Pulling its Weight

Retired from Working the Rails, a 160-ton Steam-Powered Crane Joins Oregon's Western Steam Fiends

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Opposite page: The 1928, 160-ton steam-powered Bucyrus-Erie crane in its full glory at the 2004 Great Oregon Steam-Up in Brooks, Ore.

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The love of steam is a funny thing. In our corner of the steam world, we exercise a unique fondness for agricultural steam engines, and our collective interest fosters and nurtures a community of like-minded folk. We're not alone; similarly minded steam communities exist around the country. There are steamboat enthusiasts, steam train enthusiasts, steamroller enthusiasts and steam model enthusiasts. Heck, there are steam engine lovers who focus on boiler history and design. When you get right down to it, we like steam engines, regardless of type.

Don Parsio, Myrtle Creek, Ore., loves steam. He certainly likes agricultural steam engines, a fact witnessed by his enthusiastic ownership of a 1914 Aultman & Taylor 16-48 simple single. He also likes more industrial steam engines, like the 1913 Buffalo 12-ton roller he owns. And he likes even larger engines, like the 160-ton-capacity, 128-ton 1928 Bucyrus-Erie steam-powered crane he plays with every summer on the show grounds the Western Steam Fiends share with Antique Powerland Museum, Brooks, Ore.

The story of this leviathan Bucyrus-Erie crane, no. 9869, is intriguing. Intriguing because it was among the last steam-powered cranes manufactured. Intriguing because the railway company that commissioned it, Southern Pacific Railroad, held onto it for so long - 66 years. Intriguing because it was supposed to have been scrapped at least a couple of times. And intriguing because it was eventually salvaged and restored to working condition by a dedicated group of West Coast agricultural steam enthusiasts.

TRACKING TIME

"Tracking history on Southern Pacific iron is a nightmare," says Don. "They didn't keep good records." Even so, Don, a licensed crane operator and member of the Western Steam Fiends, probably knows as much about this steam-powered crane as anyone.

Designed for "picking" duties (picking up train cars after a derailment or other accident), the crane was commissioned by Southern Pacific Railroad in 1927. It was finished in 1928 (the year Bucyrus Co. and Erie Steam Shovel Co. merged into Bucyrus-Erie Co.) and then delivered on Sept. 11, 1928, to Southern Pacific's Ogden, Utah, facilities. Its working history in Utah is unrecorded, but in 1939 (and perhaps earlier), it was shipped to the West Coast, where it was stationed at Southern Pacific's Shasta Division in Dunsmuir, Calif.

The crane remained stationed in Dunsmuir until 1958, when it was traded to Southern Pacific's Klamath Falls, Ore., yard for a smaller, 120-ton industrial crane. Don says the trade came in part because the Bucyrus-Erie couldn't navigate all the tight turns and tunnels of the Siskiyou route in Northern California, thanks in no small part to its 45-foot-long boom and 19-foot-high profile.

The crane's history becomes a little clearer at this point. Klamath Falls resident Chuck Johnson was the primary operator of the crane after its delivery, and for the next 15 years Johnson operated the crane as part of a "rescue train." "This was a 'rescue crane' that was part of a rescue train. You never use the word 'wreck' around trains," Don notes. Chuck worked about 300 picks with it, from minor incidents to fullblown accidents.

In the mid-1970s, the crane was shipped to Southern Pacific's Seattle, Wash., facilities for scheduled boiler work. "By that time they were trying to get rid of the old steamers. This one was scheduled for the scrapper," Don says. According to Don, workers in the Seattle yard didn't want to see the old crane scrapped "because it was a better crane than the ones they had." In a bit of number changing, workers at the Seattle yard swapped the Bucyrus-Erie's "maintenance of way" no. 7005 with that of a smaller unit, 7020, which ended up being sold off instead. The crane, now bearing no. 7020, received a complete boiler overhaul.

After this, the crane's movement becomes obscured yet again. A photograph dated to 1976 shows the crane at Southern Pacific's Eugene, Ore., yard, and in 1985 it was photographed in Dunsmuir, where it was stationed for a few years. Back in Dunsmuir, the crane was kept on "cold standby," meaning it was maintained for possible use but probably rarely fired up. Don has talked to one of its previous operators, who said the last pick the crane did was in 1982.

