Restoration of a Minneapolis Traction Engine

Story of the steam engine restoration of the Minneapolis traction engine shown in the movie "The Friendly Persuasion"

Shown here in action at a show, this engine is one of several that have appeared in historical motion pictures.

Shown here in action at a show, this engine is one of several that have appeared in historical motion pictures.

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The engine shown in the movie "The Friendly Persuasion" is once again in steam! This was truly a restoration! It's a 20 horsepower Minneapolis Traction Engine, serial #8376. In its working life, this engine ran a sawmill near Wausau, Wisconsin, and was on a farm before that. Its working life lasted well into the 1940s. It had been worked long and hard, but it had also been well cared for. In its retirement, it was moved to Oceanside, California. This was in 1955 by Mr. Jim Sullivan. Shortly after it arrived in California, a movie producer spotted this Minneapolis traction engine. The movie "The Friendly Persuasion" was released in 1956 and starred Gary Cooper, Dorothy McGuire, and a young Anthony Perkins. There are several good shots of the engine. The setting is a farm equipment exhibition. They sent the Minneapolis to the wardrobe department to disguise it some, but it is still easily spotted as the Minneapolis. This movie is still available, by the way.

Some time after the movie this engine finally fell into disrepair. It was eventually donated to Del Mar Park, where it sat for many years. This Minneapolis would have spent its last days there in the park rusting away except for Mr. Mike Ashbeck. Mike is one of the founding members of the museum in Vista, California. Mike purchased the Minneapolis with the idea of restoring it. This was about 1975. It was in pretty rough shape by this time, so Mike took the engine completely apart. He had some work done on the boiler but before he got much further he passed away. Mike's wife sold it "as is" and that meant apart!

It moved from place to place at least twice before I bought it. When I saw the engine it was located in a small town called Fiddle Town. Fiddle Town is up in the California Gold country, located in the foothills of the High Sierras east of Sacramento. It had now been apart for some 22 years and had not run in over 30 years. It was still apart when I bought it four years ago in Fiddle Town.

My fascination with steam started at the Mehmke Museum near Great Falls, Montana. The line of old steam engines there was an impressive sight to a young boy. This collection is still there and is still a very impressive collection. My family moved to California while I was still young.

About 10 years ago I got involved with the museum at Vista, California. The museum had two traction engines, and later a third was donated to us. They had all been running but for one reason or another were no longer in steam. The southern part of California was never big on steam traction engines. They are not much use in citrus tree groves or in the hilly country or the dry sandy desert! Many people who visit our shows never knew that they had ever built a steam-powered tractor. That, combined with the fact that certifying an engine in California is a big job, and they are very strict on our old boilers, makes our traction engines a unique and popular part of our show.

I had been looking forward to owning an engine for many years. I looked at several other engines before I looked at this one. It had been for sale for quite some time. It just did not show itself well. It was still apart, the platform was all bent up, there was no plumbing or water tanks, etc. Everyone else who looked at it walked away saying that it would never run again. I got interested in it for two reasons. One, for me, the price was affordable! Two, I found that it had an ASME boiler on it. I have always said that I wanted an engine that I could work. We did not have an engine at Vista that could be worked hard. California limits lap seams to 100 lbs. pressure. On top of that, two of the engines are a bit small for hard work and our Case 60 operates at 100 lbs. pressure and has contractor bunkers on it. Carrying any amount of fuel and water is a problem. The Minneapolis being a code boiler could get better pressure and the problems certifying it with the state all just vanish! I knew that it was missing parts but everything was there to make an engine that could run and the rest I would just deal with. Okay, I said, the first thing to do is to get an inspector out to see the boiler. The inspection was going to be expensive. Fiddle Town is quite a way off the beaten path and I would have to pay for the inspector's travel time as well as the time it took for the inspection. The inspector said he liked the boiler and gave it 100 lbs. He said that the 100 lb. limit was because a few of the staybolts were thin and that he would give the boiler the original pressure of 150 lbs. if they were replaced! There were about six stays that he was concerned with. Armed now with all the appropriate information, I bought the Minneapolis.

I knew from the beginning that this would be a true restoration and not a "fix it up" and paint it job. In the end, almost everything was removed from the boiler. Not because I thought the restoration would be better, but because nearly everything needed to be worked on! That is okay with me. I enjoy the work. Pictures I found of the engine from the 1950s show that even then it was missing some parts, most obviously the fuel and water tanks. I got one box of nuts and bolts and another with some small castings and a few valves in it and little else. Absolutely no usable plumbing came with the tractor. Not the main steam line or valve to the engine, not a thing, nothing! The two injectors were still attached to what was left of the water feed plumbing. At least I had those. There were a few valves that could be salvaged and that was about it. Not surprisingly, all of the brass parts were long since gone. Although the engine came with a Gardener governor, it had a base for a Pickering governor mounted on the steam chest and no governor spool for either one! The platform was badly bent up and missing a few of the angle irons that made it up. Whoever bent the platform up also sheared off the studs that mount it to the rest of the engine. Many of the parts were badly corroded but the boiler externally looked very good. I will never understand why some parts were attacked by corrosion and others were not but, the time this engine had sat out in Del Mar park had taken its toll. The valve rod, piston rod and the various control rods had scallops in them the size and shape of open clamshells. I was told that the original governor had rusted right off the base. A few gears would also need work, the worst being the crank side bull gear pinion. The tooth thickness here was not much greater than the width of my little finger. There was not a complete set of grates and the ones it had were completely useless. There were no steering rings on the front wheels or cleats on the rear. All this I knew when I bought the engine. Like I said, this was going to be a true restoration.

