High Country Adventure for Antique Gas Engines
By Leslie C. McManus
Just beginning to dig an 1899 Fairbanks-Morse 22 hp compressor engine out of a tailing pile. Note the crankshaft standing at back.
It’s grizzlies that worry him, not snakes, and he’s armed with a Winchester, not a bullwhip — but otherwise the persona is unmistakable: Jordan Meeker is the Indiana Jones of the antique gas engine fraternity. Trekking through British Columbia’s Slocan Valley and West Kootenay region, Jordan is an engine archaeologist constantly on the prowl for old iron remnants of the Silvery Slocan, the silver and lead mining era in the late 1890s.
“I’m not a regular guy,” he readily admits. “I don’t follow hockey or football. I don’t want to go golfing or boating. The thrill for me is standing on top of a mountain, thinking about the last guy to see what I’m seeing. It’s the thrill of touching history. It’s knowing that the last guy to touch that engine died 70 or 80 or 90 years ago, and he’s a guy like me,” he muses. “I can stand there and think about what it was like for him on top of this mountain, all alone, thousands of miles from home, just trying to make a go of it. You start to understand that it’s not just a trinket lying on the ground.”
A passion for history drives his hobby; century-old antique gas engines are the tangible reward. In 23 years, he’s found five rare engines in the backcountry of British Columbia. “The history of my area is important to me,” he says. “When I’m dead and gone, everything I’ve owned will be gone, but these engines will be preserved. People will know I was a guy who cared about this place and this stuff.”
Wintertime research for antique gas engines
In the long Canadian winter, Jordan plots his attack. Through online resources, he delves into annual mining camp reports and newspapers dating to the 1890s. Historic newspaper accounts were colorful and enthusiastic, meant to attract the attention of investors across North America and in the U.K.
“Those writers and editors were all boomers, promoting the town or the mine,” he says. “They actively sought information about the mine for their articles and they included every detail. Because of that, I know the name of the mechanic who set up one of my engines on the mountain.”
Packed with geological data, government and shareholders’ reports tend to be dry reading. “But they’d get into the detail at the end, tell what the camp consisted of — listing structures and machinery, even down to what size the machines were and whether they were steam or gas or diesel,” he says. “Really, it’s just about everything you could hope to know.”
In the off-season, research like that is both a means to an end and a carrot. “As long as I get a fresh find, a fresh piece of information, that keeps me interested,” Jordan says. “But when it gets harder, that’s what separates the men from the boys. For me, the hobby just gets more and more intense. My dad calls it my magnificent obsession. Besides making a living, it sucks up every spare minute of my life.”
Tangled in red tape
Once the snow melts, Jordan’s out in the mountains every day he’s not on the job working as an apprentice electrician. At elevations above 7,000 feet the season is short, basically July 1-Sept. 30. “It’s 8 to 12 weekends a year, 16 at the very most,” he says. “That’s not a lot of days.”
Covering up to 12 miles a day on foot, he scours an area to find remnants of an old camp. He may find it in a day or two; it may take a few weeks. It’s all about patience — until he finds an engine. “Then I’m in a panic, worrying about somebody else getting it before I get back,” he says. “There are other guys looking, but they’re not looking as hard as I am.”
The process of retrieval is complicated on several levels. Jordan navigates the challenges of establishing ownership, negotiating deals and moving hundreds of pounds of iron out of remote country at elevations of 5,000 to 7,000 feet.
The site in question may be an old mining camp claim held by a company or an estate. It may be a crown grant; it may be abandoned property on government-owned land. Negotiations typically move at a glacial pace. “It’s nearly impossible,” he says. “You’re talking to some guy in an office in the city about a block of property he’s never seen and he has not a clue of what you’re talking about. It can take years; it took two years to get the 60 hp Fairbanks.”
Then there are the logistical concerns. “I’ve got to get tools together and guys to help,” he says, reciting a list etched on his brain. “Winches, tools, hunting pack … I figure out nut and bolt sizes so that I have the right wrenches. How are you going to get the engine down the hill? If you can’t get it out any other way, you have to fly it out — if you can afford it (to the tune of $2,000 an hour). If I have to take time off from work, I make plans for that.”
Retrieving relics from the backcountry is no big deal, really, so long as you’re prepared to be a cross between an archaeologist and a full battalion of combat engineers. On one occasion, Jordan had to cross Keene Creek to reach a mine. Just one problem: The bridge washed out 30 years ago.
“We got across the creek on a logjam and rigged a cable so that we could get an ATV across,” he says. “The trail was heavily brushed in, so we used the ATV to cut the trail and then spent a couple of weeks clearing brush.” He left the ATV parked by the creek for the duration.
Once he got to the mine site, it became apparent that the engines were far too big and heavy to bring down the trail — so a helicopter was summoned (the only time Jordan’s had to resort to that). As time passed, he became anxious about his ATV parked on the far side of the creek. When he returned to retrieve it, he found a surprise.
