In Search of Steam

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6118 Portland Avenue Minneapolis, Minn. 55417

Ever since Steam Boats magazine ceased publication, those strange fellows who take steam engines to sea have had to be content with only occasional reference to their hobby in the magazines catering to the steam traction engine and the steam car enthusiast. However, steamboating is not dead by any means and to all appearances, seems to be growing.

The Puget Sound Live Steamers, who seem to be drawn together by the very looseness of the group, report that almost every year, a new boat appears on the scene. For those people who have never heard of the Puget Sound Live Steamers, they encompass that area between Olympia and Vancouver, B. C. and the Pacific Ocean and the Cascade Mountains. They have no president and no dues, the only concession to parliamentary procedure being their unsung herothe secretary who mails notices and arranges meetings. The membership is a conglomerate of enthusiasts who like traction engines, miniature locomotives, full size locomotives, stationary engines and of course, steam ships and launches.

Down through the years, steamboat activity seemed to be pretty much centered in the New England area. A reader of Motor Boating or Rudder will remember the occasional stories on steam yachts and launches. Most of them seem to have been written by Dick Mitchell of Hinsdale, N. H., who has been able to ride on, or at least keep track of, all of the marine steam left in New England.

The Great Lakes had their share of small marine steam. We know that Chas. P. Willard and Thomas Kane of Chicago were just a few of the companies that built engines, boilers, and even hulls for the Mid-West. However, not much has ever been written about these vessels and more surprisingly, not too much of the machinery has made its way into the hands of the collectors. We can only hope that someday, someone will be able to chronicle marine steam of the Mid West and Great Lakes area.

While the Vanderbilts and the Carnegies were watching the America Cup races from the decks of their steam yachts, the loggers of California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia were putting the steam engine to use in a different fashion. Steam donkies skidded trees from the forest and loaded them onto railroad cars that were pulled by the oddest assortment of locomotives imaginable. Whether the logs were taken to the mills, cut and loaded aboard a steam schooner for shipment or whether they were dumped into the water, rafted up and towed to the mills, there was always a steamboat in the picture. Water was the best roadway, be it the salt water of the Pacific or the clear fresh water of Lake Couer de Lane.

Back in the 1940's Rudder carried articles on large and small steam launches but one never found mention of Puget Sound boats such as the Dodo, launched in 1934 by Harold Lanning of Gig Harbor, Wash. Up in the San Juan Islands, a young college student by the name of Tommy Thompson was burning up a lot of driftwood in a 26' double ender called the Fire Canoe. And gradually, more and more boats made the scene until, in the late 1950's, Bill Durham of Seattle, Wash., took note of the increasing interest in small marine steam and after publishing several stories on Puget Sound marine steam, started a magazine called S. L. O. W. Bell. The initials stand for Steam Launch Owners of the World. As a one man effort, S. L. O. W. Bell was an outstanding but a time consuming effort so in 1961, Morgan North, himself a launch owner, took over publication of the magazine changing the name to Steamboats and Modern Steam Launches. With the full facilities of Howell-North publications behind it, the magazine was a joy to behold. The hobby had 'arrived.'

However, it was apparent right from the start that the steamboat people suffered from the same problem that the small scale railroad people had. This was, basically, lack of support. In England, Light Steam Power and The Model Engineer were able to find enough subscribers and contributors to ensure these commercial publications continued existence. In the U.S.A., the picture was not so rosey.

Maybe it was because 95% of the steam traction engines were owned by farmers who wanted something to read during the winter or bad weather or maybe it was because of the large number of traction engines compared to the other sides of the steam hobbiest. Whatever the reason, The Rev. Elmer Ritzman and Tom Smith were able to keep two very fine steam traction engine magazines going. Several attempts on the West Coast were not so successful. The live steam railroad people had a couple of very good publications which folded for lack of support. Bill Fitt is trying again with the Live Steam magazine. We hope that he has better luck than his predecessors. The steam car has always been able to find full representation in the antique car magazines.

Morgan North knew that he wasn't going to make any money from Steamboats and Modern Steam Launches but his hope was that he would at least break even. Steamboaters are the most scattered and individualistic of the steam hobbiest. Some of them never even know that there was a magazine catering to them. In the last issue Morgan had a quote that every boat owner will understand. 'A boat is a hole in the water, lined with wood, into which you put money.' 1200 paid subscribers was not enough according to the business manager so Volume 3, Number 6, November-December 1963 was the last. Steamboats were gone but far from forgotten. All three bound volumes are still available from the publisher and they have assumed the status of being the only 'how to do it book' for the steamboater. If you go into the home of a steamboat enthusiast, you will note that his copies of Steamboats are well thumbed through and not dust covered.

Synonymous with Steamboats was the name of Fred Semple. If you wanted to build a steamboat, you could dig up an old Navy whaleboat hull, a Coast Guard motor surfboat hull, renovate a metal lifeboat, haunt the waterfronts for a traditional fan-tailed hull or build one from scratch using drawings by John Skinner, David Beach or design your own. The big problem was not in the hull but in the power plant and if you couldn't beg, borrow, buy, or steal a traditional type plant and did not have the facilities or ability to make your own, you had only one recourse.

