Rescuing a 1916 16 hp Avery Steam Engine from the Republican River

A waterlogged steam engine gets a second lease on life.

Avery completely restored

Restoration of the Avery was complicated by its submersion in a Kansas river. Sand was packed in tight behind and around every piece.

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Forrest Pense may have been 92 years old, but he wasn’t going to miss out on the fun. He sat down on the banks of the Republican River near Scandia, Kan., during Memorial Day weekend in 2000, and began removing his shoes.

“We asked him what he was doing,” says Ted McNamara, Dayton, Minn. “He said ‘I want to be in the middle of this.’ So Gene Zopfi and I hoisted him up, waded out and carried him across to the island so he could be closer to the Avery as we dug it out.” Forrest had waited 65 years for that moment.

Lost to the flood of ’35

In 1935, brothers Nathan and Emil Isaacson supplemented income from their grain elevator by pumping sand from the Republican River near Scandia, near the state line in north central Kansas. “Their equipment consisted of a barge with a (1916 16 hp Avery) steam engine and a dredge pump,” writes Mary Jo DeSota in the Nowthen (Minn.) Threshing News. “The end of the pump was placed in the sand and the steam engine was used to pull the sand out of the river.”

That May, heavy rains in southeastern Colorado were building up to a catastrophe downstream. When the river surged and floodwaters swept down the Republican, the Isaacsons could do little more than watch as their barge swamped, flipping the Avery and the dredge pump into the river. Deciding they’d had enough, the brothers signed over salvage rights to Forrest, who was starting to collect steam traction engines.

Some might have called Forrest eccentric; others might call him a man ahead of his time. He once hopped a freight train to Peoria, Ill., to see where Avery engines were manufactured. On another occasion, he bought a steam traction engine near Lincoln, Neb., drove it to Harvard, Neb. (a distance of about 75 miles), parked it and never used it again. Ultimately he would build a collection of nearly 30 steam traction engines, including a 1916 Avery 16 hp model (boiler no. 51) like the one mired in the Republican River.

For 35 years, Forrest kept an eye on the Avery. When the river was low, parts of the engine showed above the surface. But if you knew where to look, the Avery could always be seen, even if water levels in the non-navigable river were high. As time passed, Forrest determined which of the engine’s parts might be damaged, salvaged what he could and scouted replacements, preparing for the day when the steam engine would be rescued. In the late 1960s, he tugged on the Avery with a Caterpillar D-8. The effort was not a success. “He pulled one wheel off, snapped the axle and bent some side irons,” Ted recounts. During the next 30 years, Forrest made three more attempts at salvaging the Avery. Finally, surrendering to advancing age and ill health, he gave up.

The hunt resumes

In January 2000, four members of Minnesota’s Nowthen Historical Power Association (NHPA) stopped in to see Forrest’s collection of steam traction engines. During the visit, he told them about the buried Avery.

Meanwhile, Ted McNamara was getting involved in steam. “I traded a pickup with a snow plow for a 1/2-scale 65 hp Case steam traction engine,” he recalls, “and got rid of my gas engines and the smell.” Later, while driving to a show, Ted spotted Gene Zopfi, Champlin, Minn., firing up his 1/4-scale model steam engine and 24 hp Minneapolis engine. Their budding friendship drew Ted into the NHPA.

That’s when Ted heard about the buried Avery. Gene was part of the group (including George Benson, Matt DeMars and Gary Bendickson) that had visited Forrest. Ted was totally captivated by the tale: His passion for the project provided the emotional spark. Gene and George agreed to finance the project; ultimately Ted would buy them out. The men discussed possibilities. “Forrest said if we could get the Avery out, he would give it to us,” Ted says. “My eyeballs got big, because the initial engine investment is big, plus all the money for the boiler and repair work.”

But after 65 years in the river, they figured, the Avery would be junk. Nevertheless, as a tribute to Forrest, the group decided to try to recover the Avery and truck it 600 miles to the NHPA show grounds. There, they planned to plant it on a concrete slab, “a memorial to the ‘lost but not forgotten,’” Ted says.

