Article In March/April Issue Draws Heated Response

Content Tools

In our March/April 1986 issue, we reprinted an article entitled 'The Good Old Days' on pages 10 and 11. The article was a verbatim reprint from the journal of the National Board of Boiler and Pressure Vessel Inspectors, and appeared with a photo of a steam traction engine mishap purported to have happened 'last year.' In the text, it was claimed that the accident had been fatal to the engineer and his grandson. Publication of this article has drawn heated resonse from numerous subscribers, and we shall attempt here to report on that response and the results of our research which followed it.

Our first phone call on the subject came from John J. Holp, Jr., of 7543 Delisle-Foreman Rd., Arcanum, OH 45304, who was of considerable assistance in getting the true facts associated with the tale. John noted that the photo in the picture had appeared in an earlier issue of IMA, and that the incident therefore could not possibly have happened 'last year' as the article stated. Later, in a letter, John stated his opinion of the article, which was that:

'The article and boiler law suggestions made us all look like idiots and I, for one was not impressed. My personal opinion is that we are attacking the safety problem in the wrong manner. True, there are a few boilers that need some attention and should be taken care of. However, our primary objective should be to educate the new or inexperienced operators in proper boiler safety. This article has definitely hurt our hobby, so let's pull together and get to the bottom of this.'

The Accident Picture

Because Mr. Holp had a news clipping identifying the source of the accident in the photo as Mitchell, South Dakota, we were able to get the true details of the accident from both the local newspaper, the Republic, and from the owner of the 20 HP Case engine involved in the unfortunate mishap.

The accident occurred on July 17, 1971, during the first annual Corn Palace Stampede and Rodeo Parade, in Mitchell, South Dakota. No one was killed in the accident, but Arnold 'Creepy' Janssen, then 53, and his son Terry, then 18, of Emery were critically injured. In addition, 7 others were injured and listed in good condition, and 2 men were treated for minor injuries and released from the hospital. The accident occurred at 806 N. Main Street in the Firestone store parking lot while Janssen was getting ready for the parade.

A July 26, 1971, article in the Republic reported that a preliminary investigation of the accident showed that 'the bottom of the engine's water supply tank may have been rusted out.' The investigation was conducted by Carl M. Weiser who was said to be with the engineering department of a Minneapolis insurance firm. 'He inspects boilers and related apparatus for the state of Minnesota for insurance purposes,' the article said. Property damage from the accident included a piece of angle iron which was driven through the trunk of a car parked in the Firestone garage, and the blast also knocked out one of the firm's front windows.

Arnold 'Creepy' Janssen, the owner of the engine, is a John Deere dealer in Emery, South Dakota. He told us that 'The people who looked at it at the time first thing said we were low on water, but I had filled it above the crown sheet, higher than usual, and had injected more. The safety valve was welded it was that way when I got the engine.' Janssen said that the crown sheet was real thin, probably was just too old and should have been replaced. It had cold tested to 130. He had paraded it two weeks before the incident, only up to 60-65 pounds, and had threshed with it.

'I'll never believe I was low on water,' he said, 'I had 2 inches over the crown sheet and injected more.' Janssen lost a leg in the accident, but recovered, as did his son. He no longer collects steam engines, but still has the Case, and has not restored it. His current pride and joy is a 1932 Franklin air-cooled car he restored.'

The photo (which is not reprinted here again) used with the article had also been used on page 4 of the January/February 1975 issue of IMA, in an article about Art Rah, a Minnesota boiler inspector. In addition, it had been used in the book, Farm Steam Shows USA and Canada by Dana Close Jennings, published in 1972. Our attention to this use was first drawn by a letter from Don Hartmann of Hastings, Nebraska. In his letter, Don pointed out the version Jennings gave of the accident, saying '...Mr. Jennings clearly shows failure of the crown sheet, due to a plug being welded where the safety valve should have been as the cause, while your article has another less possible cause.'

Why Did IMA Print The Article?

As we stated in our introduction, the article came to us through a subscriber, Nick Buesch of RR 1, Box 172, Freeburg, Illinois 62243. Nick is employed by a midwest metal plate fabricator and sometimes 'gets his hands on' a copy of the National Board Bulletin, a sample of which he sent to us.

