Antique Defies Rust, Lives Again

Steel tubing

Steel tubing carries oil to the bearings of the engine, which will be displayed at Hawkeye Antique Acres.

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Staff Writer, Des Moines Register Photos by Harry Baumert, © 1999 The Des Moines Register and Tribune Company. Reprinted with permission.

The following article was sent to us by Francis C. Cox, 506 10th Street S.W., Humboldt, Iowa 50548-1950. It is reprinted with permission from the Des Moines Register, where it appeared in July 1999.

One of Iowa's heaviest and most unusual antiques goes on exhibit this week, fulfilling a dream that Jim Hamilton thought he might never see. The antique is a 150-ton Corliss steam engine that once generated electricity for convicts at the Iowa State Penitentiary at Fort Madison. Hamilton, now 72, of Des Moines, helped dismantle the machine in 1982, when it was hauled to Des Moines in a move that required 11 trips by heavy trucks.

The massive engine gathered rust outside a Des Moines restaurant for a time, then was brought to Hawkeye Antique Acres, four miles south of Waukee on Interstate Highway 80. About 40 volunteers have helped rebuild the machine, toiling thousands of hours to make long-struck mechanical parts run freely again. The workers finally got the lumbering engine operating in September for the first time in many years, and its prowess will be demonstrated the next Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the Old Time Power and Machinery Show. The event is hosted at Hawkeye Antique Acres by the non profit Central Hawkeye Gas Engine & Tractor Association.

'We're just lucky we got it running,' said Lyle Stoberl, a retired farmer from Stuart. 'It was called 'The Sleeping Giant.' The day we got it started, they said, 'We woke the Giant!''

Jim Hamilton shows off the champagne bottle that he, Roger Greever and others emptied last September when they finally started their giant steam engine at Hawkeye Antique Acres.

Hamilton, who operates a Des Moines towing and crane service, said that when he finally saw the machine's flywheel begin to spin, 'My heart just went into my stomach, I just loved it.'

'We didn't think we would live long enough to see that happen.'

The coal-fired steam engine was one of two identical 1,000 HP units built by Murray Iron Works of Burlington. The other engine was shipped to China. The machine was made in the late 1930s or early 1940s and it was reportedly used at the Fort Madison maximum-security prison until the 1950s. The huge machine then sat motionless for years because it was cheaper to buy electricity from other sources.

In 1982, officials with the state's Surplus Property Division tried to donate the steam engine to the State Historical Museum in Des Moines and to the Midwest Old Threshers' Reunion & Museum in Mount Pleasant.

Lyle Stoberl is dwarfed by the 150-ton steam engine that once generated electricity for the Iowa State Penitentiary. Stoberl helped resurrect the engine.

But there were no takers.

Finally, the Waukee steam engine enthusiasts acquired the machine for $1.00 after a Des Moines businessman dropped his plans to develop a museum.

Although everyone agreed the old steam engine was a magnificent artifact, it was no small task to get it running. At times, groups of six to 10 men used a 40-ton crane to put some of the biggest parts in place. They poured 135 cubic yards of concrete to build a base with steel reinforcing bars.

'It's big,' said Dick Stacy, a retired Adel farmer who worked on the project.

The steam engine is so huge that a machine shed was built around it.

An empty champagne bottle hangs on the wall adjacent to the steam engine. After workers got the machine running last fall, they celebrated by driving to Waukee for dinner. Then they returned to Hawkeye Antique Acres and toasted their success.

'All in all, it was a lot of hard work,' Stacy said.