Fred Semple of St. Louis, Mo., has been making boilers and engines for as long as I've known him. Wheresoever one finds a steamboat, the odds are that there will be something in it from Fred be it engine, boiler or accessory. Down in Michigan, Ralph Rasmusson has come out with a complete line of engines and drawings that are a real help to the enthusiast and Fred has gotten pretty much out of the engine business now selling only castings. However, he is going on to bigger and better things.

Because of labor costs, steam excursion vessels are on their way out. At least this is what everyone thought until 30 July, 1969 when the 102' stern wheel steamer Minne Ha-Ha was put into service on Lake George, New York. This vessel is brand new with an all steel welded construction by the Lake George Steamboat Co. Inc. The engines, of course, were built by the Semple Engine Co. and are 8' X 48' two cylinder simple rated at 150 hp. at 200 PSI. The paddlewheel is 12' in diameter, 11' long and turns over at 26 RPM. The auxiliaries consist of a 40 hp. Troy electric plant, 25 kva, 110/220v, 3 phase; capstan driven by a 15 hp. two cylinder Soule Steam Feed engine; and two Worthington duplex steam pumps for feed water, bilge and fire. Who says that steam is dead?

As always there is the good and the bad. While the Minne Ha-Ha will make many new friends, back in Vancouver, B.C., a lot of old friends are deserting a very fine steamer, the steam tug Master. Not too many people know about the Master. Her transfer out of the working class was overshadowed by the transfer of another Vancouver steam tug, the coal-fired Moonlight, to the U.S.A. Well, due to age and various other factors, Moonlight's engine is now in a museum and the hull is being converted into a houseboat. But what about the Master? This 71' tug, built in 1922 and powered by a triple expansion engine and an oil-fired boiler, was given a complete renovation thanks to the work of several dedicated men and untold thousands of dollars of support from marine industries in the Vancouver area. Ever wonder what the cost is to pull a 71' boat, let alone the cost of labor for hull repairs? Anyway, protective and stop gap measures taken in 1962 and preventive maintenance since that time have not been enough to keep the Master in good operating condition and unless some proper support comes through soon, the Master will end up on the block and very likely, this will be the start of the slide into oblivion.

These people who have enjoyed rides on her during her unfailing appearance yearly at the Puget Sound Live Steam Meet will say that it can never happen. These people in Vancouver who have enjoyed the sight and sound of her during their seafare will say that it can never happen. Marine historians who would like to preserve that last little bit of an era will say that it can never happen. No! Ask the people of New England, 'What happened to the Brinkerhoff?' The last surviving example of low pressure, sidewheel steam ferry was discarded by the Mystic Seaport Museum as not fitting of the era that the museum was trying to reconstruct. All well and good but what happened to the Brinkerhoff? She was sold to an individual who ran her aground on a river bank and under pressure from authorities to remove her, ended up burning her, engines and all and now nothing is left of the Brinkerhoff. If the Master is able to make an appearance this year at the Puget Sound Meet, you'd better go and take your pictures because it is very likely she will not be there again.

This information was obtained during the Winter Workshop meeting of the Puget Sound Live Steamers. This meeting was held at the home of Russ Gibbens in Mt. Vernon, Wash. Russ has a large boiler in his shop that is capable of steaming any engine that can be transported there. Prize among the displays was the windlass engine off of the steamer Roche Harbor. This 4'-8'-5' compound launch engine had just been completely rebuilt by Elmer Brooks and ran as smooth as silk. Ted Middleton had come up all the way from Aberdeen and added a small compound of unknown make to the collection of engines under steam. Vance Colyear of Olympia had several pieces of a model Shay on display. Vance does things with a lathe and milling machine that turn the average hobbiest green with envy. Russ Hibler kept ducking Gordy Sullivan who made a rare appearance at the meet. It seems that several years ago, Gordy had 'loaned' a small steam pump to Russ to try out on the San Juan Queen. It worked fine and still does. However, the Queen's hull (steel lifeboat) has reached its end and Russ is building a new engine for his next boat. Gordy has hopes of getting his pump back and evidently he will have a use for it. The original American owner of the 'Moonlight,' Gordy has acquired a fine example of a fan tail launch and plans on converting her to steam.

Don Thompson headed up the Canadian contingent and it was from him that we received word of the possible demise of the 'Master!' After a general bull session and an excellent dinner served by the women, several movies and slides were shown. A wonderful time was had by all and as it was determined that the only time Russ Gibbens cleans up his shop is for the meet, it was decided to hold next year's Winter Workshop there again.

Those people who love the old stationary engines will bemean the passing of yet another engine. In St. Paul, Minn., the city water works had a fine example of a large cross compound Corliss pumping engine. The original three were reduced to one and in December, the lone surviver was taken out into the snow and replaced by electricity. The original water plant boasted a triple expansion, vertical pump engine. One of these engines is still in existence in Providence, Rhode Island, but it has not turned a wheel in many a year.

And speaking of stationary engines, many thanks to the clubs who are going to all the effort and expense of finding, buying, moving, erecting and restoring some of the old engines. Up in Rolag, Minn., there is a fine example of a tandem compound 100 hp. Corliss engine, with rope drive yet! It takes a lot of dedication and effort on the part of a few to accomplish a fine job like this. As more and more interest is shown in the summer reunions, we hope more of the clubs will try restoration work of this kind.

Keep water in the glass, coal in the bunker and support your local steam club!