Corliss engine

Pictured above is my 1'' x 1'' Corliss engine. Flywheel 8'' diameter. Castings were obtained from Coles in Ventura, California. The machine work was done in my home shop and required two winters and one summer of spare time. The engine is of museum qualit

John V. McDivitt

Content Tools

Ulman, Missouri 65083.

When I was just a kid, my grandfather had a little 10 HP Nichols and Shepard steam engine, and also one of the same make that they called an 11 HP We kids used to play around these old engines a lot. In the hot part of the summer the boilers of these old engines would get pretty hot from the hot sun. We kids would catch frogs out of the pond and roast them on the hot boilers. I guess we ate them . . . the best I can remember. I expect they were a little on the rare side, but we sure had lots of fun playing around these old engines.

I can remember when my father and grandfather had this little engine and sawmill on a neighbor's farm about two miles from home. One chilly morning when they went to the sawmill I decided I wanted to go along, so they let me go with them. After we got there I was cold so my father put my feet and hands down in the saw dust pile to warm me up a little while he built a fire in the engine. After he got a good fire going, I made my way back to the engine and crawled up on the platform to keep warm. After a while Dad came back to build up the fire a little more and someway or another a coal of fire went down my shirt collar. That warmed me up pretty good for a while. The best I can remember Dad put some steam oil on the burn and I made it pretty good the rest of the day. That is about all I can remember about my trip to the sawmill. I guess I was about 3 or 4 years old at that time, but I do remember them bringing the old engine and sawmill home some time later. They pulled it up by a small pond where it sat for a number of years without being in use. It just sat there and the wheels sank down in the ground several inches.

One warm summer day, I guess I was about 9 or 10 years old, one of my little brothers, George, and I were playing around the old engines so we, or I guess it was me mostly, decided it would be fun to fire this little 10 HP engine up. Our folks were all gone some place except our great grandmother, who was at the house and didn't know what we were doing. So we got started. First we had to put the manhole cover in the boiler at the bottom. We had a little trouble trying to tighten it because Grandad kept his shop locked up most of the time and we couldn't get a wrench to tighten it with. We tightened it the best we could by hand. Then the work started. My little brother, George, and I each got an old bucket and started carrying water from the little pond. George was about 4 years old and I was about 9 or 10. We carried water for hours . . . tadpoles and all went right into the boiler. Finally around noon we had water in the glass and by that time we were getting pretty tired.

We thought we better go see if Great Grandmother had us any lunch fixed rather than have her come looking for us. Sure enough she had cornbread, butter, fried potatoes and onions all ready for us. Believe me, we cleaned up everything she had fixed because we were really hungry as well as tired. She never did ask us about what we had been doing so we beat it back to finish the job.

We started carrying water and tadpoles again. Finally we had over half the glass of water. It would have been better had we had more water because the manhole was leaking badly. I don't know how we knew how much water to put into the boiler, but anyway we decided we had enough water in it to build a fire. We had already made up our minds what we were going to use for fuel. There were plenty of corn stalks just above the old engine where the cattle had been fed the winter before. So we built a fire in the firebox and then in a little bit we saw smoke coming out of the smoke stack. Boyee, I mean we went after those corn stalks after that. They would burn faster than we could carry them but we didn't give up ... we just kept carrying corn stalks. After a while we heard the water begin to boil. Man, we were in business!

We checked the manhole and it was leaking pretty badly by now but we couldn't do anything about that. We found an old lard can and put under it to catch the water. As if that would help matters any. George and I just kept on carrying corn stalks and putting them in the firebox. It wasn't too long when we looked at the steam gauge and thought it had moved off the peg a little. So we wiped a little sweat and took off after more corn stalks. After a little while longer we had enough steam to blow the whistle, but we didn't dare make a sound. We just kept right on carrying corn stalks.

It wasn't too long until we had 50 No. on the gauge. We thought that was a plenty, so we decided to see what would happen if we opened the throttle. Sure enough . . . the old engine began to turn but you could have heard it screak for a mile, I believe, because it hadn't had a drop of oil for years and we couldn't get any out of Granddad's shop because it was locked up. We let it run a little while and then had to get more corn stalks and fire up again.

The next time we decided we would try to see if it would move itself. It just had a forward gear because Granddad had taken one of the eccentric rods off while he was using it on the sawmill to make it a little quieter. We found a piece of shafting and stuck it through a hole in the flywheel and on into the clutch. Now we were ready to see if it would move. But we never did get it to pull itself out of the holes where it had sunk in the ground over the years it had been sitting there. It is a darned good thing that it didn't because there was a tree right in front of us that had limbs hanging well below the smoke stack and governors.

We decided we better let well enough alone and quit before we got hurt. Anyway we were just about worked out so we gave it up. And then, too, we got to thinking about that razor strap that we would get on the seat of our pants when Dad got home . . . Me for sure. We just took it easy the rest of the afternoon until our parents got home, and believe it or not ... we DIDN'T get the razor strap. I still think we should have . . . What kids won't do.

I am 56 years old now and I still love those old engines. I have a 22 HP single cylinder Keck-Gonnerman Engine that I have had 7 or 8 years and I sure think a lot of it.

I would like to hear from someone that has done a thing like this.