LOOKING BACK With Fondness

Engine No. 1

Content Tools

108 Garfield Avenue Madison, New Jersey 07940

Those of you who've been reading IMA for many years may recall the January/February 1978 issue, and a reminiscence article therein called 'Sentimental Journey In Search of Steam.' There I relived my early childhood alongside the Virginia Blue Ridge Railway's tracks and in the shadow of the two steam powered sawmills that were its reason for existence. These enterprises deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia are now but a memory, for hardly a trace remains of their passing.

The line ran from Massies Mill some 15 miles to an interchange with the Southern Railway at a mainline way station known as Tie River about 20 miles north of Lynchburg. In 1915 they took delivery of a 2-8-0 consolidation type locomotive built for them by the H. K. Porter Company of Pittsburgh. That machine served the railroad until being scrapped in 1953. A factor in its longevity reportedly was the source of boiler water from a nearby mountain stream. It is the search for this elixir and its analysis that brings our story up to date.

There is probably no set age at which one's memory begins and carries on into later life. There will, however, be flashes of insight from memorable incidents going back to very early years. There are, for me, two of these mental snapshots that remain deeply embedded as related to the present story.

The railroad had provided shop facilities for engine maintenance in Massies Mill where coal, lube oil and sand were stored for use and a supply of boiler water was available. A clear flowing mountain brook called, appropriately enough, Rocky Run gurgled its way past the shop and pump house. Steam for the reciprocating steam engine belted to a centrifugal water pump had been provided by a vertical fire tube boiler until its demise. As an alternate source, a steam hose connection was inserted in the locomotive's draft blower line as a measure born of frugal operations and a nearness to corporate bankruptcy.

The night that the watchman was to try out the new scheme arrived, and my father was in attendance to see that all went well. As usual and whenever possible I was glued to his coat-tails as a sort of supernumerary. I can, in fact, remember quite a few tag-a-long incidents such as inspection trips with his Buda track car and our lunches of Uneeda biscuits, sardines and cream soda purchased at any convenient country store.

This particular night fate came close to ending both our careers. It was a hot summer night and a window was open in the pump house and it made the difference. The line was pressurized to start pumping water to the engine's tender from Rocky Run when there was a deafening explosion as a section of pipe split asunder filling the house with scalding steam.

In one fell swoop my father scooped me up with his strong arms and literally tossed me out the open window. He was right behind me as we landed in a heap.

The incident has remained in my memory and perhaps that is the reason that a remark that he had made about the quality of that brook's water for boiler use too has stuck with me. Hard water or soft water are terms of little meaning to a small boy. I can hear him remarking on the sterling qualities of that water. No treatment, internal or external, was necessary. The flow was from brook to boiler untouched. As required both by prudent operation and federal regulations, the fire was dropped once a week and the boiler given a thorough washing.

Engine No. 1 in this typical rods down builder's photograph was delivered by J. K. Porter in March 1915 as B/N 5630.

Since I have an interest in boiler feed water analysis (see IMA, January/February 1988, 'Boiler Water Treatment Primer'), running tests on this water has long been a latent project. As luck would have it, my activities would put me in the vicinity on what was to be an industrial archaeology venture at Fort Valley just across the mountains. Wasn't this too an industrial archaeology project?

Thus it was that I arrived at what had been the site of the pump house one Saturday morning. Visualize, if you will, my precariously leaning out over that stream filling a one liter sample bottle when the owner of the property drove up in his pickup. I looked up with my most engaging smile, saying, 'I suppose that you are wondering what I am doing.' He accepted my explanation, and so, after the exchange of a few pleasantries, I was on my way clutching my water sample for later analysis and some unexpected results.

Engine No. 1 rests at Massies Mill near the end of her active career. Time and a hard life have taken their toll yet she stands proudly as if this was her rods down builder's photograph. (Photo by the late William E. Warden.)

My father had always made such a point of this being 'soft' water here in these magnificent mountains. My simple preliminary total hardness test had indicated the sample to be less than 20 ppm or less than one grain per gallon. In a more refined test it turns out that total hardness is only between 8 and 9 ppm or about a half grain per gallon. It is all 'temporary' or calcium hardness. There is no 'permanent' or magnesium hard ness. Truly soft water.

This natural surface water source is at a level often found only in the effluent from commercial and industrial ion exchange softeners. Seems that his position has been vindicated. But, there is more to the story.

A test for pH (hydrogen ion con centration) yielded a worrisome 6.2 when something around 7.3 was expected. This put the electronic probe pH instrument in doubt; however, calibration showed it to be accurate. A pH less than neutral 7.0 is acidic and corrosion could be expected. Operations of fire tube boilers prefer to run with concentrated boiler water at 9.5 to 10 which is basic or caustic. A too high pH can lead to priming, so there is a trade off.

It's time to look at alkalinity, particularly with such a low pH. The phenol phthalein test showed 0 ppm and the methyl orange test was only 20 ppm. The alkalinity interpretation table (Figure 2) shows this all to be bi carbonate ion equivalent as the source of alkalinity.

The total dissolved solids (TDS) were found to be only 70 ppm (parts per million) whereas even well water can be 200. Boilers of this type would generally be run at 3,500 ppm TDS concentration in the boiler water with the concentration controlled by intermittent blowdown. Operational control of TDS certainly would not have been a problem for these early fire men if yesterday's water was any where near what I found in the pre sent day. In fact, blowing down a locomotive's boiler is quite a spectacular affair. I can't remember ever having seen such an event. Do you suppose that they simply waited until the boiler was cool and simply drained it?

The low pH is still somewhat of a mystery. At this point I decided to run a test for dissolved oxygen which had been previously omitted since the sample was now quite old and the numbers might be suspect. It tested quite low; only 4 mg/1. In taking the sample I had carefully drawn it from the free flowing part of the stream as there was some algae growth in the backwater eddies.

The Rocky Run watershed as shown on contour maps is a small area about half of which is second growth forest and half cultivated and orchard land. With today's emphasis on fertilizing it could be that there has been a local change in recent years.

However, the more that I studied the situation the more I became convinced that it was a recent year's change and one of the suspects high on the list of probabilities was acid rain. There is a contour type chart in World Ecology that indicates a very high level of acid waters in this part of Appalachia. Knowing this now I might have run samples on Tye River and other streams.

Although this was an exercise in nostalgia and a very pleasant project, it is typical of the sort of investigation that boiler operators should conduct. It is essential to the long life of their boilers. When old No. 1 was towed off to the scrap dealer it was a final move in a long and useful life.

Figure 1 Rating Boiler Feed Water Source










0 to 150


very good

150 to 250

40 to 70


250 to 350

70 to 90


350 to 500

90 to 125


over 500

over 125

very poor

Figure 2: Alkalinity Interpretation






ppm as CaCO3

ppm as CaCo3

ppm as CaCo3

P = 0




P less 1/2M




P = 1/2M




P more 1/2M


2(M - P)


P = M




Where: P = phenolphthalein alkalinity, M = methyl-orange alkalinity