A Big Steam Engine and Blue Skies

A 1925 Skinner Universal industrial steam engine gets a new lease on life.

Skinner Universal steam engine

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Clear blue skies, palm trees and Arizona desert sands created a perfect setting for a reunion of huge proportions between engine and engineer last April at the Tucson, Ariz.-based Power from the Past Association's spring show. Wilbur White, who worked for the Apache Powder Co. in Benson, Ariz., was reunited with the Skinner Universal steam power plant he operated for 18 years until he left the company in 1966. After a quick inspection around the massive 14- by 22-foot engine and a check of the gauges, he happily fired it up for the first time in honor of its newfound home at the Pima County Fairgrounds in Tucson.

'It's bigger than I remember it being,' Wilbur remarked during the event.

'Big' is usually the word people associate with it the first time they set eyes on this Erie, Pa.-made industrial steam engine - and for good reasons. The 1925 Skinner Universal Uniflow steam-powered electricity generator utilizes a heavy-duty 22-inch-diameter floating piston that directly drives a 250 KW AC generator. With a horsepower range of 100 to 400 and a 7-foot-4-inch flywheel that runs at 200 RPM, the 65,000-pound engine is among the biggest steam engines anyone in the old-engine club had seen in Arizona. But before Wilbur could fire up the old engine, it had to be retrieved from its original home 50 miles away in a dynamite processing facility.

Engine Origins

In 1926, R.E. Huthsteiner of El Paso, Texas, sold the Skinner engine brand new for $10,260 to Apache Powder Co. for use as the plant's primary power source. The engine-powered generator was the sole supplier of power until the factory added a six-cylinder Liberty engine in 1958. The two power plants worked in tandem until the Skinner shattered its main bearing in 1981 and was decommissioned by Apache where it sat until members of the Power from the Past Association became aware of it in 1999.

Curtis Dupee intently stares at the huge 1925 Skinner Universal steam engine that was pulled out of a dynamite processing plant in Benson, Ariz.

Club member Gary Sandve, Saint David, Ariz., says the club heard of the giant engine after his wife, Pat, bumped into an Apache Powder Co. supervisor at the grocery store. 'Pat and Mr. Fisher happened to see each other at the grocery store and were discussing tractors and engines, when conversation turned toward a large engine at the Apache plant,' Gary recalls. 'After I heard about it, I quickly 'got on my horse' and went to talk to the man in charge at Apache.'

Wilbur White, who operated the Skinner Universal steam engine for 18 years, was given the satisfaction of starting it up for the engine's 'maiden' run at Power from the Past Association's spring show last April.

This brass nameplate is the only tag left on the Skinner engine. All others were missing when club members moved it to the fairgrounds.

At first, the processing facility was hesitant to let it go. But as talks between the two parties developed, Apache realized it was a win-win situation, says club member Jim Blair. 'It was a combination of Apache wanting to get more room in their powerhouse and us negotiating to get it,' he says. 'They had seen our 1897 Nordberg steam engine set up at the fairgrounds and knew we'd take good care of it, so we acquired it.'

The Elephant in the Room

Securing the permission to take the huge engine was just the start of a monumental task. Extracting and transporting the Skinner was easier said than done. In 1999, about 12 club members sacrificed their weekends to disassemble and move the steam engine from its longtime home at the factory's powerhouse. But before work could begin, Gary says, Apache required club members to complete a safety class and supply their own tools for the extraction in order to reduce liability for any accidents that might occur during the heavy-duty transportation. Once they were cleared, they launched into a major disassembly that lasted six months and required the crew to call upon all of their resources, from flexible schedules, understanding families, tools and time to heavy equipment such as tractor trailers, cranes and forklifts.

