A Collector's Dream

Minneapolis engine

Minneapolis engine at Blackberry Historical Farm, Aurora, Illinois, June 1968.

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17837 Linden wood Road Linden wood, Illinois 61049

No matter which steam show you attend, you'll find an unofficial area you could call Engineer's Alley. During the 1985 Sycamore Steam Show, Engineer's Alley was abuzz with the schuttle-butt. A museum in Aurora, Illinois had a steam engine they wanted to get running. 'Anyone interested?' That was the first we heard of the 'Minnie'. When Joe and I returned home from a trip to the Chicago area in June 1986, we decided to look for the museum. Stopping at the west edge of Aurora we found the Blackberry Historical Farm. Turning off Galena Avenue toward the museum's entrance, we saw a large steam engine sitting on a cement pad.

We met with the current museum director, Dave Heffernan. Dave led us to the engine's location in the northwest corner of the park. It was surrounded by several buildings, a large chain-link fence and shrubbery. Joe opened the smoke box door to check the front flue sheet. He almost fell over after cleaning some soot away from the bottom rivets. The heads were like new, not worn almost smooth like you find in some engines. The firebox was the same. It appeared at first glance that the boiler might be in good shape. We kept looking. How many times does a person see gears without any wear on a steam traction engine? A few things were missing. The tanks were gone as well as the tool box, gear oiler and steam gauge. Minneapolis Engine #8580 appeared to be 24 or 28 HP. The first engine we'd ever seen in nearly new condition. Dave asked what we thought. We asked if we could come back at another time to do a boiler cleanup, closer inspection and then decide if the engine was 'salvagable'. That was fine with Dave.

The next month Joe, his father Howard Somers of Lindenwood, Illinois and Jon Gould of Naperville, Illinois met at the museum to flush out the boiler and start the inspection. After removing all the hand-holes the guys started to scrape out the slag that had fallen to the bottom of the firebox and boiler. Garden hoses alone weren't going to have enough power to get the job done. Dave came over to watch the progress and offered the use of the museum's power pressure sprayer. When the boiler was clean, the guys could see it looked like new inside. They filled the boiler, put on a steam gauge, hooked up the hand pump and took turns pumping. As the cold pressure approached 100 pounds the old piping started springing leaks like a sieve. Some of the valves had frozen and broken. Not all of the lines could be shut off. It got to the point that they couldn't pump fast enough to keep ahead of those leaks.

May 1987: 'Minnie' arrives at Somers Blossom Farm, Linden wood, IL on a Miller Cat trailer. Left rear wheel has 6 inches of wheel on trailer.

We talked to Dave and told him the steam engine could run again with some work. The boiler was sound. The engine proper needed a closer look than was possible that day. It was getting too late. Jon and Joe decided cleaning the gears and engine itself with the high pressure sprayer was out of the question. Silica sand was everywhere. At some point the museum had decided to sandblast the engine and give it a new paint job. Made a nice looking static display but sure didn't do the engine parts any good. Every inch of the engine was packed with sand or sand and grease. All the bearings, journals, rods and shafts would have to be completely cleaned before this engine was going to turn over again.

Since they couldn't do any more for the Minnie at the museum, Joe and Jon got permission to take some of the engine parts home to work on. Joe took the piston rod and head to have it polish ground. Jon took the valve gear home to work on at his shop. Like many folks, we became involved with local steam shows during most of the following summer months. A trip to the Michigan Steam Engine and Thresher's Club show at Mason, Michigan gave Joe a chance to talk to Harry Woodman-see about the Minnie. Harry told us the engine had to be a 24 horse because the bore and stroke was 10 x 11. When fall field work came up there wasn't time to do any more work on the engine that year.

Winter snows came and we settled down to a rest from the steam reunions and their responsibilities. That doesn't mean we forgot our steam friends. After several phone calls to get others' opinions, we concluded there was only one way to restore the engine properly. The work had to be done where the necessary heavy equipment was. There just wasn't any way to work at the museum. They didn't have the lifts, winches, building space or machine shops available. We explained to Dave how we needed to lift off the wheels and shafts to finish cleaning the engine. He agreed the best thing to do was to move the engine to our farm near Linden wood Illinois.

During the month of May 1987, plans were made to get the Minnie to the farm. The Park District employees took one day to get the chain-link fence cut and the iron beast loaded. Joe stayed home from work the next day to help unload it. Both he and his dad nearly had heart attacks when they saw the 10 ton dump truck and Miller Cat trailer pull into the yard with the Minnie leaning precariously to the left. Only six inches of the left rear wheel rested on the angle iron side of the trailer. How they ever got that engine to the farm without having it fall off the trailer, we'll never know. It was a delicate process to get the Minnie off that under-sized excuse for a steam engine trailer. Cables were stretched to the front and back of the engine. The trailer ramps were blocked. Slowly it moved down, off the trailer, without shifting sideways too much. Thank heaven for the deep cleats on the rear wheels. They gripped the ramps successfully. Once unloaded, Joe and Howard decided not to risk moving the Minnie any further until the sand had been cleaned from the rear wheels and differential. No need to create problems by letting the sand grind the shafts and axles.

