas. In Mississippi, Shay was assigned as a medical steward with the Hospital Corps in Chickasaw Springs. He became the charge hospital steward of the dispensary in Prentiss Hospital, Vicksburg Mississippi. This service as a medical steward would give Shay valuable experience in medical care but he never trained or practiced as a physician as some have incorrectly assumed. Ephraim Shay received an Honorable discharge in 1864 and he returned to Norwalk Ohio.

On July 26th, 1864, Ephraim Shay and Jane Henderson were married in Norwalk Ohio. Jane Shay would be his constant companion for the next 48 years through many changes in their lives. They had one son, Lette and three granddaughters. By 2001, Ephraim had 32 direct decedents; full list linked below

Onto Life as a Logger

Shortly after their marriage, the Shay's moved up to a farm in Ionia County, Michigan. Here Ephraim was known to have served as a clerk in the Township of Sebewa, 1867-1868. In 1869 the Shay's were in the Township of Sunfield, Michigan and Ephraim was now operating a steam sawmill until 1873. Their son Lette was born here in January of 1870.

In 1873, with the tract of timber in Sunfield exhausted, the Shay family moved north to the Manistee river basin of Michigan and set up his sawmill and a general store near a lumber camp called Haring, newly settled only the year before.

Logging in the 1870's was far different than today. Essentially once all the trees along the rivers were harvested and floated down river to a mill, logging operations were done in the winter month as loggers depended on snow cover to more easily move the cut timber on sleds drawn by horse or oxen. This method naturally depended on the weather systems and if there were a mild winter there would be a low yield of lumber from the mills. If nature cooperated with the ideal 2 feet of snow needed to make ice roads then operations went relative well. When loggers could not move their harvest easily to the mill they were kept busy falling trees and attending to or making new roads to move the logs when the snows came.

By this method of obtaining lumber, it was estimated that as little as 17% of the actual cost, represented the lumber while as much as 73% was for transportation of the lumber. This unbalanced production cost was due to the manpower and time required to make and maintain the ice and snow roads needed to move the lumber. The winter of 1874-75 was one of little snowfall. Shay in his second year on the new land realized he had to overcome the obvious limitations of nature.

Ephraim, always the man of ideas, spent the summer of 1875 building his first tramway. A logging tram way is not fancy and was not intended to last forever. It is intended to access timberland just long enough to confiscate the desired timber and then withdraw from the land. Ephraim realized that if successful, he would reduce his transportation cost and thereby be able to reduce his selling price of lumber, undercutting his competitors.

Shay's first tramway was simple and crude. Made simply of wood rails spiked to a 26-inch gauge over a limited number of cross ties and laid with little concern for grading to level, the right of way. Logs were loaded onto a pair of disconnect logging type trucks and were drawn by horses to the mill. This proved dangerous for the horses that often would be overtaken on a downgrade and killed or seriously injured. While this method allowed Shay to now log year round and reduce his cost of getting in the lumber he realized animal powered trams were not the best answer. It would be 2 years before he had developed the replacement for horsepower.

Birth of the Shay

In 1876, Shay built a conventional steam loco, very crude by his own description and experimented with it. Controlling the movement of the log cars up and down grades was not a problem however the dynamic force of conventional locomotives pistons proved to be too much and damaged the track curves. When Shay noticed that the heavier log cars had little or no effect on the wooden curves he set out to design an engine using the smaller logging type trucks. By the winter of 1876-77 Shay was developing his idea while communicating by mail with several boiler manufactures.

Crippen's Engine Design

Just south of Haring, Shay found one William Crippen a machinist and foundry operator in Clam Lake, Michigan, a small town that later in 1877 was incorporated as the City of Cadillac, Michigan. Mr. Crippen had offered to construct a boiler and a pair of 5" diameter by 7" stroke cylinders giving Ephraim a 14 horsepower steam powered engine. Shay needed to consult with Crippen on the gearing necessary to link up the engine and the axle to be powered. Ephraim built a short flat car about 14' long with logging trucks near each end. The front truck was mounted normally while the rear truck was mounted fixed to the frame and could not swivel, much as normal drivers on a locomotive. He mounted the 3' diameter by 5' tall boiler centered on the car with the water tank over the front trucks and the Crippen's engine mounted crossways over the rear trucks. Shay experimented first with a chain drive from the engine through the floor to the truck axle. It is not known if he powered one or both axles however he soon found that the chain drive would not work for him and he next tried a belt drive. This worked and by mid August of 1877 Shay was testing his invention. He had spent $1000 on this experiment, a lot of money for a time when his 10 employees were making between 12½ and 15 cents per hour.