“There was another ATV parked right beside mine,” he says. “Turns out a couple of local fellows had figured out our rigging and used it because they wanted to check out hunting possibilities. When I talked to them later, they told me they’d been worried we would remove the rigging and leave their ATV stranded.”
It’s all about resourcefulness. “You get real ingenious with blocks and ropes and winches,” he says. “You try to use gravity to your advantage. You can’t go up; you have to go down. The longest distance I’ve had to haul stuff manually is two miles. That doesn’t sound like much, but on a mountain, that’s forever.” The cylinder on the Hercules engine, for instance, weighed 152 pounds. “I’ve worked out there to the point of exhaustion,” he admits. “You couldn’t pay me to work that hard.”
Self-taught mountain man
On early outings to the mountains, Jordan was almost totally unprepared. “It was 1983 before I had a 4-wheel-drive pickup and started getting off into the bush,” he recalls. “I had no gun, no proper boots; I just started heading off.” As time passed, he learned the necessary skills and acquired gear. Today, he’s at ease in an unforgiving environment. “I don’t really worry about going anywhere, anytime,” he says.
Still, solo forays into the high country require careful preparation. Cell phones don’t work in the bush, and so far a satellite phone has seemed an expensive nuisance. He leaves a detailed plan of each trek with his wife and follows the plan to the letter. “They’ve got to be able to find me if something goes wrong,” he says. “If I say I’m going to a certain place, I can’t change my mind; I have to go. You’ve got to be well-armed and have a plan.”
Such advice is particularly useful when dealing with bears. Jordan’s had a couple of close calls. On one memorable occasion, he and a black bear sow with cubs nearby surprised each other. “A black bear with cubs is a real tricky proposition,” he says with understatement. “Even from 40 feet away, she looks big.” She rose up on her rear legs; he fired his Winchester into the air, trying to scare her. She dropped to all fours, rose and dropped again. When she turned to check on her cubs, Jordan grabbed his packs and chain saw and plunged over a steep bank, making a sharp vertical exit.
The backcountry is less remote today, thanks to the wide availability of ATVs. “The general population is getting more mobile and going farther into the bush than they used to, and in greater numbers, which means that they’re covering more ground than I can ever hope to,” Jordan says. “They’re starting to pick up bits and pieces to take home to decorate their family room. Usually they take the shiny bits like brass oilers, bearings and serial number plates, which, of course, makes my blood boil because then I have to go to the effort and expense of either replacing the missing pieces or having them made.”
By and large, Jordan’s engines are fairly rough, rare and very early, reflecting the influence of U.S. prospectors and miners. “They came to the Kootenays in droves,” he says. “They were smart, savvy businessmen who’d already worked with this equipment. And the manufacturers worked very hard to market equipment to them. If they hadn’t, we’d all be collecting English engines.”
Riding a slump, one suspects he would be happy to find any engine at this point. “I haven’t found a complete antique gas engine in the bush for nine years,” he says, “but I fully expect to find another one.” It’s just a matter of patience and persistence, and at 50, Jordan has plenty of both. “I can’t imagine doing anything else,” he says. “That’s what’s unusual about me: Since 1989, when I started looking for iron, I spend every spare minute every day on this.
“A lot of collectors don’t have the opportunity to experience the thrill of finding an engine in its original setting,” he says. “I’ve been lucky. I know it’s only going to happen a few times. Ninety-nine percent of the quality engines have been found already. I’m just a little guy trying to do big things, but I’m at the top of my game.” FC
For more information: email Jordan Meeker at email@example.com.
Editor of Farm Collector, Leslie McManus has been known to kick around the mountains herself, but carries nothing heavier than a sack lunch and a camera. Email her at LMcManus@ogdenpubs.com.
Read more about Jordan Meeker and how his 1897 Weber Gas Engine Beats the Odds. Also watch Jordan Meeker's Antique Rock Drills in action.
Workhorse of the mine
Antique gas engines found at mining camps were used for varied purposes:
• to power jaw crushers used in crushing ore
• to power blowers used to bring fresh air to the mine face after planned explosions
• to pump water
• as compressors for rock drills
• as hoisting engines
Early, rare engines salvaged from mining camps
Jordan Meeker is not averse to acquiring engines in a conventional manner. “I did buy a Stewart Little Major engine (manufactured by Chicago Flexible Shaft Co.) once,” he says. “But I prefer to find engines.” His collection of engines salvaged from old mining camps runs the gamut from common to rare:
• 1897 Weber 5 hp gas engine
• 1899 Fairbanks-Morse 12 hp sectionalized hoisting engine
• 1899 Fairbanks-Morse 22 hp compressor engine
• 1899 Hercules 6 hp engine (Hercules Gas Engine Works, San Francisco)
• 1912 Fairbanks-Morse 60 hp Type N gas engine
• 1919 Fairbanks-Morse Type Z gas engine
• 1939 Fairbanks-Morse 150 hp diesel engine