Old engine and steam engine buffs can appreciate a really old steam engine – but some are so huge that moving them just isn’t worth the time and expense. So when Mike Shanks received a phone call about a stationary steam engine – what turned out to be a 1799 James Watt steam engine – his questions were: how old and big?
The DoAll Co. in Des Plaines, Ill., a manufacturer of industrial sawing equipment, was in the process of moving from their original plant. An engine collected by the founder of the company, Leighton Wilkie, wasn’t slated to be moved to their new location. Yes, the Cedar Valley Engine Club, the club Shanks was a member of, was interested. But how much would it cost to move it to Charles City, Iowa, and would the acquisition be worth the time? At this point, the club had no idea what it was dealing with.
A few weeks later on an early spring day in 2005, six members of the club drove to Des Plaines to see the engine. What they found was a 1799 Watt steam engine with an 18-foot flywheel that appeared to be complete – even to the metal railing that had been around it in the textile mill. It was in a large central room of the plant, and was, for its age, in excellent condition. It was mounted on concrete piers with a large overhead wood frame that supported the cast iron beam connecting the piston to the crank. In the plant it had been “run” with an electric motor hidden behind a block wall. Hmm, now the club was getting interested.
The engine had been built in 1799 at the Boulten & Watt factory in Birmingham, England, in what is now the Royal Mint. One of the valves is stamped 1797, leading to some question as to the exact date of construction. It was purchased in Frome, England, and taken to Chard, England, in 1827, where it operated the Gifford, Fox & Co. Ltd. textile mill. The magnificent brass governor was added in 1857. The engine was still working in the plant in 1948. Wilkie purchased the engine and had it transported from the plant to Des Plaines in 1958.
According to some of the information the club found, this engine is a 60 HP engine initially run on around 5 pounds of steam pressure.
Transporting the Watt engine
Could the engine be moved again at a cost the club could afford? Four club members first determined that the flywheel could be disassembled into eight sections, so it could be transported on the highway. They spent several hours measuring and estimating the weight of various pieces. They were able to report back that the engine could be moved, but it would be prohibitively expensive to hire professional movers. However, it appeared that club members could disassemble and transport it on flatbed trailers of the type they used to move their antique tractors.
A few weeks later after a unanimous vote by the club, 10 club members with four pickups and trailers loaded with tools and cargo straps set out before daylight for Des Plaines. The groups spent three long days and nights dismantling the engine. Parts were loaded onto the four trailers for the trip home. There was clearly a need for a second trip as the remaining pile of parts included the condensers and much of the valving.
Both the trailers and the trucks were heavily loaded. As the convoy came down the long hill to the Mississippi River Bridge, the brakes were smoking, requiring a stop to cool them down. Arriving late at night at the club’s show grounds, the engine parts were unloaded into various buildings for storage until reassembly could begin.
Some weeks later we returned with two of the trucks and trailers to Des Plaines in anticipation of completing the move. The trailers and trucks were loaded, and we headed back to Charles City the same day, but there were still engine parts in Des Plaines.
In addition to the engine the club also obtained a large boring mill used to bore the Watt engine cylinders. It had been powered by a large water wheel.
In 1765, Watt started to develop a method to bore the large cylinders he needed for his steam engine. In 1775, he became acquainted with John Wilkinson, who was known for developing boring mills for cannons. Wilkinson was able to design a mill that would handle the very large cylinder castings. This mill is considered the world’s first true machine tool.
Shanks and his brother, Howard, returned to Des Plaines for the last load to complete the move of the engine, though the boring machine remained. Late in the evening, with the heavy load on the trailer, a tire blew out about 40 miles from Charles City. Changing it in the dark on a busy road was not an easy task because of the trailer’s heavy load. However, a stranger from Arkansas stopped and used his pickup lights to illuminate the wheel, so the job was soon finished and the remainder of the trip was uneventful.
The heavy boring mill, which had been stored outside on the ground, had to wait until late summer when dry weather allowed the use of a large crane to load it on a trailer. With its arrival at the Cedar Valley show grounds near Charles City, the move was complete. It’s interesting what can get accomplished when a group of old iron collectors start to put their minds together.
The club already had a large Norberg Corliss compound steam air compressor that came out of the Allis-Chalmers plant in La Porte, Ind., set up in one of the buildings on the club show grounds. It was decided that the building could be expanded so the Watt engine also could be set up. Careful measurements of the concrete piers used in Des Plaines were used as the basis for the new installation, but the height of the piers was raised to better display the engine. Since engine detail drawings do not exist, many photos and notes were taken in Des Plaines as the engine was dismantled as guidance for the reassembly.
The list of members who helped in the relocation of the Watt engine were as follows: Mike and Howard Shanks, Kelly Barnett, Jason Skillen, Harold Swartzrock, Steve Montag, Steve Smolik, Roland Endelman, Wayne Popp, and Larry Bissen.
The opportunity to see the engine for the first time and take it apart to transport it remains a time in the club members' lives that they won’t forget. To see the engine up close is like taking a leap back in time, looking at mechanical ingenuity in its early stages and truly appreciating the effort and thought processes of some great inventors that came before us.
Club Unveils Watt Steam Engine
The new, to us, 206-year-old Watt steam engine will be unveiled at the Cedar Valley Engine Club Show on Labor Day weekend, Sept. 2-4, 2006. Our club is located 7 miles west of Charles City, Iowa, on Highway 14.We would love to invite everyone to come to our show to help preserve our history for future generations.
Our club is a nonprofit organization and anyone wishing to donate resources can contact us. Any help to the Cedar Valley Engine Club would be greatly appreciated.