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After Four Years Running on the Road the Pawnee Steam School Returns to its Roots

Pawnee Steam School

Students at the Pawnee Steam School give their full attention during a session at this year's school.

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Steam schools aren't new, and neither is the issue of steam safety. But with the tragedy of Medina fresh in their minds, owners and operators of steam engines are pushing a little harder to educate themselves and others on critical points of safety and maintenance.

In a post-Medina world, many of us are re-evaluating the role of steam schools and their importance in the steam hobby. As a relative newcomer to steam, I was particularly interested in attending a steam school this year, so on March 22 I headed to Pawnee, Okla., for the 2002 Pawnee Steam School.

Pawnee Background

Hosted by the Oklahoma Steam Threshers and Gas Engine Association, the Pawnee school's modest beginnings go back to 1982. Founded by Chady Atteberry and the late Ivan Burns, the school drew two students that first year. Interest grew with time, but the school stayed relatively small, with an average of 15 to 20 students, mostly local steamers, attending in a given year.

But in the last five years the school has grown rapidly, aided in large measure by the decision five years ago to take the school on the road. That decision was a turning point for the school, enabling it to help educate steamers who might not otherwise make the trip to Pawnee and helping to build the school's presence within the steam community.

The last time the school was held in Pawnee was 1998, and in the intervening years the Antique Steam and Gas Engine Club in Booneville, Ind., the Pioneer Engineer's Club in Rushville, Ind., and the Lathrop Antique Car, Tractor and Engine Club in Lathrop, Mo., respectively, have hosted the school. Approximately 130 people from 23 states made the trek to Pawnee this year, traveling from as far away as Virginia, Washington and California to share in the collective knowledge so generously provided by the instructors assembled for this year's school. As with most steam schools in the hobby, instructors at Pawnee receive no compensation for their time. Dedicated steamers to the last man, the instructors at Pawnee possess a breadth of knowledge that can only be garnered through time and experience, and the opportunity to help educate members of the steam community in matters practical and critical to the safe operation of steam engines would appear to be payment enough for them.


'It's a lifetime study,' says school founder Chady Atteberry, 'You never learn it all.' Chady, who has been around steam engines all his life, opened up this year's class, discussing the history of the steam hobby and giving some historical background on steam engines and steam engine development. 'Getting along' with your steam engine is important, Chady stressed, and part of that is knowing your equipment, understanding the risks of operation and working toward keeping your engine in safe operating condition.

This has always been a goal for instructor Harold Stark, and some 10 years ago he created an annual inspection check sheet and a 20-point list of safety rules and recommendations. That list was pulled into the Pawnee Steam School textbook for the first time at the Rushville school, and is included in the steam school textbook to this day. A cohesive and comprehensive list of issues every steam operator should have at the front of his or her mind, the chief boiler inspector of Illinois is recommending its general adoption by all clubs and shows in Illinois.

Harold also has a specialized interest in steam injectors and injector repair, a subject he's well versed in from years of restoring injectors for steam owners around the country. Harold takes his work seriously, and any injector he repairs is shipped to its owner with a letter detailing what Harold found and what he did to bring the injector back to proper working order. 'His repair letters,' says Larry Creed, 'are a sermon, telling you what's taking your injector to hell, and the path to salvation.'

Judging Boiler Condition

Brain Vaughn (left) and Bob Gold of B & B Boiler Restorations point out corrosion and stress cracking on boiler plates. Photo by mark corson.

Bob Gold and Brian Vaughn of B&B Boiler Restoration in Greensburg, Ind., conducted a fascinating session on judging boiler condition. With sections of weak, corroded and stressed boilers as graphic displays of the types of ills that befall old boilers, Bob and Brian discussed with students the many ways corrosion sets in, showing where to look for corrosion and how corrosion ultimately manifests itself.

A boiler is a pretty tough environment, and when you add in the effects of time it's easy to see why boilers can weaken, whether from the eroding effect on metal from expansion and contraction (such as the grooving that can occur on the flange of a firebox door or on a tube sheet) or from the corrosive action of ash and moisture (such as often occurs at the firebox and front tube sheet).

Water leaks are, of course, an obvious sign of problems, and repeating a phrase that's almost a mantra for him, 'nothing happens for no reason,' Brian constantly stressed the importance of thoroughly investigating the cause of any leak and making sure repairs are thorough and comprehensive.

