Low Water-Look Out

Frog Smith

Courtesy of Mr. E. A. Smith, Sr., 219 Hubbard St., North Fort Myers, Florida Frog Smith and #3 in park at Gulf Hammock, Florida. Vulcan 2-8-0, 1913. Beside Route 19 in Florida.

E. A. Smith

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219 Hubbard Street, North Fort Myers, Florida

On page 30 of Iron Men Album for Nov.-Dec., Mr. Ralph Thyng tells a hair-raising tale (and I'm Bald), about low water in a steam boiler. Well Brother, low water is no laughing matter until you see it in the glass. I feel I ought to know because I once burned two rows of flues in one end of a boiler while I had a full bottom gauge in the other.

The way it happened, I was boiler fireman for the Babois Lbr. Co., of Bonifay, Fla. in 1918, when keeping steam was something to crow about. We had three 150 H.P. Casey-Hedges return tubular boilers set in brick, with hardly thirty feet of stack on them. With the low stacks, we had to run big steam blowers in each stack. With a 150 H.P. Adams engine, an 80 H.P. Atlas antique driving the main saw, a worn out 14 x 20 Filer & Stowell twin with every port blowing a big Star unloader, several jump saws and a big dry kiln, the boilers were badly overloaded. One day, when due to a shut down, the steam was low, the foreman came into the boiler room to lend me a hand.

'You watch your fires,' said the boss, 'and I'll watch the water. Because of the emergency, he let the water drop to one gauge in all three glasses, and one Penberthy injector quit. I ran behind the furnaces to start a duplex pump and just as I turned water into No. 1, on which the injector had quit, I saw the bricks flying off the back arch bars of No. 3. I ran back into the firehold yelling that No. 3 was burned.

'Naw she ain't,' answered Reeves Brown, the foreman. 'I've had water all along and got a gauge now.'

'I don't give a Dwhat you've got,' I shouted. 'The arch bars are blowing off the back end.' And they were. What the boss had in the gauge was only foam. And anyone who has had experience with foaming water knows to hold his hat when the water runs low. That day at Bonifay, a big rain had fallen, cascaded through the slab burning pit and loaded with ashes, poured into the two ten foot square, thirty foot deep open wells. A made to order steam bomb if you ask me. But somehow not a boiler ever blew up. However, once when the maintence crew let enough bricks fall from the inside furnace walls of No. 2, the middle boiler, burned her side supports off and fell in, one day while the mill was running, tearing down all the steam pipes. That was the first integration on record in Bonifay. Every man in the mill, both black and white, went out together.

Another time I had a low water scrape in 1952 when I was not the fireman. Doing maintence work at a big pine tar retort at Lacoochee, Fla., I worked in day-time. But as I was 150 miles from home and liked my own cooking, I was batching it in a shack on the yard. One night at 1:00 A.M. there was a violent pounding on my shack and the night fireman yelled that he had lost his water. Jumping into my britches I followed him back to the retort where he began frantically trying to pull his fire of cord wool from the furnace of the 125 H.P. boiler. As I neared the retorts, I saw the oil fires were still burning. The fireman had forgotten to shut the fuel oil pump down. I shut down the pumps as I ran past, but the damage was already done. He had most of the wood fire from the furnace, but with fifty cords of pitch pine stumps cooking in the retorts, there was a full supply of gas, filling the furnace with enough purple flame to keep a full head of steam.

Almost speechless with fear, the fifty year old fireman admitted he did not know how low the water was. I yelled 'start the fire pump, and turned the gas off at the scrubber.' With that the gas poured out of the retorts around the doors and four stacks until the flames enveloped the forty foot stacks. I turned the firehose into the boiler furnace until I killed all the red on the walls and with the pool of boiling water behind the bridge wall to create a cloud of damp steam, I gave him the hose and told him to save the retort stacks. As the injector had jumped off and was too hot to work, I started a duplex pump and cut the two inch line of cold water into the boiler. At the time, there was eighty pounds of steam but you could see the gauge falling with every stroke of the pump. Soon there was water in the bottom gauge and I told him to fire up quick, so that I could open the scrubber discharge into the furnace and stop the fires that already had the stacks leaning. As I released the gas into the firebox, and water from the firehose struck the bare wall, there was a report like a gunshot and a 12 x 12 x 12 inch three cornered slap popped off the corner of the reinforced concrete retort. It was a hair-raising occurrence but by killing the red heat in the furnace and pouring enough water behind the bridge wall to keep the tubes cool, there was no danger. We ran the boiler leaking until the next Sunday and when we opened up the back, found that the water had been halfway down the flue sheet.

In case of low water, remember that bare tubes will become red hot. Putting water into a boiler when the tubes are red hot blows a boiler up because the water turns to steam instantaneously, rising as it expands, giving the boiler shell a hammer blow that sheets nor rivets cannot stand. And another thing to remember, the old boiler that you are afraid of, probably cannot be blown up.

Back yonder a half a century ago at Bridgeboro, Ga. a man who knew nothing of mechanics owned a saw-mill with an end clip shingle maching that ran at odd times. The boiler was an old forty Horse power Lombard, made in Agusts, Ga. somewhere back in the other century. A return tubular in a brick furnace, at one time or another scale in the shell had burned blisters on the bottom big enough to hang your hat on. With the smoke box half rusted away and the piece of stack full of holes and leaning in all directions, the whole mill crew was afraid of it. One Saturday when only the fireman, Robert Smith, and the shingle cutter, whose name I do not know, were there, they hatched a plot to get rid of the old Lombard. At twelve noon they left the old pot with three gauges of water, the pop weighed down and a heavy fire of yellow pine saw-dust to boost the 140 already on the steam gauge, and went to town. No one knows how high the steam went, possibly 300, but it was still there on Monday morning. It was dry but on being bailed it was fired up and they went on sawing lumber. No one was afraid of the old Lombard anymore, and when Chapman sold the Mill to Whidden, it was moved to Florida where it steamed the same mill for years.

Remember, when the water runs low, keep you head, else you're pretty durned apt to lose it.