The crane continued to sit, and then sometime after 1985 it was dispatched to Southern Pacific's Eugene, Ore., yard. It continued to sit idle until finally, in 1994, the order came to sell it off as scrap.

BOUND FOR SCRAP

Like the yardmen in Seattle, the yardmaster in Eugene didn't want to see the old Bucyrus-Erie scrapped. The yardmaster contacted Rick Franklin, owner of Lebanon, Oregon-based Rick Franklin Corp., a railroad services company, to see if Rick could spare the crane from the scrap yard. Rick, a fan of old rail equipment, bought the crane and parked it at his company's yard in Lebanon.

Once again, the crane sat idle for a few years. In the interim, Rick scouted around for a suitable partner to help secure the crane's preservation. He found that partner in the Western Steam Fiends, and in 2000 he donated it to the club for restoration and display. Rick knows the Steam Fiends' focus is primarily agricultural steam engines, but he also knew they had the space, the talent and the motivation to get the crane back on line.

The Steam Fiends embraced the opportunity to acquire the crane. Don credits club members Dan Kearl and Dennis Root with spearheading the effort to find funding for the crane's retrieval and restoration, eventually securing a grant for the crane's retrieval and restoration from the Meyer Memorial Trust & National Railway Historical Society.

In a flurry of organizational effort, club members worked out a plan with local short-line railway companies to get the crane from Rick's Lebanon yard to the show grounds in Brooks. On Nov. 4, 2000, Albany & Eastern Railroad, Lebanon, ferried the crane from Rick's work yard to Albany. The next day, a Sunday, Willamette & Pacific and Portland & Western Railroad Inc., Salem, Ore., took it the rest of the way to Brooks. Don says Bob Melbo, president of Willamette & Pacific at the time, took it on himself to make the Sunday run from Albany. "He hooked up one of his locomotives, put an idler under the boom, took two of our guys in the cab and took it up to Tualitan, Ore., (a Portland suburb) and back down to Brooks," Don recalls.

In Brooks, the crane was put off on a siding, conveniently situated only 1/4-mile from Antique Powerland. It stayed at the siding until Nov. 12, 2000, when Wayne Grippin Construction & House Moving, Salem, jacked it up, put it on dollies and towed it the remaining distance to its new, and permanent, home at Antique Powerland.

Over the course of the next year, club volunteers devoted themselves to preparing the crane for operation and display. In June 2001, after a year of preparation, the crane was fired up for the first time in almost 20 years. Mechanically, Don says it really didn't need much, but it's such a big piece of equipment it took considerable time and effort to work through the crane's mechanicals to ensure everything was in proper working order. That, and the fact the crew working on the crane had to familiarize themselves with a piece of equipment none of them had ever worked with before.

Fortunately for the Steam Fiends, Chuck Johnson got involved once the crane was in Brooks and running. "We had to run it on our own guidance at first, because we didn't know Chuck was still around," Don says. Club members were understandably cautious operating the crane, taking it through its paces in a slow and deliberate manner. But when Chuck operates the crane, Don says, "it's like he's still working for Southern Pacific. When he grabs the throttle, he grabs the throttle."

Although the crane has no connection to agricultural history, its sheer size and capacity - and its steam-powered workings - prove an irresistible draw for spectators during the annual Great Oregon Steam-Up held at Antique Powerland every July and August. Club members fire up its diesel-fueled boiler, and then take the crane through a limited series of demonstrations. "We've got a small set of railroad trucks we toss around with it. But it's only 8,000 pounds; the crane doesn't even know it's there," Don says. "We're trying to find a bigger load to play with, something that looks a little more impressive."

Even so, Don says the crowd loves it. "They're amazed at the size. It's such a huge machine, and along with everything else on the grounds, they like that it's fired up and working. That's part of our goal; we like to get as much stuff fired up and working as we can. It's a quantum leap from a static display."

For his part, Don relishes the opportunity he gets every year to run the crane. A working survivor from the end of the heyday of steam, the crane reminds Don of how much things have changed. Plus, he adds with a laugh, "It's certainly one helluva fun toy to play with. There's not a lot of people I can't walk up to and say, 'my toy's bigger than your toy.'"

The Western Steam Fiends annual Great Oregon Steam-Up is held every year during the last weekend in July and the first weekend in August. Contact the Steam Fiends at: Antique Powerland Museum, 3995 Brooklake Road N.E., Brooks, OR 97303; (503) 393-2424; www.antiquepowerland.com