Steam Gauges and Steam Oil

A jeweler by trade, Mace Archer has been working with steam gauges for decades, and he's well known for his restoration work on gauges. Drawing from his years of gauge restoration, and working with gauges he brought for the school, Mace guided students through a primer on gauge construction and operation, detailing the items in a gauge most likely to fail - and why - and showing students how he calibrates gauges to ensure proper readings. Mace showed students the correct way to disassemble a gauge and the process he goes through in examining a gauge for needed repairs.

Larry Creed launched into a comprehensive discourse on the proper selection and use of steam oil, a critical element in ensuring effective and safe operation of a steam engine. Explaining the importance of steam oil ratings and the ingredients that make up effective steam oil, Larry counseled students on issues concerning the proper point at which steam oil should be introduced into the system and how to 'read' engine parts to determine if proper lubrication is being achieved. 'Buying a good cylinder oil and turning up your lubricator,' Larry says, 'is the cheapest insurance you can get for a steam engine.'

Steam Piping and Water Chemistry

Focusing on the merits of different types of piping available and its material content, Ross Staggs led students through an informative discussion on selecting and properly installing boiler piping. Ross cautions against using imported pipe (due to its tendency of having a high remelt content), and stresses the need to use only schedule 80 pipe, never schedule 40. Due to its thinner wall thickness, schedule 40 pipe is inherently weaker than schedule 80. Add to this the loss of material when threading pipe ends and it becomes clear why schedule 80 should always be used for piping steam.

Pawnee Steam School dean of students Joe Graziana leads students through a class on governor maintenance, adjustment and repair.

Ray Vaughn led an informative session on boiler water chemistry, his 35 years as a high school chemistry teacher giving him a firm grasp of the subject. He advised the class on aerating water to push excess chlorine out, and gave tips on treating water for boiler cleaning and maintenance. Sodium sulfite, for instance, can be useful to dissolve oxygen from boiler water, minimizing the harmful effects of oxygen-pitting corrosion.

As with every session at the school, Ray stressed the need for following a thorough regimen to ensure proper maintenance. From first fill to final drain, Ray walked students through proper boiler care and maintenance. Ray advocates firing boilers as soon as practical after filling (he says enough to show pressure is adequate), a practice that helps drive off excess oxygen. He also advised against leaving water in boilers for prolonged periods, as oxygen will start dissolving into the water after a few weeks, allowing corrosion to set in.

Governors and Tube Rolling

Dean of students Joe Graziana has been restoring steam governors for years, and with sample Pickering governors as demonstrators Joe explained in detail the inner workings of a steam governor and how to assess its condition. Showing the class how speed changers work, Joe stressed the importance of first having a properly set up and functioning governor before trying to tune governor speed with the speed changer. Joe cautions against ever trying to change engine speed by changing the tension on the governor's spiral spring, an exercise that essentially negates any base-line calibration and pretty much ensures an improperly working governor.

Brian Vaughn's session on tube rolling covered the basic requirements for rolling and seating tubes, along with practical pointers on removing and installing tubes. When he's replacing boiler tubes, Brian says he works a section at a time, never removing all the tubes at once. For one, it's surprisingly easy to run tubes through the wrong holes in the firebox tube sheet and the front tube sheet, and additionally, it's hard on the tube sheets if, for instance, you cut all the tubes at one end, leaving their dead weight hanging on the tube sheet.

For these reasons Brian recommends working in sections, and he says this is an excellent time to check the condition of the tube sheets. As tubes are removed it's easier to closely inspect the sheets for cinder-cutting at the firebox sheet and ash corrosion at the front tube sheet.

At last count we knew of approximately a dozen steam schools around the U.S., and while these schools vary in size and scope, they all share a common goal of ensuring the safe operation and public display of steam engines. The long-term health and success of the steam hobby hinges on a healthy respect of the inherent dangers of steam and the responsibilities steam operators incur every time they fire up, and it's clear there's common agreement on this. And it's also clear there's agreement that the best way to meet this challenge is through education, a challenge that's being met at the Pawnee school.

The school hits the road again next year, heading to Forest City, Iowa, and we'll post the dates once they have been set. Also, the Pawnee Steam School textbook is available to those who didn't attend the school. The book, which is both a guide to the school curriculum and a collection of steam essentials, can be ordered separately by writing to Larry Creed, RR 13, Box 209, Brazil, IN 47834. Cost is $12.95, and it's money well spent.

Special thanks to Mark Corson for helping with photographic duties at Pawnee.

Richard Backus is editor of Iron-Men Album. Contact him at: 1503 SW 42nd St., Topeka, KS 66609-1265, or e-mail: