A Brief History of The Utica Steam Engine and Boiler Works of Utica, NY1831-1983

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R.D. 2, Box 842 West Win field, New York 13491

What was to become one of the most varied and interesting companies in central New York was founded in 1831 by Philo Curtis, Sr. It occupied a large site on Whitesboro Street and was directly on the old Erie Canal. Until quite recently, the old out lines of the canal basin could be easily traced to the west of the building. Canal boats could leave the canal and tie up to the company dock to load or discharge coal, iron and manufactured items. It has also been stated that at one time there was a winch anchored nearby which would drag canal boats out of the basin and either inside or close to the works for re pairs. When the Erie was superseded by the Barge Canal, located to the north about a half mile, the old Erie was filled in and became Oriskany Boulevard, so named as it led to the village of Oriskany and the Oriskany battlefield, site of one of the bloodiest battles of the American revolution.

As originally initiated, the business was primarily a machine shop, but when Philo Curtis Jr. joined the firm a boiler shop and foundry were added. At this time the Utica area was a fast growing center for a vast array of industries. Many of these were manufacturers of heavy machinery for mills of all descriptions. Many foundries were also located here, producing everything from parlor stoves to gristmill machinery. There were also other steam related firms in Utica, such as the large Utica Steam Gauge Company, and the extensive locomotive headlight business of Irwin Williams, which occupied a five story building and at one time was turning out 1,600 coal oil and kerosene burning headlights per year.

Under the management of the Curtises, the business continued to grow until it was one of the largest concerns in the area. Later it was bought and operated by Joel Omens, who had started out in the boiler shop. He operated the company until about 1896 when the business was incorporated and ownership transferred to Mr. Tom McKough and Mr. Will McCann.

When Mr. McKough died in 1919, his interest in the company passed on to his wife, Florence Fisher McKough. Needing help to carry on the business she called upon her brother, Benjamin James Fisher. He was operating, at that time, the Merrimac Mills in Huntsville, Alabama. It was recently related to this writer the experiences of the long trip from Alabama in the rear seat of a Buick touring car with his two brothers. One feature of the trip was going aboard the night boat, car and all, from Cleveland to Buffalo.

Within a year or two Will McCann passed away, and the firm was operated solely by Mr. Fisher. He suffered a heart attack in the 1940s and asked his son Morgan to temporarily operate the business. This task he accepted, not dreaming he would run the company for almost 40 years. He was joined in the business by his brothers, Edwin and Ben; Ben later left to form his own company, the still-operating Oneida County Boiler Works.

As the age of steam and heavy industry passed from the central New York scene, the company was forced to seek other areas in which to operate. One of these was structural steel. The local high school here in West Winfield was constructed in the 1970s using steel fabricated and erected by Utica Steam Engine Company.

It was my good fortune to have been able to wit ness some of the operations of this company. Through the good graces of Morgan Fisher, I was able to stroll through the building on many occasions. Of course steam engines and boilers were no longer being produced, but the items they did work on would stagger the imagination. The foundry operation was very large and I remember dump trucks arriving with old engine blocks from the junkyard across Oriskany Boulevard to add to the charge in the Cupola. Eventually the. foundry part was phased out due to the high costs of conforming to health and safety rules. These regulations were the cause of the demise of many other foundries about the same time. The general ironwork operations were also fascinating, with huge lathes, milling machines, etc. in operation. Two large blacksmith forges were generally in operation as well. To illustrate the size of some of their machines, they had a metal brake capable of handling steel 14 feet wide!

One time I observed a large amount of railroad boxcar wheels and axles in the shop. They were being hoisted in some of their big lathes and being turned true. Upon inquiry I found that they were using them for the rollers for an overhead crane they were building. This was to pass over the top of a nuclear reactor to replace the core rods. Almost anything was possible at Utica Steam Engine.

After many successful years the firm was sold in 1979 to a company called Heat Extractor Company. They had developed and manufactured a device which recovered the lost heat going up the stack from large boilers and also scrubbed the air to cut down on stack emissions. For reasons I am not aware of, the company did not survive and was bought by a European firm in 1983.

So ended 152 years of operation turning out everything imaginable from portable and stationary boilers and engines in the 19th century to reactor gear in the 20th. Today the ancient stone and brick buildings are no more, the victims of arson and vandalism. So passes the relic from an earlier age and so it has always been. Many are the products they produced that still exist, ranging from a very early portable steamer in the Kingston, Ontario museum to the steelworks in modern buildings.