Summer 1987. Joe Somers working on reassembly of Minneapolis engine. Trenton Somers, sitting on rear wheel, makes sure Dad's doing it right.

It's not everyday someone has a steam engine in their yard that looks like it just came out of the factory. At least not in our day and age. The first couple of nights after he got home from work, Joe would walk around the engine deciding where to start. Blocking up the rear of the engine came first. The rear wheels and gearing came off. After cleaning and replacing the rear wheels we moved the engine so the canopy could be removed. We used a lot of elbow grease and a steam cleaner from that point on. Fortunately the sandblasting did no permanent damage to the gears or shafts. The stub axles had the original milling marks three quarters of the way around yet. The mechanic's original scribe mark could be seen on the crosshead guide. There didn't seem to be any wear on the gears. This engine hadn't seen a lot of hard use. Except for its faded outward appearance, this engine was a 'collector's dream!'

It took over 150 hours of work and 600 miles of travel before the dream moved under its own steam. Howard went to Jon's to get the valve gear. He also made many trips to Rock-ford for supplies and parts. The hours were spent using brushes, scrapers and solvent to clean the dried, packed grease and sand from every crack and crevice. After all the gears, rods, bearings, shafts, etc. were cleaned, reassembly started. Piping, injectors and valves were repaired or replaced. Finally in July we tried another hydro with a small fire in the firebox. As the heat increased more tightening and adjustments took place. 'CRACK!!' The sight glass broke. Sandblasting had fractured the glass. That meant another trip to town and a couple more hours of work. The boiler hydroed 1 times operating pressure without any leaks. The Minnie was ready for her first state boiler inspection. We didn't have time to find tanks for this year's show so we 'fudged' using barrels for coal and water. We took time out for another trip to the 1987 Michigan Show where Joe acquired a stack screen from Mr. Graham Sellers of Cold-water, Michigan.

Less than a week before the 1987 Sycamore Show, our area's state boiler inspector made a trip out to look over the Minneapolis. He noted that the boiler's condition was better than most engines of its age. The code boiler was granted its original 150 pounds pressure. That was one of the happiest moments in the restoration. The Minnie got a new pop-off valve and was fired for the first time in almost twenty years. Things looked like they were going to work well. As the pressure rose we noticed more and more steam escaping from the throttle valve. Joe moved the engine about ten feet when the valve started turning on its threads. No amount of adjustment alleviated the problem.

The smiles from the thrill of seeing such an engine move again after standing still for so long were replaced by concerned frowns. Joe let the throttle cool. A closer look showed it had previously been frozen, broken and not accurately repaired. An eighth of an inch difference on one side of the body caused it to bind. That made using the throttle difficult. Rather than purchase a new one at that point, we decided to try and fix it again. Quick phone calls to Paul Anderman of Oswego and Larry Merek, of Downers Grove, led to a plan of action. Joe took the valve to Larry, who took it to Paul's machine shop in Plainfield. Paul adjusted the valve seat so it was as close to true as possible. Time was getting short. There were only three more days before the show.

Monday the engine was hauled to the Taylor Marshall Farm, home of the Northern Illinois Steam Power Show at Sycamore. Paul brought the repaired valve to the show Thursday morning. By that afternoon the Minnie was back in running order. Joe engineered while Dennis Christansen of Peotone, Illinois fired. Anxious to hear the single cylinder talk, they belted the engine up to the Flink fan. We enjoyed watching how well she handled pulling a load.

In spite of the torrential rains that weekend, we had fun at the show. Evening and morning rains were followed by hot, humid sunny afternoons. Because of her 'like-new' lugs, the engine was one of the few which could move through the semi-dry mud during the afternoons. This meant it was also one of the few which could get to the water tank. Saturday evening she put on the spark show. Before the show closed Sunday, Larry, Paul and Joe mounted a huge factory whistle on the engine. Larry owns the whistle which used to belong to the Western Electric Plant in Cicero, Illinois. With 150 pounds of steam behind it, the whistle blast made everyone sit up and take notice. Many steam enthusiasts and engineers came up to Joe and commented on the engine. Concensus? The Minneapolis was a collector's find. Its only faultthey didn't find it in their collections.

There's more work to be done before restoration is complete. But then, is restoration work ever done? Sitting for so many years at the museum has taken its toll on the flues. Plowing this past show season proved more than the tubes could handle. Unfortunately, the museum never planned any special threshing days at the park, so we could show them what type of crowd pleasing presentation the engine could produce. Now, they aren't sure it's worth the expense to replace the flues. We feel it would be a terrible waste of an excellent engine to let it sit on a cement pad again, exposed to all Mother Nature can give.

While the museum is deciding what it wants to do, we've been learning more about the history of Minneapolis engine #8580. We've located the original missing stack screen, tanks, gear oiler, tool box and manual, as well as the man who says he still owns the engine! But, that's another story.