What Ephraim Shay had invented was a locomotive capable of delivering equal torque directly to wheels on both sides of the engine at the same time. This over came the dynamic force of his common rod engine whose normal pistons strokes jerked the engine side to side on each stroke, delivering excessive force to the wood rails, especially on the curves. You'll note that there is no outside driveline at this time. The locomotive worked but it was not perfect and Shay had to keep working on it to improve it over the winter of 1877-78. There is no exact description, photograph or drawing of the gearing on the two-cylinder engine Crippen built however, Ephraim describes in a letter that the locomotive had reversing. Since William Crippen copied and built it for other loggers we are fortunate to have a photograph of a copy of "The Original Shay" built by Ephraim Shay.

Crippen's Copy of Shay's Original Design

Shay's invention worked so well at bringing in the lumber that by 1878 he was able to reduce his selling price on lumber from $3.50/thousand board feet down to a mere $1.25/thousand board feet. He was also filling custom timber orders faster and cheaper than any other mill.

Colonel B. Wait, correspondent for Lumberman's Gazette, wrote an article June 7 1877, about Shay's invention drawing a lot of attention to Shay. Animal powered tramways were fairly common in the area and Shay started getting a lot of requests to build other loggers engines like his. He referred most down to William Crippen & Son who soon became backlogged building Shay style logging engines pictured here.

A New Era in Lumbering

James Alley, another logger, is perhaps the true-life key to the success of the Shay locomotive. Shay's introduction of a locomotive into logging with tramways was a turning point in the logging industry, however it was not Ephraim Shay that would push for this revolutionary concept for his fellow loggers. In fact, Shay was trying to keep his use of a logging locomotive somewhat quiet to keep ahead of his competition. Wait's story in the Lumberman's Gazette ended that. James Alley went to Shay and was impressed with Shay's operation. Alley with his experience as a businessman, immediately understood how the use of a locomotive on his own large tracts of land would save him money and time. Alley went to William Crippen in an attempt to have a logging locomotive built, however he found Crippen & Son were already backlogged on the new locomotives for other loggers.

Alley turned next to the Lima Machine Works of Lima Ohio [formerly Carnes, Agerter & Co.], a well-known Machine Works. Shay had been dealing with this firm since 1873. This company specialized in manufacturing agricultural implements, boilers, gearing, lathes and other general machinery and sawmill equipment. Though not in the locomotive business, Alley convinced them to build their first locomotive. Alley had sketched out a concept following Shay's original logging locomotive and taken it to Lima, however Lima had success in Fontaine style steam tractors and appear to have based their first locomotive somewhat on that design. Alley in fact purchased the two additional locomotives, a 0-4-0 and a 0-6-0.

George W. Disman, from Lima Machine Works traveled to Michigan, to see Ephraim Shay's engine and William Crippen. Ira Carnes, an employee of Lima Machine Works worked on the plans for this first locomotive for seven months completing them in late October. Much of this time was put into testing ideas. The actual construction on the locomotive was started in the summer and the first real operational tests were not unto the end of November. It was shipped from Lima on the 4th of December and arrived at Alley's location on 12-9-1878. It was numbered #129 when put to use

Improving On Success

Ephraim continued tinkering with his locomotive throughout 1878 and 1879 making improvements until he came to the point he needed a major renovation. Shay contacted Lima Machine Works who dispatched George Disman the 380 miles up to Haring in January 1880. Disman met with Shay and discussed the changes to be made and how best to complete the work. They arranged for the locomotive to be shipped down to Lima Machine Works for the work.

Why Lima Machine Works and not William Crippen who was a major factor in developing the first Shay? The obvious conclusion was Crippen's own success. Shay may have faced the same problem Alley did in 1878, Crippen was simply too busy to visit Shay. Lima, whom Shay had a long term relationship with already, due to sawmill implement purchases, had foreseen the potential of a logging locomotive and sent Disman.

When the locomotive arrived at Lima Machine Works only the rear truck was powered through a series of gears over the inside portion of the rear truck. Since Shay was constantly experimenting, it was not recorded exactly how it was operating. The engine arrived in late January 1880 where John Carnes a talented machinist and part owner became deeply involved in modifying the Shay.

Carnes came up with the concept of powering both trucks by means of bevel gears on the outside face of the wheels on one side. These would be powered by bevel gears on shafts mounted on the outside of the trucks, the shafts being connected to a crankshaft mounted centered on the side and turned by the engine mounted on the edge of the car above. This is the classic arrangement of Shay locomotives engines and gearing that would be used for all Shays built by Lima Machine Works. Why Carnes did not patent this design for himself or Lima Machine Works is a mystery, however within Lima it was known as the "Carnes design".

No other work was necessary on the locomotive and it was shipped back to Haring on April 26th 1880. Lima did not assign a construction number or shop number to this locomotive as they only re-built it for Shay. It would also be the only locomotive Lima ever worked on for Ephraim Shay. Of the 2767 Lima Shays built, none were ever for Ephraim Shay himself.

Milton J. Bond ordered Lima Machine Works sn-6 after he saw Shay's updated engine. It was to duplicate the Shay Lima had just converted and returned to Ephraim Shay. This became the first redesigned Shay completely built by Lima Machine Works. A photograph of sn-6 is therefore a sample of what Ephraim Shay's rebuilt locomotive looked like once returned. Lima would go on to build a total of 2768 Shays that would be used around the world.
Though Shay's locomotive was for the most part a combination of known and some even patented technology, Shay found that he could apply for a patent on his rebuilt locomotive. He filed for patent on March 30th 1881. Despite the fact that Lima Machine Works was already producing Shay style engines, the United States Patent Office did issue to Ephraim Shay, of Haring Michigan, Patent No. 242,992 for a Locomotive Engine. The patent describes a Shay Locomotive similar to the Lima production Shays with the drive shaft on the right. However Ephraim's patent describes a quite different means of attaching the engine to the drive shaft. Shay had patented a concept and not necessarily an exact plan. Thus it was determined that the issued patent did cover the Shays produced by Lima Machine Works and Michigan Machine Works granting Ephraim complete rights to the invention. To this end Shay, did license Lima Machine Works and Michigan Machine Works both to produce Shay type locomotives.  

Ephraim Shay's First Patent

Ephraim Shay acquired 64 shares of Lima Machine Works stock, valued at $1000 per share plus a royalty for each of the first 400 Shays Lima built, this amount being based on the weight of the completed locomotive. He received royalties for 16 years plus dividends on his shares. As a shareholder in Lima Machine Works, Shay held no position of responsibility and was not involved in further development of he Shay style locomotive from Lima.

Shay granted manufacturing rights to a second machine works, this one in Cadillac Michigan. A relatively new company, Michigan Iron Works, then under the ownership of J. W. Cummer and James Henderson in 1882. The locomotive they would produce differed a great deal from Shay's design but again, Shay's patented 'concept ' covered their design. It would be referred to as the "Henderson Shay". This Shay design was very different indeed. The drive shaft line was off the left center and under the engine and the pistons were under the horizontal boiler. This design actually proved to be more powerful than the Lima Shay's and in fact set a record of hauling 47 fully loaded log cars with 393 logs to a sawmill. Ephraim Shay's exact financial arrangement with the Michigan Machine Works is not know, however it had to be similar to that of Lima's as Mr. Shay would advertise and promote Shay Patent Locomotives sales for both companies.

In 1882 Shay had printed a 12 page circular mentioning both Machine Works. Shay also in November of 1883 traveled with George Disman of Lima Locomotive Works through the southern states promoting and selling the locomotives. In May and June of 1883 Shay was in Chicago for the National Exposition of Railway Appliances as an exhibitor with a model of his Shay engine. In July he was in Santa Fe NM for the completion of the A.T. & S.F. line through AZ. In the fall he was attending the Wexford County Fair in Cadillac Michigan.

William Crippen was not out of the picture yet. He had built several locomotives since the first engine for Shay and in 1882 Crippen filed his own patent [266,103 dated 10-17-1882] for a geared locomotive. His patent showed a locomotive similar the Henderson Shay however it differed in several key areas. Only one of these was ever built as Crippen failed to draw customers for further orders. After 1883, history fails to reveal any record of William Crippen.

Shay's arrangement with Michigan Iron Works ended in 1883 when the company went bankrupt. They had produced only 6 locomotives in their short history. James Henderson left for work with Lima Machine Works as soon as they were out of business. Why the Henderson style Shay was not more popular is somewhat another mystery since Ephraim was promoting both. The fact that Ephraim made road trips with Lima employees in the early 1880's and that Henderson became a Lima employee himself may clear some of the mystery. Lima on the other hand was doing quite well with Shay Patent Locomotives.

Union Foundry & Pullman Car Wheel Works just outside of Chicago was apparently also granted rights to build a Shay Patent Locomotive and according to the business card of Chicago banker I. B. Hammond, they intended to build only standard gauge versions, referring any inquiries for narrow gauge Shays to Lima Machine Company. No records of U.F. & P.C.W.W. show any Shay type locomotives were ever ordered through them or I. B. Hammond.

Coming out on top of the "1883 Gear Wars" was the 'Carnes design' of the Shay Patent Locomotive. This proved more popular than Ephraim's original patent design, the more powerful Henderson style Shay and Crippen's own geared engine design.

