106 South Elm Street, Newkirk, Oklahoma 74647
Boiler explosions are caused by many things other than low water. Deterioration that occurs while standing idle causes many of these tragic accidents. The place where this can do the most harm is along the longitudinal seam of the barrel.
This writer owned and operated boilers for many years in a state that had strict boiler laws and inspection every year. During this time I became acquainted with several inspectors. They told me of two explosions that had occurred from rust along the long seam. They explained the cause. Some of the boilers used on traction engines had the lap joint seam down on the lower side with the edge of the inside sheet turned upward. Changes of temperature causes metal to 'sweat.' This means condensation will form moisture that will run down into the little trough at the top of the inside sheet. This makes an ideal condition for rust to form, and often the metal will be thin as a razor blade at this critical point. If the seam is on upper quarter, that is near the top of the barrel, there will be no little troughs either inside or out. Butt- strap joints should be located on the upper quarter of the boiler shell for the same reasons.
Other things also cause explosions. I once knew an elderly man who walked on a crutch. He had survived an explosion. I knew his son well and he told me how it happened. He said his father was firing a boiler for a sawmill. It was built with a good air-tight ashpan. He made a practice of filling his firebox with green wood, and closing the heavy draft door so he would have a good fire after they came back from dinner. One day as they quit for noon, the blocksetter wanted a light for his pipe, so he raised the door, got a live coal, propped the door up with a stick and forgot to close it.
Now there were other things that were wrong with the equipment. The boiler was fitted with an old weight lever safety valve that had a bevel seat. These were outlawed many years ago. This valve would stick fast in the worn seat sometimes, but Mr. Shackelford (I don't remember his first name), would watch it very carefully and raise it when it stuck.
When they got back from dinner, the fire was blazing hot, and the pointer on the steam gauge was clear around resting on the back of the pin. They all yelled 'let's get from here,' and ran as fast as they could except for the dumb block setter whose light for his pipe had caused the trouble. He ran by and kicked the prop from under the draft door. When this heavy iron door fell, the jar did it-- the boiler let go as though it had been filled with dynamite! They picked the block setter up in a basket. The rest of the crew were all hurt, and Mr. Shackelford walked on crutches for the rest of his life.
Now many folks will say they had no business running a boiler with' a faulty safety valve; but new pop valves didn't grow on the bushes these days. They had trouble getting hold of any kind of a sawmill and they were getting tired of living in log houses. After all, they didn't have to lock their doors with double bolts every night. Sometimes a poor guy might steal a sack of corn or maybe a fat hen, but there was no danger of getting your throat cut if you slept out in the yard on hot nights.
Now back to busted boilers. In a late issue of IMA, pictures are shown of a boiler disaster. The men who were firing the boiler didn't survive and the blame was placed on them. They had pumped water onto a red hot crown-sheet! Now I began firing a boiler in 1906, and have owned and repaired many of them since, but I have never seen one in which the water entered on top of the firebox. All of the traction engines and locomotives built since 1900 have the delivery pipes entering the boiler below the water line, about halfway down the side, and up toward the front end.
The pictures in the May/June 1980 IMA show the flues to be bent outward at a point where the longitudinal seam was often located on engines of that type. The firebox appeared to be sound and an experienced boiler man would have looked at the crown sheet. If it had been dry and hot, the soot would have been burned off and the metal would have been a rusty red down to where the water line had been. I have seen two or three crown sheets myself that had been hot, and have had the job of rolling the upper rows of flues that are always loosened if the water is run low very long.
There is no way of proving it now, but it is my opinion that the young men who lost their lives 76 years ago were killed by the failure of a rusted seam in a poorly designed boiler. A stuck safety valve may have helped!
Now I want to put in a few words about 'foaming' in boilers. In the big wheat regions of Oklahoma, Kansas and the Dakotas, much of the well water will foam. I ran an engine in Kansas where in part of our run I had to wash the boiler every night. I had a brother who ran a Case 65 HP in east Arkansas, threshing rice. The boiler started foaming. Most of the water in the rice country is clean soft water. They washed the boiler several times. No help; it still foamed. Finally the owner found the cause. They found a big bar of soap, well wrapped in cloth, in the engine tank. A mean competitor had paid them a nighttime visit. Oil containing detergent will cause foaming. I had a bad case many years ago from using water out of an empty oil drum. It didn't hurt the boiler; it damaged the valve gear. We repaired the gear and used the engine for seven years afterward. Bad water was one of the things that put the steam engine out of use.
I will now try to show some of the good and not-so-good ways to rivet a boiler together. Damage often occurs while a boiler is laid up during the winter. Temperature changes will cause moisture to collect on the inside sheets.
Pictured is an engine with a well-designed boiler. Please note that the seam is on the upper quarter of the barrel and that there is no place either inside or out that can collect moisture.
Also notice that the delivery pipe from the injector enters at a point about midway on the side. There is an independent steam pump on the left hand side that works through a heater. The delivery pipe from it enters the boiler at a point on the left side opposite the one on the right side.
This fine old engine is shown at Pawnee, Oklahoma. Please note that the drive wheels are solid steel, four feet wide. Note extension rims.
When laying a boiler up for the winter the front end should always be a little higher than the rear so that no water can stand in the bottom of the barrel. Also hand plates should be reamed, so that there can be circulation of air. These old engines will sell for $10,000-15,000 now, so it will pay to take care of them. Another thing: when you put your engine away for the winter it is a bad practice to blow out the water while it is hot. This will cause any mud that is in the water to dry and form a hard film that is hard to remove. It is best to wait until the boiler is cool, and then before opening the blow-off valve, pour in about two quarts of non-detergent oil. Detergent oil will cause your boiler to foam. A heavy steam cylinder oil will cause trouble by building up a coat of insulation on the flues and firebox. Kerosene will remove oil, but there is some chance that it will cause a leak. If it should, it is easy to stop by caulking. I have been using a thin non-detergent oil in my old boiler for about 15 years, and have not had any trouble.