History of a C.H. Brown Stationary Steam Engine

Inventor and builder C.H. Brown developed the automatic cutoff steam engine; this 150 HP model powered a New Hampshire sawmill for almost 75 years.

C.H. Brown flywheel

One-half of the C.H. Brown flywheel gently touches ground as it's unloaded in Kent, Conn.

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Last summer our association, the Connecticut Antique Machinery Association, was very fortunate to receive a donation from Edward M. Clark of Littleton, N.H., in the form of a circa 1875 150 HP C.H. Brown & Co. horizontal stationary steam engine. For the past 50 years this steam engine had been on static display at Clark's Trading Post, a tourist site in Lincoln, N.H., and if you visited Clark's Trading Post - and Clark's trained bears - you would have seen this steam engine under a covered pavilion just behind the bear ring.

Charles H. Brown

C.H. Brown, inventor and builder, was born in Blackstone, R.I., in 1820. As a young man he formed a close association with another inventor, Charles Burleigh, when the two of them apprenticed together working for Boston engine builder Otis Tufts, a pioneer in steam engine design.

At this same time the Putnam Machine Co. of Fitchburg, N.H., got its first substantial boost from the manufacture of a gear-cutting machine invented by John Putnam. Following a disastrous fire in 1849 the company re-organized, and C.H. Brown, then only 29 years old, and Benjamin Snow Jr. came on as one-third partners. The partnership grew again in 1854 with Charles Burleigh becoming a partner in the company.

In 1855 the Putnam Machine Co. began manufacturing a steam engine designed by Charles H. Brown and Charles Burleigh. This engine proved popular for many years, and following this the two men set to work fashioning a working model of a new steam engine. Patented in 1856, this new engine gained fame as the Putnam engine and was shipped all over the world.

After development of the Putnam engine Charles H. Brown continued working at Putnam's as superintendent of the engine department, but poor health forced him into retirement in 1859. Charles Burleigh went on to invent the Burleigh rock drill and air compressor, tools that made possible the building of the great Hoosac Tunnel in western Massachusetts, which was completed in 1875.

In 1863, after resting for four years, Brown went back into the steam engine business, this time setting up his own small shop on Newton Lane in Fitchburg. By 1866 demand for his engines was so great that Brown moved to a larger facility on lower Main Street in Fitchburg, and it was here that he developed the celebrated automatic cutoff engine, a design that was to play an important part in American industrial history.

The Brown engine, as it came to be called, was exhibited at the Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia and later at the Mechanic Exhibition in Boston. At the time, the Scientific American observed, "We understand that the first steam engine now driving the machinery at the Mechanic Exhibition in Boston has been purchased by Professor Edison and will be placed in his laboratory at Menlo Park, N.J. The engine was built by the C.H. Brown & Co. of Fitchburg and is remarkable for its efficiency and finish." Thomas A. Edison was deep into his pioneering experiments with electricity and the development of the incandescent bulb, and the engine he purchased to drive his dynamos was the automatic cutoff steam engine developed by Charles H. Brown. Edison's Menlo Park laboratory was one of the world's first industrial research centers - and C.H. Brown & Co.'s steam engine played a big part in it.

In 1881 Edison was still using the Brown engine when a visiting reporter from the Mew York Herald remarked: "The 80 HP Brown engine is throbbing away there, turning its great flywheel that runs a 24-inch belt, which in turn drives the dynamo in the room hard by. 'It's a very good engine,' says the Professor (Edison), laying his hand affectionately on the cylinder." During his lifetime Edison bought three Brown engines.

Edison so liked the Brown engines that in later years, while visiting Fitchburg, he told a Sentinel reporter "... that he was much interested in this section of the country, for it was at the Brown Machine Co.'s shop about 26 years ago that he purchased an engine that proved remarkably efficient in developing electric power and which has been in his factory every since, running day and night, and is now as good as ever."

Lumber barons

At the same time Thomas A. Edison was developing the electric light, timber men in the White Mountains of New Hampshire were positioning themselves to obtain large tracts of virgin spruce and fir forests, planning the large-scale harvesting of New Hampshire's forest bounty to meet the needs of an expanding nation. By the 1870s the invasion into the mountains had begun. Lumber production in New Hampshire trebled from the 1860s to 1900, reaching an all-time high of 650 million board feet in 1907. The growth of the paper and wood industry in New Hampshire between 1890 and 1900 eclipsed that of any state in the union, and in just a few decades the timber barons turned much of the lush White Mountain landscape into a wasteland with clear-cut logging practices.

A great many companies operated in the state, including Libby's Mills based in Glen, N.H., the original owner of our engine. The Libby company logged the north end of the Pinkham Notch and teams hauled the timber to its Gorham, N.H., mill. Around 1875 Libby's purchased the C.H. Brown steam engine now in our collection to power its mill, a job which it conducted reliably for almost 75 years, continuing at its task right up until just after World War II when the mill shut down.

