Rare Ames Steam Engine: Ames Iron Works Design Prone to Boiler Explosion

There’s not much known about this early Ames steam engine except it has a poor boiler design

Though this 1885 Ames portable steam engine doesn't run, it still attracts attention at the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion.

Though this 1885 Ames portable steam engine doesn't run, it still attracts attention at the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion. Small compared to later engines, this model was designed to be pulled by horses from site to site.

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Mark Pedersen says there’s not a lot known about his Ames return-flue portable steam engine.

“We think it’s an 1885,” he says, “but someone told me he thought it was an 1882. We think it’s about a 12 hp, but we’re not sure of that either, because there just isn’t much information available.” What he is sure of is that it’s an unusual machine. “I’ve never seen another one,” Mark says, “though I heard there is another one around.”

Roots in North Dakota

The Ames surfaced in Art Bayliss’ wrecking yard in Enderlin, N.D. “I would guess he got it from somewhere in southwest North Dakota,” Mark muses. “As far back as I can remember, it sat under a big tree in his yard. Old Art used it as a yard ornament. He even had it painted up one time.”

Mark, who lives in Luverne, N.D., cannot remember the engine ever being in running condition. “The boiler is in no condition to even consider it, although I wouldn’t rule out getting it ready in the future,” he says. “Adding to the problems, those old Ames engines were notorious for having a poor boiler design, which led to a lot of explosions.”

Mark’s Ames is a portable engine. Horses were used to pull it from site to site. “As long as roads remained firm and dry, the engine could be moved from field to field and farm to farm,” says the booklet Cooper Agricultural Steam Engines.

Mark says most return-flue engines like the Ames are of the spiral-flue type, essentially a tube within a tube, with the heat inside and water outside. “This one is a little different,” he says. “It’s made like a closed horseshoe, which pinches together at the bottom, so you have an arch with the fire, and another arch with the water.”

Ash from the fire and the water eventually mix together, forming sulfuric acid. “When it’s under pressure, the horseshoe is actually trying to straighten out,” Mark explains, “so when the sulfuric acid weakens that ash pan area, and it can’t hold any more, that’s just what it did: it straightened out. And that was the end of that.”

He says he’s seen traction engineer books advise young operators to beware of the Ames engines. “Machinery books also brought it up,” he says, “mentioning that Ames engines were problems.”

A working collection

Mark grew up with vintage steam engines. “My uncle and grandpa began collecting steam engines in the early 1950s, so I’ve been around it all my life,” he says. “I started steering steam engines in parades when I was 8, rode on them a lot, hauled the wood and that kind of thing as early as I could do it. Once you’ve been around them for a while they just kind of grow on you.”

He has five other steam traction engines in addition to the Ames. All are workers. “I’ve been around farm machinery all my life, so I like restoring it. The real fun is getting these things back in running condition, and then going out and actually doing what they were intended to do,” he says. “That’s a different level of restoration, in my mind. You can’t get by with just a paintbrush. That’s where I get the real thrill, tearing them down to zero, fixing them up, and then taking them out and using them like when they were new. You get to find out just what it was like to have to farm with one of those outfits, tractor or steam or whatever.”

Mark uses his steam engines to plow and thresh at old iron shows. “It would sure be neat to do it with the Ames,” he says, “but before I can get anywhere with it, it’s going to take $30,000 to fix it up.” The boiler would cost about half of that, he figures. After that there are the engineer drawings, inspection fees, certification, paperwork and more. “Nowadays the boilers are welded together so you give up a little authenticity for safety,” he says. “So with the Ames I’m going to have to change the boiler design or it will never pass. It will have the same dimensions and parts, so from the outside it will make no difference.”

Early designs problematic

Steam engine design went through significant evolution from the 1880s through 1920. “You don’t see many early engines in operation today simply because with those early boilers, the designers were just learning,” Mark says. “The first real boiler rules that were kind of universal started showing up about 1910. A lot of that was trial and error, and the errors were not good. That’s why you just don’t see many pre-1910 operating engines: Those boilers were largely considered unsafe.”

Early engines didn’t run under very high pressure (the Ames ran at 100 to 150 pounds). But when they exploded, they were no less dangerous. Boiler walls ranged from 1/4 to 5/16 inch thick, but for the bigger steam traction engines, that wasn’t big enough. “Those had to be 3/8 inch thick,” Mark says, “but they didn’t have machinery to work metal that thick.”

Early drive trains, shafts, bearings and bracketry were also problematic. “Those early steam engines, like the Ames, were pretty low-speed, high-torque machinery,” he says, “and to handle those torque loads you need some pretty massive stuff.”

Ratings hard to nail down

Inconsistencies with horsepower also presented challenges. “Before 1910, a horsepower was always a horsepower,” Mark notes, “but it depended where you got it from.” Nominal horsepower was subjective, and related to the work an average horse could do – but whose “average”? Brake and engine horsepower were actually measured.

For example, if the Ames was rated as a 12 hp engine, that meant it would do the work of 12 average horses. But that work depended on what an “average” horse was. Twelve Clydesdales would obviously outwork 12 Shetlands.

Mark says you can see the same thing in his 110 hp Case engine. “Before 1910 it was rated 32 hp,” he says. “After 1910, it was re-rated at 110 hp, because then it was actually scientifically measured. Brake horsepower was an actual measured output. Nominal wasn’t.”

The ratings were created to give the buyer, whose last “tractor” was a horse, some idea of what he was getting. The year 1910 seems to have marked a sea change in steam thinking, Mark says.

No hobby for the faint of heart

Mark’s first steam engine was a 110 hp Case. “My uncle owned it, and it had been idle for a couple of years,” he says. “The boiler had gone bad. He said if I found a boiler, changed all the parts and restored it, I could have it, so that’s what I did. I finished it in 1989, when I was 23.”

Mark quickly learned that the most difficult part of restoring a steam engine is boiler repair. “Any time you get into that, it’s usually hard work and time consuming. You have to work with the government,” he says. “If you want to repair it you have to get it approved, then have it inspected to sign off on the repair, and then have the entire machine inspected.” That final inspection is conducted on-site at the owner’s expense.

And it’s an ongoing process. The state of North Dakota, for instance, requires annual inspections; Minnesota requires inspections every other year. “All the plumbing is inspected, and they make sure all your apparatus is in order. That costs a lot, although often the show where I exhibit my stuff will pay for the inspection,” he says. “That’s one way they get to keep machinery at the show. If I had to pay for all of that out-of-pocket, it could get kind of rough.” Leaving the equipment on the grounds also saves him time and trouble of hauling the engines back and forth.

Mark isn’t particularly disappointed by the fact that the Ames doesn’t run. “I have so many other projects that this one gets the back-burner treatment,” he says. “But I wouldn’t rule out getting it done. Someday I’d like to fix up one of the really old ones just to take it back one step further, and see how they behaved when they were being used, because there’s a mechanical evolution in those things. Even 10 years’ time in the steam engine game meant a lot of improvement. It would be fun to see what one of those things would do.”

Particularly fun, since few Ames engines exist today. “They were prime targets for the scrap drive,” Mark says, “because they were definitely nonessential and out of service, and weren’t going to be put back in service.”

Which raises the question of how this particular model survived. “I’ve always wondered why,” Mark says. “If I had thought of it 15 years ago, I could have found out that and everything else I wanted to know about the Ames. But now it’s too late. All those guys who knew the history of this engine are gone.” FC

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; e-mail:  bvossler@juno.com .