'I know your organization is as concerned as everyone else about boiler safety, inspections, etc.,' Nick wrote in his letter to us. 'I think an accident as talked about in this article gives our hobby a world of bad press. Since this must have happened in 1984, I would like to see IMA write some type of article explaining the cause and circumstances.'

'Although I realize the problems associated with boiler inspections,' Nick continued, 'and the necessary red tape involved, when one reads this article they can again begin to understand the reasoning for all rules & regulations put before us by state legislation.'

'I realize there may be lawsuits involved and the article may be delayed because of this, but please inform your readers of an important example which will be used against us.'

Inquiry Sent To National Board

On November 1, 1985, IMA editor Gerry Lestz wrote a letter to D. J. McDonald, executive director of the National Board of Boiler and Pressure Vessel Inspectors, in which he asked for permission for the reprint, the loan of the photograph, and details regarding the names and places of the accident. A reply came from P. G. Dawson, from the staff of the Bulletin, granting permission for reprint, sending the photo and stating, 'We cannot give permission to use names and places for your article.' At this time, we had no reason to believe that the photo had in fact not been taken last year, and in fact, the suggestions Mr. Buesch had made that 'there may be lawsuits involved,' seemed reasonable enough explanation for the Board's refusal to permit the use of names and places. It did occur to us that we probably would have known about an accident of this dimension, had it happened in 1984 or '85, but without reprinting the photograph, we would never have known for sure, and we had no reason to believe we were being misled.

The Responses We Drew

In response to the appearance of this article, we received numerous phone calls and letters, most of which were very helpful and informative. Some readers felt that the National Board, or some of their inspectors were lodging a propaganda campaign to attempt to shut down steam engine shows. We don't have room to print all of the letters, or mention all the calls, but will excerpt from them here.

Howard W. Miller of Rt. 2, Box 23, Liberty Center, Ohio 43532 wrote, 'I think that the article on the boiler explosion should have been thoroughly researched. It has caused a black mark on the hobby. The damage has been done. All I hope is that the truth about this explosion will be printed and whoever wrote this article could write a retraction and let the truth be known.'

We do not know, nor has the National Board told us, who wrote the article or how the picture came to be used with it. The official response from the board came to us from Richard E. Jagger, Director of Inspections whose letter is reprinted in its entirety:

In response to your letter regarding 'The Good Old Days' article, our face is red! We were obviously given misleading information and carelessly accepted it at face value. Please accept our sincere apology for this error and any inconvenience and embarrassment caused you.

Certainly we have learned a valuable lesson, however, I would hope the few erroneous lines do not detract from the useful and proficient message of the article. Rigid precautions and inspection procedures are always important regardless of past performance.

Thank you for bringing this matter to our attention. Your support in our common goal for greater boiler safety is appreciated.

Bill Kennedy of P.O. Box 695, Elizabeth, WV 26143 was another reader who recognized the photo as an old one, and criticized us for printing an article he considered to be 'in extremely poor taste.' Bill talked with many engine owners who were interested in getting this matter corrected, and had this to say about inspectors:

'I have owned engines myself for over fifteen years and have had state inspectors and appointed show inspectors look at my boilers. I have had inspectors that did not know which end to build a fire in. I also had an inspector who did not know a lapp seam from a butt strap and had one ask where the man hole was in the boiler so he could sit inside. I have also seen inspectors which think they know, make innocent people cut out stay bolts which were in excellent condition. These are just some first hand experiences I have had myself. I have talked to many other engine owners who have experienced the same type of situations. If the person does not know if his engine is safe himself, he should ask for assistance from someone with experience. There are many engineers who would help, if only asked.'

'I am not saying all inspectors are bad, but I have seen this type of thing tear shows and friends apart and this is very unfortunate for our hobby.'

Kennedy goes on to stress the need for proper education and offers this safety suggestion: 'I think that engine boilers should be washed out each fall and in the spring and at this time all hand hole plates removed and a thorough examination take place of stay bolts, sheets and rivet heads, new gasket and a hydrostatic test of 1 to 1 times working pressure with warm water. I believe, if you will check, that Federal law requires 1 times working pressure, but most states and shows in our area require 1 times working pressure, but the most important thing of all if, a competent operator.'