The mammoth steam engine was disassembled into four major sections: the main casting, which included the cylinder and piston; the flywheel, which was broken into two pieces, weighing 13,000 pounds; the crankshaft and alternator rotor, weighing 12,000 pounds; and the starter for the alternator, attached to the outside of the rotor, weighing 6,000 pounds. To make matters even more difficult, the crew discovered the engine was sitting over a deep pit that housed the flywheels and the business-end of the engine where all the piping connected to the engine, Gary says. The main casting - cylinder and piston - was then carefully set on machine rollers and pushed onto a rollback semi truck. 'After this huge, heavy case was put on machinery rollers,' Gary notes, 'literally only seven people were required to push it to the truck.'

Most crews would've been hesitant to move a 32-ton piece of machinery, but Jim wasn't so pessimistic. 'Sure it was a chore ... but it really wasn't at the time,' he admits. 'We enjoyed working with club members to get it done. In fact, one Apache worker was amazed at our progress and knowledge to get it done so quickly.' Gary echoed Jim's assessment of the extraction job as well. 'One Apache supervisor said after we were done that they wished they could get their people to work that hard,' he recalls with a chuckle.

The Skinner engine's original boiler was left behind, Gary says, because of its huge size and because it was coated with a layer of asbestos insulation. Even without the boiler, the Skinner engine required four semi tractor-trailer loads to haul it off. Many minor parts such as fittings, seals and smaller components were moved with club members' pickup trucks. 'Some of those bolts took two people to carry them,' Gary recalls.

The 1925 Skinner steam engine made its debut under the clear blue skies of the Arizona desert at the spring show on the Pima County Fairgrounds in Tucson, Ariz.

Restoration

Once the Skinner steam engine was delivered to the Pima County Fairgrounds, club members began their assessment of the engine and how to proceed rebuilding it. With no boiler and foundation, and a shattered main bearing, the club's work had only begun, and no one knew if the engine's reassembly would be problematic.

Aside from the obvious problems, the engine looked well-preserved, both Gary and Jim say. Not many parts needed replacement because the engine was stored indoors, out of the weather. 'It was sticky, but not stuck,' Gary adds. All of the brass nameplates, however, were gone except for one indicating the original seller as R.E. Huthsteiner of El Paso, Texas. Evidently, someone 'borrowed' the other nameplates. Brass plates were attached to the engine before the club took control, but were curiously missing after they removed the engine. The generator was worn and the wiring looked ratty, Gary says.

Foundation work for the enormous engine began in late 1999 while other club members began brainstorming ideas to find a boiler and fabricate a main bearing. In 2002, Jim - a machinist by trade - and others began work on the main babbit bearing, which they fabricated themselves. 'That bearing was a lot of fun to do,' Jim says. The finished bearing for the Skinner engine is made of four pieces and, put together, measures 20 inches in diameter each piece weighing between 75 and 100 pounds.

In April 2003 the club's meticulous attention to detail and hard work was rewarded when the 10-foot tall engine was reassembled. 'It seemed rare to go together so good,' Jim remembers. The main bearing was a success and all of the parts were retrofitted relatively easily. Only the generator has yet to be restored.

Blowing Steam Again at Last

The Skinner engine was finished in time for Power from the Past's spring show in April. The club rented a 20 HP riveted boiler in Wagon Mound, Ariz., giving the piston 80 pounds of pressure for display purposes. Jim says the club would like to purchase a 75 to 100 HP boiler for optimum performance, but one hasn't been located yet.

Both Jim and Gary were impressed to see the huge engine run again after so many years. The men agree, however, that the highlight of the engine's return was seeing Wilbur operate the engine. Sadly, Wilbur passed away in July 2003.

Ironically, the finished Skinner engine, originally manufactured to produce up to 400 HP, only powered two 1-1/2-volt Christmas lights during its maiden run. That may not be the brightest bulb the engine ever powered, but after all the hard work and perseverance to save the old Skinner, seeing Wilbur start the engine he once powered in the Apache Powder Co. plant brightened everyone's day who saw it.

For more information about the Skinner steam engine or Power from the Past Association's annual spring show in Tucson, Ariz., contact Jim Blair at 1631 W. Pine St., Tucson, AZ 85704 2233; (520) 621-2598; e-mail: jlblair@engr.arizona.edu