I often feature technology and inventors in this feature and for good reason. The inspiration of improvement, innovation and progress can take us from the first heavier-than-air manned flight to landing on the moon in a span of only 2 generations.
One such inspired man, Ephraim Shay, recognized the limitations of the locomotives of his day and created a design that earned the admiration and respect of an entire industry. Shay attempted many occupations and at one point settled into logging. He immediately identified the limitation posed by winter conditions and built his own tramway in 1875 to replace the inefficient snow sleds used to move logs. This gave Shay an advantage over his competitors since it allowed him to produce lumber during the winter months.
It was in 1877 that Shay invented a locomotive design to solve the problems of wheel spin resulting in track burn and poor traction at steeper grades. Shay abandoned conventional designs and after plenty of experimentation and calculation he produced a prototype that used two (sometimes three) vertically-mounted cylinders as a type of motor to drive movement of horizontal drive shafts placed at axel height. There were no side rods and each axel had a bevel gear. Universal and prismatic joints were used to accommodate the trucks that would swivel. All wheels were driven in Shay’s design and created incredible traction in steep grades. Truly his was a revolutionary design.
An estimated 2770 Shay locomotives, or “Shays” as they were called, were built by Lima Locomotive Works in Lima, OH. 118 still survive today. (Click HERE to see if a Shay locomotive is near you!)
Shay made many more contributions to the transportation industry, including establishing the Harbor Springs (Michigan) Railway in 1902 after moving his family there. The hexagonal home he built there appropriately named Shay Hexagon House still stands. It was also here that Shay founded a private water works for the town and his 40 ft long all-steel boat Aha was an important innovation in Great Lakes shipping. The Shays became cherished members of the community.
Ephraim Shay died April 19, 1916 and was laid to rest at Harbor Springs’s Lakeview Cemetery. “Shay Days”, an annual festival held by the Harbor Springs Area Historical Society takes place on the weekend of his birth (July 17, 1839).