One memorable day

During the first several months of 2000, the men made several trips to Kansas, studying the site where the steam engine sank and considering options. Ultimately, they decided to build a cofferdam, using a sandbar island, and then used compressed air to remove debris and sand.

Meanwhile, Gene did paperwork with the Kansas attorney general’s office, establishing that, at the location of the steamer, the Republican River was non-navigable. Adjacent landowners retained milling rights on both sides of the river, allowing access to the steamer. Then, on Memorial Day weekend, a golden opportunity arose. “Shirley and Henry Strenad, who own the land on either side of the river, called to say the river was the lowest they had ever seen,” Ted recalls. The water level that May was just knee deep; 4 inches of the engine’s water tank showed above the surface.

Rental equipment was too expensive, but Shirley came to the rescue with a flatbed trailer, Caterpillar D-7 crawler and backhoe. The Minnesota contingent procured an air compressor, telephone poles, railroad ties, and cribbing and blocking materials to make a skid.

After 40 minutes of pumping, most of the debris and water was removed. “When the Avery was exposed enough,” Ted says, “we ran a cable down from the backhoe and wrapped a 6-inch nylon strap around it.” The Avery wouldn’t budge. The Caterpillar D-7 (with a snatch block) was hooked up. It pulled; the backhoe wiggled. Ten minutes later, the Avery shuddered and bubbles rose to the surface. Then it came loose. Slowly the buried engine began to rise out of the muck, covered with hard sand and calcium deposits resembling barnacles. “At that point we could hardly keep Forrest away from it,” Ted says. “We had to pull him back, he was so excited.”

A trench was dug in the bank, and a Caterpillar loader pulled the Avery on shore. Most of the 450 people in Scandia seemed to be on site, Ted recalls, watching the action. Excitement mounted as the salvage crew took stock.

“Once we got it out, we saw that the sight glass wasn’t broken, and when we pulled out a bottom handhold to drain the boiler water, we could feel how thick the boiler was,” Ted says. “Our eyeballs got real big then, because it seemed like this monster was practically brand-new, and could be restored.” Later, a putty knife was used to scrape away hardened sand, revealing “boiler number 49, June 27, 1916.”

The group was elated. Sixty-five years to the day after the flood of ’35, the Avery was on dry land. By that time, both Ted’s and Forrest’s hearts were beating a lot faster. “Forrest had a huge smile on his face,” Ted says. “That night, Forrest wanted to sleep in his pickup on the riverbank. That guy lived, ate, breathed and slept steam engines.”

Later, Forrest took Ted back to an old building on his property. “He said, ‘You take this Avery water tank, side irons, front door, front smoke ring, whistle and crosshead pump (with the original steam gauge).’ Over the years, he’d removed or bought all that stuff for future restoration.”

Restoration begins

When the Avery arrived in Minnesota, it was unloaded in Gene’s cow pasture. “Six Holsteins helped us with the work,” Ted says with a laugh, “licking it for salt, I suppose. They breathed down our backs when we were working on it.”

Once the crud was removed, the Avery was moved to higher ground. Then it was torn apart, piece by piece, bolt by bolt. “During the entire process, only a single bolt broke,” Ted marvels. “We sprayed penetrating oil, tapped nuts one way and then the other, and every one came out.” Most were rethreaded and used when the machine was reassembled.

Then the real work began. Jody Hicks, president of the NHPA/Nowthen Threshing Show, and Art Job, Ted’s neighbor, put in yeoman-like work restoring the Avery. “Jody helped every weekend except two, bead-blasting and priming almost every part smaller than 2-by-4 feet, and painted everything that wasn’t red,” Ted says. “She wasn’t afraid to get into the dirt and muck. The backs of the wheel cleats were packed with mud, so they had to come off. She chipped out the mud, sandblasted, primed and painted.”