Ephraim Shay spent time and his own money promoting his locomotives until the late 1800's. Interesting is that Ephraim Shay was considered by the Partners of Lima Machine Works to have been 'too involved' with Shay improvements. They depended on James Henderson as a Lima Machine Works employee to be the driving force behind the Shay Locomotives improvements over the next few years. Henderson's major improvements on the Shay included the addition of the third piston and then the third truck. On March 6th, 1901, at the age of 62, Ephraim Shay sold all of his stock in Lima, thereby completely ending links with the company that made him famous in the logging and railroad industries.

In 1888, Shay moved to Harbor Spring Michigan, bringing his lumbering experience along. After other work, Shay's well-known Hemlock Central railroad was started c1893, running north out of the town. Although his Railway was primarily constructed for logging, in the summer, vacationers were hauled for 25 cents a trip. This is the 1909 description of Harbor Springs Railroad from Poor's Manual of Railroads.

HARBOR SPRINGS RY.-Harbor Springs to Carter's Mill, Mich., 8 m.; branches, 4.75 m.-total, 12.75 miles. Gauge, 2 ft. 6 in. Rail (steel) 16 lbs. Chartered Feb. 2, 1902. Road put in operation in 1902, doing a logging, freight and passenger business; extended two miles in 1904. Capital stock, $30,000. No bonded debt. Cost of road and equipment, $51,346. Locomotives, 3. Cars (passenger, 6; flat, 60; other, 6), 72. OFFICERS: EPHRAIM SHAY, Pres. & Gen. Mgr.; L. Shay, Sec. & Treas., Harbor Springs, Mich. The railroad was chartered on Feb 2, 1902, and opened on July 1, 1902.

Shay did not give up inventing. He was granted several more patents. In 1882 [269,473 dated 12/19/1882] for a Universal Joint and [269,723 dated 12/26/1882] for Propeller Shafts, in 1883 [273,043 dated 1/19/1883] for Logging Wheels, in 1884 [301,528 dated 7/8/1884] for a Valve Gear, in 1894 [521,868 dated 6/26/1894] a Fire-Fighting Hose Cart, and in 1902 [706,604 dated 8/12/1902] for a Shay type Loco Truck.

Hemlock Central #1  
Hemlock Central #1 "BABY" as built in 1893
Shay Family collection
Likely Lette Shay holding his infant daughter Abigail Roe in 1893
Shay Family collection
#1 as rebuilt in 1897
Shay Family collection
#1 left after another rebuild
Shay Family collection
#1 with Ephraim Shay at throttle
Shay Family collection
#1 after yet another rebuild
Shay Family collection
#1 working c1910
by Fred Hirzel from C. T. Stoner collection
#1 modified for use in tourist duties
Detroit Publishing Co. collection

  Hemlock Central #2  
#2 right
C. T. Stoner collection
#2 left rear
C. T. Stoner collection
#2 in yard work
Chip Rogers. collection

Hemlock Central #3
#3 left side
C. T. Stoner collection
#3 right side
C. T. Stoner collection
Some have called shay eccentric... He designed and lived in a steel clad house called "The Hexagon". The walls were embossed to look like brick and the window frames were made to appear as stone. The heavy doors were sheathed with imitation carved wood. His machine shop building was across the street and close by was his Harbor Springs Waterworks. He supplied the city with water for many years and his business card had a locomotive on one side and a rendering of the waterworks on the other. He was a well-known inventor and his firm experimented with boats and automobiles. Mr. Shay even used galvanized sheet metal to build a steam yacht. Known as the AHA it operated on Little Traverse Bay. The rusting hulk of the AHA was, for a number of years, on display at the Maritime Museum in Mackinaw City, Michigan.
Historic Marker
Photo by David Higley
Front view of Ephrain's house in 2014.
Photo by David Higley
House marker forEphrain's house in 2014.
Photo by David Higley
 Rear view of Ephrain's house in 2014.
Photo by David Higley 

Mr. Ephraim Shay, credited inventor of the Shay Patent Locomotive, did indeed enjoy a life of variety and interesting vocations. We learn now that Ephraim Shay's 'concept' of powering the smaller complete axles rather than having pistons power each side of an engine independently, was the foundation of all geared locomotives. The question of rather Ephraim Shay or John Carnes should be credited as the real inventor of the Shay with it's right side gearing is answered simply by Lima Machine Works. Ephraim Shay must have had more direct input than is reported by Lima's records for it is Lima that paid Ephraim royalty payments on the first 400 shays, something they would never have agreed to were John Carnes more deserving the credit. To say that it was solely due to Shay getting the patent first would be unfounded because a patent could be challenged if filed falsely

Rick Henderson

Ephraim Shay Genealogy

www.ShayLocomotives.com updated 9-2014

Resources: United States Patent Office, Washington DC; The Shay Locomotive by Michael Koch, World Press Publishing; Lima, The History, by Eric Hirsimaki, Hundman Publishing, Inc., Shay family correspondence.