Harrison Steam Engine Salvaged from Missouri River

1882 Harrison steam engine beats the odds and keeps on tickin’.
By Bill Vossler
February 2014
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Harrison Machine Works was incorporated in 1878 in Belleville, Ill. The company built its first traction engine in 1881, just a year before this engine was built.
Photo by Bill Vossler
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The spring of 1915 was uncommonly wet in northeast Kansas and northwest Missouri. When the rain continued into July, something had to give. “The great bulk of the run-off was concentrated in the Missouri River,” noted an account in Monthly Weather Review, Vol. 43, No. 7, “and the great bulk of the loss fell upon agricultural interests.”

At least one farmer on Howell Island, a 3,000-acre farming property in the Missouri River near St. Charles, Mo., felt that loss especially keenly. His 1882 Harrison 10 hp steam traction engine (No. 714, built by Harrison Machine Works in nearby Belleville, Ill.) was stationed on the bank of the Missouri.

“The Harrison had been taken out there years before to farm that island,” says Steve Kunz, Valley Park, Mo. “But that spring the engine was apparently close to the channel, which washed out, and the engine ended up in the river.”

Buried treasure

Silted in and buried, the Harrison languished in the Missouri for 40 years until a trio of young men found it in the 1950s. “They found it during a dry season when the river was low,” Steve says. “Every weekend they’d paddle down to the island with a boat, take their shovels and dig at it.”

The work took most of the summer and fall. The trio had a difficult time freeing the wheels and gearing so the engine would roll. Just when they were about to give up, the wheels finally loosened enough to move. Then Mother Nature decided to call the shots. “They’d planned to use a barge to haul it across the channel, but winter came on and the river froze,” Steve recounts, “so they towed it over the ice with a tractor.”

After all that, the trio’s enthusiasm for the project petered out. Although they’d originally planned to restore the engine, the men lost interest in the Harrison. At that point, Louis Kunz — Steve’s dad — stepped forward. “My dad had been told that they wanted an enormous amount of money for it, a fortune of thousands of dollars,” Steve says. “But our neighbor’s brother worked with one of those guys, and he knew my dad had steam engines, tractors, gasoline engines, and just about everything else that’s farm-related. He figured Dad could get it for a reasonable price.”

$500 later ($4,357 today), Louis hauled home his prize. He’d paid a fair price, but it was still a significant amount for something that needed a complete restoration.

More than a fixer-upper

When Louis got the Harrison home, it needed substantial work. The cylinder needed to be rebored, it needed a new piston and all new piping. Louis tackled it all. He had the boiler repaired at a local boiler company.

“Basically he went over everything on it,” Steve says. “Surprisingly the wheels are in pretty good shape. I don’t think it was used a lot for traction work, but mainly belt work, because the gears and wheels are in real nice shape.”

Once the restoration was complete, Louis ran the Harrison for a while. Then more than a decade of inactivity passed. In the early 1980s he put the engine on display at the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion museum in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. Louis died in 1986; the engine stayed at Mt. Pleasant.

As the years passed, Steve thought about steaming up the engine in memory of his father. “But it seemed like there was always something interfering whenever the Mt. Pleasant show was being held,” he says. “I had to work or something else would come up and I couldn’t go. Finally in 2007 I got a clear path.”

Amazingly, at 125 years old, the Harrison didn’t require any major work. “Just pretty much stuff you do anytime when the engine’s been sitting for a year or 30 years,” Steve says. “You make sure everything is working. I knew what the outcome was going to be, but other people were surprised to see it start so easily, because they had seen it sitting for such a long time.”

Unique design feature

This Harrison’s smokestack is particularly unusual. “What makes it really odd,” Steve says, “is that the smokestack passes through the steam dome. Most boilers have the steam dome in the center of the boiler, but on this one it’s up front so the smoke can go through the steam dome. Harrison ads said the superheated steam dome relieved the tendency to foam and made for dry steam.”

In steam engine operation, Steve explains, the goal is to have the driest steam possible. When steam is taken out at the highest point of the boiler, it produces the maximum energy. People who understand steam engines recognize the rarity of a smokestack passing through the steam dome, Steve says; most others don’t.

Steve believes the Harrison is one of the oldest running engines in the U.S. “I’ve heard of another engine a couple of years older,” he says, “so the pair are two of the oldest operating traction engines in existence.”

The engine’s boiler is tested yearly. “They do a visual inspection and a hydrostatic test where they pump up the pressure and check it that way also,” he says. “I usually run it at 80 pounds, but they test it at 100 pounds per square inch.”

A chain drive also sets the Harrison apart. “Most steam engines are all gear-driven but this one has the crankshaft driven by a chain,” Steve says. He doesn’t feel the machine reacts any differently than steam traction engines with gears.

A living, breathing thing

Steve operates the Harrison and its wagon at the Mt. Pleasant show each Labor Day weekend. Onlookers are almost always surprised by the engine’s age and how well it runs, considering it was buried in a river for 40 years. He finds plenty of opportunity to explain the workings of steam traction engines. “It’s not like a tractor, where you start it with a turn of the key,” Steve says. “When they’re steamed up you’ve got to keep your eye on the water level and boiler and steam pressure.”

And when you’re finished, you don’t just turn the key off and walk away. At the end of the show, Steve drains the water so nothing freezes over the winter and cleans out the boiler to prevent rust. It’s labor intensive, he says, but it’s worth it.

“I think what interests people with an engine like this is that it’s not something you see every day,” he says. “Plus with a steam engine, it’s kind of like it’s alive. Even when it’s not running, the steam is hissing out, like it’s a living, breathing thing. That’s what’s always intrigued me about them. They’re big monsters.” FC

Read more Steve’s engine in A Homemade Water Wagon for a Harrison Steam Engine.

For more information:

— Steve Kunz, 219 Crescent Ave., Valley Park, MO 63088; (314) 306-7296.

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; email: bvossler@juno.com.


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