Home / ANALYSIS / Pipe down! A history of trenching machines

Pipe down! A history of trenching machines

by Greg Whitaker on Feb 25, 2009

SCARY Modern trenchers working in Oman recently.
SCARY Modern trenchers working in Oman recently.
[More Images]

Although rarely seen, the mechanical trencher has a strong role to play in the machinery field.

We see them about the place, used mainly for dewatering purposes. Trenchers dug out their own niche many years.

While size, propulsion and even applications have changed over the years, the two basic principals behind a trenching machine remain the same. The first type has a bucket wheel, not unlike its much larger cousin, the continuous excavator, as found in mines everywhere. The other is known as the ‘ladder type’ and has a belt with buckets built in, not unlike a giant chainsaw.

In 1893, James B. Hill claims to have built the first ditching machine at Bowling Green, Ohio, while working at a local foundry.

After building seven machines, Hill took over the operation of a machine shop at Deshler, Ohio. There, he continued to make the ditchers. Two years later, Hill moved to Carewy, Ohio and became associated with another company who built his ditchers on a royalty basis.

In 1902, a new company was formed in Ohio, which went on to become the Buckeye Traction Digger Company. At the time, the biggest ditchers were steam driven and could produce a modest trench, but by 1919 they had evolved into giant puffing monsters capable of digging trenches up to twelve feet wide. In fact the exceptional width of some of these early machines was so great, that they came equipped with living quarters for the crew, including a bedroom, kitchen area and a bathroom!

Buckeye developed many machines throughout the 1920s and 1930s. However, it was taken over post-war as the market for super-large ditchers declined.

It was not the end, however as there was still a demand for smaller, more narrow continuous excavators, with some small enough for the operator to walk behind them. In 1949, Edwin Malzahn designed and built the first of these machines, which have become known as compact trenchers. Later, he went on to found the famous ‘Ditch Witch’ line. Other pioneers in this field include several companies which made ditching attachments for farm tractors and later self-propelled machines.

There is still a demand for trenchers; as any rental company will tell you. However, many firms have found that for digging short distances to get at a cable or utility pipe, or whatever, a backhoe loader, or more often nowadays, a mini excavator, does the job more efficiently.

For longer runs or dewatering though, we are still digging those trenching machines.