Some of our readers were more forceful in their condemnation of IMA for reprinting the article. Dr. Gerald Gysler Parker called the reprint 'an example of extreme irresponsibility on your part... you may state that you were simply reprinting that which someone else submitted but I feel that you are responsible for what appears in IMA and should have at the very least, given some editorial comment to attempt to get rid of the misinformation in the article.' While we were unaware at the time that the photo was an old one, or that the description of the mishap erroneous, possibly printing more of Nick Buesch's letter with the original text might have made our position and his intent more clear. 'I challenge you to give examples of 'antique' boiler explosions that have taken place solely because of failure of the structure of the boiler,' Dr. Parker says.

'Those of us that care about this hobby and its passage to our children do not take boiler safety lightly. Remember that it is the operator that will be the first to be destroyed in an explosion. We realize that proper inspection is all-important to safety. We realize that the licensing of operators and their proper training is important. We realize that boilers that have significant structural defects should not operate until the defect is repaired. There is a growing number of us that feel we should have more careful inspection and that it should be carried out by someone who is intimately familiar with the locomotive style boiler.'

Randy Schwerin, of Route 2, Sumner, Iowa, another strong advocate of boiler inspections (by competent inspectors) also recognized the photo, and claimed that from his examination of photos of the interior of the firebox after the accident, 'the crown sheet blew down and it wasn't because of the 'staybolts reduction in the cross sectional area because of corrosion' but because of low water and the over heating of the crown sheet... and as for the soft plug, well if there was one, it might have been in the engine tool box because it certainly wasn't in the crown sheet where it belonged. It had been replaced with a close nipple and a pipe cap.' (Mr. Janssen acknowledged that the safety valve was welded and that it had been before he acquired the engine.)

Mr. Schwerin did not think that the article was 'worth starting a fire in a Case engine with.'

On the positive side, Chady Atteberry of 131 Tobin Road, Blackwell, OK 74631 wrote to tell us of the account of the accident given in Jennings' book, and also to let us know of some developments in Oklahoma:

'There is no question that we need to respect a steam engine, you do not need to fear it. With proper boiler inspection and trained engineers a steam boiler is safe. In Oklahoma we have good boiler inspectors. They will not allow a boiler to be fired that is not safe... you can see that a pipe nipple is in place of the soft plug (in the photo). I can tell you a boiler inspector will not allow this at any show with state inspection.'

'The Oklahoma Steam Threshers at Pawnee, Oklahoma has a school on steam traction engines. Our president, Mr. Ivan Burns is very safety conscious. I know that Midwest Old Threshers at Mt. Pleasant, Iowa also has a school that is very good. I am sure other associations also hold schools but I am sure there is a lot that don't. I think we all agree that we need to think safety all the time.'

We have started to get news of clubs that are holding courses over a period of weeks, in steam traction engine operation and safety. There is another article in this issue about the course at Midwest, and we expect to hear for a future issue about a program in Dayton, Ohio. We would urge others to let us know what clubs are doing in this regard so we can spread the word.

Another reader who wrote to Nick Buesch, was Ken Majeski of Ellsworth, Wisconsin. Ken had some suggestions for boiler maintenance that we hope we'll be able to incorporate in a future article.

Summary

For forty years, IMA has been a magazine devoted to collectors of steam traction engines. From the time Elmer Ritzman began the magazine, it has been a forum for articles written by its readers, not by a staff of professional writers. In addition, readers have frequently submitted articles from other publications which have been reprinted when permission was granted.

While there certainly has been much criticism generated by the use of this article, much good has also come from it. We now know the facts surrounding the accident which was pictured. We are hearing good things about engine operation schools being started by clubs in different areas. We are seeing open discussion of the need for qualified operators, qualified inspectors, and safe equipment.

There is no need to dwell on what we at IMA might have done prior to publishing this article. We felt we exercised appropriate journalistic prudence. None of us recognized the photo, and we had no reason to believe that the National Board of Boiler and Pressure Vessel Inspectors would publish false or misleading information in their bulletin. We truly appreciate the quick response* which helped us to clear up the facts in time for this issue, and we now consider the matter closed.

*Others who wrote or called included John E. Wilhelm of Fort Wayne, IN; Stan Alber, Clark Lake, MI; Steve Denlinger, Brookville, OH; Andy Michels, Plentywood, MT; V. H. Stroud, Hutchinson, KS; John Schrock, Mason, MI; and C. E. Christian, New Carlisle, OH.