Our engine

Our C.H. Brown engine was designed and built some time around 1875. It has a bore and stroke of approximately 17 by 41 inches and a two-piece flywheel 14 feet in diameter with a 24-inch face for a flat belt drive. Built as a slow-speed engine, the flywheel is unusual in that it has 10 spokes. C.H. Brown & Co. also built their own governor, unique to their engines, featuring valve gear driven by a set of straight and bevel gears from a gear affixed to the crankshaft. At 80 pounds steam pressure and running at 80 revolutions per minute, this engine would develop around 150 HP.

In the early 1950s a young Ed Clark was working the family business, Clark's Sled Dog Ranch. Founded in 1929 by Ed's parents, Clark's Sled Dog Ranch was a seasonal tourist operation in Lincoln, N.H., on the road leading into Franconia Notch. As a young man, Ed felt the history of the north woods was rapidly disappearing, and he thought that if he could save machinery and artifacts of the area they could be used in the development of a logging museum at his family's tourist operation.

Ed went to the Libby's Mills in Gorham and bought the C.H. Brown engine from Doug Filbrook for $135. Along with the engine came a load of wood-burning grates, 160 feet of 2-inch by 6-inch steel channel from the rafters for the tin roof of the fire room, the old cast iron boiler fronts, two boilers, piping, and the complete saw filing shop — including the swaging machine and gumming machine to hog out the band saws. Much of this Ed had to leave behind, lacking enough equipment or help to haul everything back to Lincoln.

With the help of a young boy named Billy Dugay and a pickup truck, Ed went to Gorham with a little money, a come-along and a hydraulic jack to dismantle the big engine that once ran the Libby's Mills. They slept on canvas tarps in the sawdust bin, and Ed said it was still warm in the bin even though the mill had been shut down for several years. Ed had a single-axle, tandem-wheel trailer to use to bring the engine back to Lincoln, and for blocking and cribbing he used whatever he could find in the mill, including oil drums. While skidding one half of the flywheel one of the drums collapsed while supporting the massive piece. Billy jumped clear just in time.

Once Ed got the engine down to Lincoln he built forms and poured concrete foundations for it next to the sled dog ring at the Sled Dog Ranch. He mixed the concrete by hand, and after school his young sons would help with the job. Ed used the family's restored, wooden-cab Bucyrus Erie steam shovel "Vesuvius" (which, by the way, is still at the Trading Post) to set the C.H. Brown engine on its new foundations. A pavilion covered the engine, and an attempt was even made to run the engine using a coin-operated friction drive fabricated from an automotive driveline so tourists could see the engine turn over.

As time went on the Sled Dog Ranch turned into the Trading Post and grew into a major White Mountain attraction. In the 1960s this writer helped dismantle, move and set up a wooden Howe truss covered bridge to cross the river and allow the railroad at the Trading Post to expand. Over the years buildings, exhibits and rides were added, always keeping to a Victorian theme and with an eye to the history of the region.

But things change, and by the end of the 1990s the C.H. Brown engine occupied prime real estate in the middle of what had become the park's Main Street. Removed from its site earlier last summer, it was offered to us because of our efforts in the preservation, restoration and operation of antique steam engines. We are very grateful to have been acknowledged by one of the pioneers of steam preservation and to be entrusted by him to receive and continue the preservation of this fine example of stationary steam engineering.

Looking forward

On Nov. 24, 2001, a crew of our volunteers, including Jim Robinson, Pat Moran, Jeff Robinson and Doug Gilmore with his restored 1962 B-61 Mack tractor and low-bed trailer, went to Lincoln to load the engine and bring it back to our museum in Kent, Conn. A crane was hired to load the flywheel halves, the cylinder and the frame. Smaller pieces were loaded by hand, and Ed's son, David, and his good friend, Peter Thompson, helped in the project. The crew spent the night visiting with the Clarks, returning to Connecticut the next day.

On Dec. 1, 2001, the trailer pulled into the museum and Kent and Ray De Zara and Dick Greene joined the crew that picked up the engine to help with its unloading. Barrett Roofing of Danbury, Conn., donated the crane used to help unload the engine, and with their help the engine was placed on wood blockings and covered with tarps.

Since then we have reassembled and leveled the engine (minus the flywheels) on wood blocking so we can measure and draw foundation plans. When the frost comes out of the ground next spring, we expect to excavate and pour the foundations for our new exhibit. This engine, which has the largest flywheel of any in our collection, will be placed in the planned 50-foot addition of the Industrial Hall prior to the building of the addition. Many people have given generously, helping pay for moving and restoration costs and volunteering their time. Thanks to all of you, we have moved this engine to our museum, and in the near future we'll have an exciting new demonstration of the power, and the appeal of steam to share.

Contact the Connecticut Antique Machinery Association at: PO Box 425, Kent, CT 06757 or on the Internet at: www.ctamachinery.com