Up to this point I felt like I had done all my homework. I knew exactly what I had bought and what was to be done. Naturally, I was wrong. I got the engine moved down to the museum at Vista and began the work. The first order of work would be to replace the six weak staybolts. I cut the first two out and to my surprise the crown sheet seemed very thin. I made a call to our inspector for the museum and we went through it again. The crown sheet was as thin as 1875. It is hard to believe that the first inspector was going to allow 150 lb. pressure on that thickness. I gave him a call to ask if he had done an ultra-sound on the crown sheet, and he said he had; he looked up the paper work and agreed that it was a bit thin. I do not know why, but he just never thought to mention this to me! My inspector would not certify this boiler without a new crown sheet, and to be honest I agreed with him.

This was a big disappointment, and of course, my restoration budget went out the window.

The boiler was worthless to me without the crown sheet, so it had to be done. The question was how to go about it the most cost-effective way. I decided to cut the old stays out myself (there are 66 of them). Then I would take the engine to the boiler shop where they would cut out the old crown sheet and install a new one. I would install new threaded staybolts myself. This meant that I would have to save the threads in the wrapper sheet to be used again by the new stays. It would be a lot of work but would cost the least and maintain the boiler's originality. Our inspector OK'd the plan so away I went. I must say here that I had a lot of help from my friends out at the museum. I also called around and got good instruction from other people in the hobby on how to proceed with this job. I knew where to get a staybolt tap and rivet hammer. The staybolt tap proved to be too short so I cut it in two and added a 20" extension between the threaded part and the shank. The old thread was picked up and the new piece was threaded out to match. This left me with the original hardened steel in place at each end and the new piece in the middle. This worked out well. I also made the staybolt snap that would match the shape of the original staybolt heads after they were riveted over. In one of the pictures you can see a row of staybolts run in and cut off, another row trimmed to size, and another row riveted over in one picture. Now I live 150 miles each way from where the tractor is kept. This slowed us down some, but each trip out to work on the boiler I would bring other pieces home to be repaired, painted or what have you. In the end, original parts or castings from original parts came from seven states. I feel quite lucky at having found almost all the parts one could have asked for. The water tank top and bottoms came from two different states, new sheet metal was wrapped around them and the seam riveted up. New bands were heated and shrunk around the top and bottom just like the original. In fact, the entire front water tank assembly was made up of parts that were made or came from somewhere else. The boiler had the studs for the angle iron left on the front of it but nothing else. I was able to find new steps, a governor and a steam jet pump (ejector). I added a duplex water pump, I got canopy castings made, and was even able to find a stack damper and an original Minneapolis pressure gauge. Many other parts still had to be made.

Only one grate stand came with the engine so another was made up to look like it. New grates were cast. The piston rod, valve rod and one other rod on the valve gear had to be replaced. Steering rings were made and shrunk onto the front wheels. Cleats were made and bolted to the rear wheels. Several braces like those that support the bottom of the step-ladder were made from round rod, bent to fit into place and flattened where the bolt would go through. The rear platform was completely removed and straightened. It took a lot of heat to do this, they are 4" angle iron 3/8 inch thick! Then the missing angles were replaced with new parts. All of the valve gear brasses and pins had to be cleaned up and refitted, the babbitt bearings repoured, and a new crank pin installed. I even made a toolbox like the original and placed it on the rear platform. One of the harder jobs for me was building up the gear teeth. There is over 15 lb. of weld on one gear all by itself. Each tooth had to be ground by hand to get the tooth profile correct. Several small castings were cast and the spider gears in the compensating gear had to be rebabbitted, cracked castings were welded and the piston re-grooved to fit the new rings. We had been working on the engine for some time now, the boiler had been hydro tested already and certified for the 150 lb. pressure. I hydrotested it again to verify all the plumbing as well. Everything was looking good for the first steam up. It had been four years minus one week since I started working on the Minneapolis. Our museum had a show coming up in one week, so I thought I would have a test run to see about the valve timing and what other adjustments might be needed. Many people had been watching this restoration since its beginning and so I wanted our first steam up to go smooth. With very little fanfare the first fire in 30 years was lit. At 30 lbs. pressure the engine turned over nicely. I was feeling really good. At 50 lbs. pressure we blew a flue! These flues had held 225 lbs. of hydro pressure, but the heat of 50 lbs. steam did them in. I guess I should not have been surprised at this, but it was still another disappointment. It now looked like I would miss this year's show. Our show here lasts for two weekends, so in a last ditch effort, not to be robbed of my first showing, we cut out the old flues during the first weekend of the show and had the new ones in by the second weekend! This time, with all the appropriate fanfare, the first fire was lit and she moved under her own power for the first time in some 30 years! Words just cannot say how good it felt to finally have it running. I can only say that it was truly exciting! The Minneapolis is a good handling engine and has a surprising amount of power. There are still some chores to be done, and I have yet to build the canopy, but it really runs. I cannot believe it!

gary borden
7/15/2012 11:10:00 PM

Jim Sullivan is my uncle. The tractor was in every parade in Oceanside. It was put on a flat car train and taken up to Hollywood. They painted it green to look like a John Deer. They repainted it after the movie.