A Fire Fighter's Steamer

Part One: the Saga of Case No. 26701

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With any piece of equipment this old there is bound to be an account on how it survived. Many times we remark, “If only this engine could talk, imagine the tales it could tell.” 

Fortunately, the history of this steamer can be told, for in its life it has only had four owners. For the past 45 years, it was owned and cared for by George Miller. 

When George agreed to sell it to me I visited him, along with my father, to hear his story. My dad wrote down this tale and I’m fortunate to have it to share with you.

If you ever visited Absarokee, Mont., you may have noticed this steamer tucked back into the corner of George’s yard. George says there had been a steady stream of visitors to the engine over the years. Although he planned to operate it again, the years just seemed to slip by, and when he turned 92 he decided it was finally time to sell it. I’m grateful he decided to sell it to me.
The Saga of Case Engine No. 26701

According to George, this steam engine was built in 1912. It is a 75 HP, single-cylinder, double-acting steam engine.
It was shipped by rail to the J.I. Case dealer in Billings, Mont. The dealer did not sell it immediately, so he leased it for plowing and threshing in the fall of 1912. It pulled a 12-bottom plow with the plows spaced 14 inches apart, plowing a 16-foot-wide swath.
In 1913, the engine was bought by two brothers, Jake and Howard Swinaker. They drove it 85 miles from Billings to their farm near Nye, Mont. Traveling at 2-1/2 MPH, the trip took 3-1/2 weeks. They had to reinforce the bridges that they crossed, and even then the engine nearly broke through one bridge; the bent wheel and broken step the steamer sustained from this near accident are still visible almost 100 years later.

For the next year the Swinaker brothers used the engine alternately for farming and to run their sawmill.
In 1915, Jake bought a 15 HP J.I. Case steam engine to use on the farm. Howard took over the 75 HP steam engine to permanently power his sawmill.

The sawmill was called the Picket Pin Sawmill and was located at the foot of Mount Wood on Forest Service land south of Nye. The trees were felled and bucked into 16-foot lengths. The logs were hauled down the mountainside using a steam powered donkey engine, spar trees and high-wire logging.

The sawmill had a 24-inch diameter circular saw and a 32-foot long carriage. The logs were turned by hand with cant hooks. The steam engine had two belt pulleys. The larger diameter flywheel pulley drove the saw and the smaller diameter outboard pulley moved the carriage back and forth on 32-foot long rails. The sawmill ran with a crew of three to five men. The steam engine burned cord wood. The wheels were removed, but fortunately kept nearby. The coal and water bunkers were discarded because they got in the way of the wood firing.

Howard and his two sons ran the sawmill from 1915 to 1938. Howard died in 1938.

After his death, the sawmill and its steam power plant were purchased by Montana Polytechnical College (Rocky Mountain College). They operated the sawmill to teach sawmill engineering. The U.S. Government took over the sawmill and ran it from 1944 to 1946 to cut mine timbers, which were needed for the nearby chromium mine. A teacher from the college bought the sawmill from the government at the end of the war. He ran it for two years and then shut it down. When the teacher died, the Marsfield family inherited the sawmill.

It is at this point that many of these early steam engines met an untimely end. Fortunately for no. 26701, George bought the sawmill and this Case from the family for $1,000 in 1950.

George ran the sawmill and the associated logging operation from 1950 to 1958. There was a good supply of timber within high-wire logging distance and the sawmill never moved from its 1915 location. The government closed the forest to logging in 1958 and ordered the sawmill and the steam engine off the land. The boiler was given its annual inspection by Pat Whelan, the Montana boiler inspector, in 1958. It was in good operating condition when it was shut down. This was the last time the boiler made steam.
At this time George reinstalled the wheels and running gear, and using a Caterpillar D-9 bulldozer pulled the Case out of the woods to Herb Russel’s ranch between Nye and Livingston. It sat out in the rain on the Limestone Ranch from 1958 to 1978.
In 1978, George had the Case loaded on a flatbed truck and hauled to his yard in Absarokee. It sat in the open, peeking out from behind George’s house, for the next 23 years. I purchased the Case in April 2001, had it loaded on a lowboy trailer and hauled to my ranch in White City, Ore., where I began the two year refurbishment.

A New Owner

As with most projects, I can honestly say that if I had known what I was getting into I might not have done it.
However, the fact of the matter is that I did buy George’s engine. I really didn’t do any research before buying the Case: I thought having a steamer would be fun and when I saw this one it looked like it needed a new owner. The engine was sort of just stuffed amongst the other “collectibles” of George’s life, and piles of stuff just grew up around it.

From my inexperienced eye, the Case looked mostly complete. Of course there were some visible problems: the bullet holes in the heat exchanger, the front of the cylinder hanging off, lots of rust and so on. Mostly it appeared that if someone didn’t take care to restore it, this engine would become just another piece of junk rusting away.  
Bringing History Home 

The project immediately began to show its size; what seemed to be an easy job (just put it on a trailer) became much more than that. First of all everything was stuck, and despite all our efforts to make the engine roll it wouldn’t budge. Lowboys are expensive and having one sitting around I could hear the “ding ding” of the cash register. We finally determined it would be easier to lift the Case and place it on the lowboy. Wrong again. At 10 tons it wouldn’t lift with the Cat 966 front end loader we had begged from a local construction site. So we lifted just the back and voilà, rolled it on its front wheels onto the trailer. Next, permits were required because it is exactly 6 inches over width.

The trucking company did a great job, and one day later it rolled into my driveway. I thought I was prepared to roll it off and had a forklift there to, once again, raise the firebox end and roll it off. No dice. The forklift wasn’t big enough to do the job. So I brought out a John Deere MFWD tractor to drag it off. Still no dice. The driver was a patient man and the bill had been agreed on in advance.

I figured the next best thing would be to start the disassembly of the stuck parts right then and there. So, that’s what we did. Fortunately, we found in short order that the rear wheels would move, and by disengaging the drive gears from the spur gears we could roll the engine back. And that’s how we discovered that all the drive engine parts were totally rusted together. But the first step was complete, the Case now sat outside of my shop. Little did I realize it would sit in that spot for the next two years!
Read part two of this story covering the restoration of the Case 75 HP in the next issue of Steam Traction.

Contact Joseph Berto at 10984 Meadows Road, White City, OR 97503; e-mail: managementc@hotmail.com