1902 New Giant Traction Engine Restoration

A century-old relic, a New Giant steam traction engine, gets a loving restoration

The Giant with its new boiler plates supported from beneath.

The Giant with its new boiler plates supported from beneath.

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Editor's note: This is the second installment in a series about the restoration of Wayne Kennedy's 1902 New Giant 18 hp steam engine. The first installment was published in the March 1999 issue of Farm Collector, read it here.

Like the deliberate motion of a traction engine, the restoration work on Wayne Kennedy's 1902 New Giant keeps moving forward at a steady pace. Wayne plans to debut the fully-restored engine at the Old Threshers Reunion in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, in 2002, the year of the New Giant's 100th birthday.

Wayne started working on the 18-ton engine in the fall of 1998, and although he has about two and a half more years of work on the project, he's happy with the progress.

"I feel pretty good about it. In fact, in some ways, I feel I'm ahead of schedule," Wayne notes. "The bad thing with a project like this is that you have to work on it in between making a living and doing dishes and some of those things."

Wayne has been working with steam engines for at least 30 years. This is his fourth complete engine restoration, including an 1890 center crank Case, owned by the Midwest Old Threshers Association. So when he convinced himself to buy the New Giant in 1995, he knew from its condition that it would be a lengthy process to bring it back to good working order.

During the winter of 1998, Wayne tore apart the engine and had a local welding company make new boiler plates from his drawings and templates. The boiler plates were ready that December. In the the winter, he worked in his shop, getting the plates ready to go into the boiler.

When a century-old machine is being restored, advancements in mechanical technology come into play. This time around, the iron in the boiler was welded together, instead of riveted. To give the boiler an authentic look, Wayne sat at his lathe and made dummy rivet heads for the boiler. Last summer, on a 102-degree July day, he mended the boiler's belly.

Although the summer's extreme temperatures were uncomfortable for welding, a seemingly endless Indian summer enabled Wayne to finish the boiler repairs, including sandblasting and painting. Then he shifted his focus to the wheels and axles. He reconditioned the rear axle brackets and shaft, sandblasting away about an inch of grime that had built up on the wheels and gears. Then came the challenging task of remounting the brackets and axles for the rear wheels. The process, Wayne says, involved fitting the brackets to the boiler, shimming them into place, removing them for grinding and then checking the fit all over again.

"Before you ever take something like this apart, you take pages and pages of measurements and pictures," Wayne cautions, "because if it doesn't match, it won't work."

For nearly all of the work during the first year, the engine was suspended from an A-frame behind Wayne's shop. Last fall, he met his goal of putting the wheels back on and rolling the New Giant into storage for the winter.

Engine lovers have probably wondered what the iron hulks could say if they talked. Once, Wayne says, someone asked him if he could speak any foreign languages.

"I said I couldn't, but machinery talks to you. The guy said, 'But it's an inanimate object'." I told him, "You've got to listen, and understand what it's saying, but it will talk to you."

Wayne says the engine's condition is its way of communicating.

"This engine probably didn't move, because the axle bearings and wheels are in good shape," he says. "But the engine is typical of most: it didn't get good care. They just ran 'em until they dropped, and this engine shows that."

The good condition of the wheels, he says, indicates that the New Giant was most likely used in a sawmill (the primary stationary setting for a traction engine) for most of its life.

Originally, Wayne thought the New Giant was purchased in Weeping Water, Neb. He has since learned that the engine made its way to Iowa in 1951 from Utica, Neb., where the late Milo Mathews purchased it at Oscar Nelson's sale and brought it home to Henry County. He began exhibiting it at the Old Threshers Reunion in Mt. Pleasant in 1952.

Men like these become legendary names associated with great steam shows. They've had experiences through the years with these engines that turn into well-loved stories. It's this history, not just the mechanics of the New Giant project, that keeps Wayne interested.

Lowell Burden, 73, rural Trenton, Iowa, helped create some of the New Giant's history at the Old Threshers Reunion. He and a friend, Glen McNamer, operated the engine for Mathews for a few years, before McNamer passed away in the 1960s. Burden continued to operate the engine at the Reunion until it was sold with Mathews' collection in 1985, at his estate sale on the Old Threshers grounds.

Burden admits that the New Giant was a handful to operate.

"It was a little bit odd to run." he says. "The steering wheel was on one side and the operating levers were on the other, so that made it kind of unhandy. There is a big, square water tank on the front, so you could see on either side of it, but not straight ahead. And with it having a return flue boiler, whatever water was in (the stack), you sometimes got it right down your neck."

But Burden says that he never had too much trouble with the New Giant.

"It took a lot of tender, loving care, but we always got it to run each year," he says. "The boiler was getting kind of weak and the inspectors kept the pressure down in it pretty well. I never ran it at more than about 65 pounds of pressure, to be safe. But Wayne's doing a lot of work on it, so when he gets done with it, it'll be a lot better engine than it was when I ran it."

From here on out Wayne will be reassembling pieces.

"It'll be a slow process, but I'm ready to start seeing some change," he says. Wayne will be working on a lot of little parts and will tackle one more big job this winter: The crosshead tunnel for the frame needs to be remachined.

Finding people to do total restorations of engines is getting harder and harder, Wayne says.

"The shops to completely rebuild them don't exist," he says. "It's too much work, and you need somebody working with you. Plus, it's cost-prohibitive to pay for the hours that it takes to do this work."

Now that some of the men who once assisted him are gone, Wayne has decided that this will be the last heavy project he does.

"It's just too much to wrestle these big, heavy pieces around," he says. FC

Karen Bates Chabal works in public relations for the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion at Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, and has a growing interest in steam engines.

About the Restorer: Wayne Kennedy, Danville, Iowa, is an active participant in the Old Threshers Reunion in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. He is a steam exhibitor, and helps operate the portable engine that runs the 1894 steam-powered carousel at the Reunion. He is also a 14-year veteran of the Midwest Old Threshers Board of Directors, and each spring he teaches Steam School, which he originated at the Midwest Old Threshers.