Art brought a lifetime of welding experience to the job. “If only part of a quadrant of a gear remained, and the other part was broken off,” Ted says, “Art recreated what was missing instead of making an entirely new part. If half was there, he made the new part, and brazed or welded it together.”

He also worked on the most difficult part of the entire project, making rear axles. “One was bent and one was broken, so rather than make new castings, he took 7/8-inch plate steel and cut the gussets, with 1-inch steel plate across the back, and used 5-1/2-inch round stock bored through to make room for a 3-1/2-inch axle to be fitted in,” Ted says. “To make it squared up and true, that took the longest. I don’t know what I would have done without Art.”

Submerged in a river bed for 65 years, the Avery was both protected and plagued by the same thing: sand. “Most of the unit was buried in sand,” Ted says, “which helped to preserve it. But then every single part, bolt and nut had to be taken apart, scale chipped off, sandblasted, painted and put back together. That doesn’t necessarily have to be done on more conventional restorations because sand isn’t packed in, around, behind and under every piece.”

The big day

Because real life intruded at times, nearly seven years passed before the Avery was completely restored. Forrest Pense never saw his dream completely fulfilled: He died in 2004. “Forrest was a character,” Ted says, “and this Avery is a tribute to him and what he did for the steam community.”

The boiler was tested April 18, 2006. With the boiler completely stripped down and in a warm garage, two inspectors from the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry conducted an official ultrasound boiler inspection on the Avery. The engine was rated for 168 psi using a 2-rivet lap seam formula, a reference pertaining to original boiler construction. The salvaged Avery is a 3-rivet lap seam boiler with an original rating of 175 psi.

After much work and many minor trials (like removal of paint that filled in parts of the bolt threads) everything was ready April 22, 2007. The 1916 16 hp Avery was set for its first fire-up in 72 years. Hoses and pipes were connected to Ted’s residential water line to fill the boiler for a hydro test. Pressure gauges were mounted. Leaking connections were tightened or fixed. Gaskets were changed, and the boiler was drained.

At 11:40 a.m., wood was added to the firing box and the fire lit. As wood smoke drifted overhead, steam was slowly built up and reduced, annealing the new iron. The water pressure increased; by 1:35 p.m., it reached 40 psi. Various adjustments were made as evaluation continued, but it was obvious the 65-year-buried beast’s first fire-up was a success.

Debut jitters

The entire restoration proceeded smoothly. “The ease of everything surprised me,” Ted says. “Jody says it was meant to be, that there was a guardian angel on my shoulder, because everything seemed to work” – until the third week of August 2007, when the Avery was scheduled to make its maiden voyage around the Nowthen show’s parade track.

“We had fire in the firebox, and were moving like we were supposed to do,” Ted recalls. “We had just filled up with water, come off a little hill and slowed down. I was going to back into a parking place to wait for the parade to start when a little cross-bracket on the eccentrics that change direction broke. We knew that part hadn’t looked great, but we figured the old boys who had brazed it at the factory knew what they were doing, so we didn’t touch it.”

Perhaps 65 years underwater took its toll. At any rate, the Avery was hooked to a 1924 Caterpillar 60 (owned by Dan Wilhelm) and dragged along the parade route. “But we got to blow the whistle a lot,” Ted says.

Later, the problem was fixed, and the first actual driving of the Avery occurred during Labor Day weekend of 2007 at the White Pine Logging & Threshing Show at McGrath, Minn. “My heart was beating so fast I could hardly stand it,“ Ted says.

It was a remarkable, memorable moment. “One guy worked since 1935 until the day he died, dreaming of getting that Avery out of the river,” Ted says. “Another spent seven years working on it with the help of a lot of dedicated people. In the end, this whole thing ended up making two guys’ dreams come true.” FC 

Kansas’ Republican River swallowed more than one steam engine. Read about a 65 hp Case that was saved from its depths: “Saved from the Republican River.”