An old, fading photograph tells the tale.
Taken in 1935, just a few miles from the north-central Kansas farming town of Clay Center, the photo shows an old Case steam traction engine with its nose angled down, its smokebox just touching the water that’s rising up around it.
Clearly visible just beyond the Case are two bridges, sitting side-by-side, straddling the swollen Republican River. On the left is the old Airline Bridge, while to its right sits its replacement, the “new” Airline Bridge, still under construction when the photo was taken.
It was the engine’s misfortune to be at the site when the Republican River rose out of its banks following days of pounding ran and, some think, the failure of at least one dam on a small lake upstream. Sometime about June 4, the river’s destructive movements took their toll on the Case, which had been working the site supplying steam for a riveter.
The river’s unchecked run pushed the old Airline Bridge off its foundation, washing it under the new bridge. At the same time it gouged out a large hole in front of the Case, and as the rushing water pushed against it the Case fell in, landing on its right side, breaking off its smokestack and fracturing the hub of its right rear driver.
The Republican River wasn’t done. Heavy rains brought a second, smaller crest June 17, and a final crest June 28. By then the Case was gone, just one of many victims of the Flood of 1935.
The Flood of 1993
Years rolled by, and the Case became something of a local legend. Old timers talked about it, telling the younger residents about the great Flood of 1935 and the old engine that surely was still buried somewhere out there. Clay Center resident Forrest Stewart grew up hearing those stories: “My dad would tell me about the Case, I’ve been hearing stories about it all my life.”
Forrest shared those stories with his own kids, and as time went by he grew more and more interested in finding the engine. Unfortunately, nobody knew exactly where the engine was. “We probed for it in 1989 or 1990, but were long off. All the old timers said it was farther away,” Forrest says. It seemed unlikely Forrest, or anyone else, would ever find it. But that was before the flood of 1993.
The Republican River gave a reprise of its 1935 performance, and as the floodwaters receded part of the Case was exposed. It happened to be Roland Milligan’s good luck to stumble across the engine while checking phone lines for damage. “Roland saw the engine; he’d heard the stories, so he knew what it was. He measured and took photos, and after that we knew exactly where it was,” Forrest says.
Even so, it took another 12 years before Forrest finally realized his long-held dream to unearth the Case.
Finally, in the fall of 2005, Forrest contacted officials with the state government about retrieving the engine. “It was easy (getting permission), but the stipulation was this was not to be for personal gain. The fellow I spoke with asked what I wanted to do with the engine, and I knew there was only one right answer,” Forrest says. From the beginning, Forrest’s only desire was to find the engine and share it with the rest of the community.
The Big Dig
With permission secured, Forrest and his three older sons, James, Corey and Shawn, began making plans to dig for the engine. They enlisted the help of friends to supply the necessary equipment, with Fred Heigele supplying a bulldozer and Bill Peterson a large Caterpillar trackhoe.
At 8 a.m. on Nov. 26, with the help of volunteers, the crew started digging for the Case. Measuring off, they marked where Roland’s notes showed they’d find the engine, only yards from the Airline Bridge and buried under a small levee. Taking tentative bites with the Cat’s bucket, the crew stopped every now and then to probe for the engine. “We really didn’t want to whack it,” James remembers. Before long, the Cat’s bucket hit something solid, so the crew switched to digging with hand shovels. Within a few minutes, it became clear they had found the Case engine.
The Case was on its right side, so the crew kept at it with hand shovels, exposing the left side of the Case, while the Cat’s bucket took large hunks of soil away, clearing a space around the Case.
Eventually, they dug far enough that they hit the water table and water started flowing into there work pit, which had grown to a hold about 30 feet deep and 35 feet wide.
“We were worried the water was going to give us trouble,” Forrest remembers. “But as it turned out, the water seeping in was a blessing because it was loosening the clay around the engine. If we hadn’t had that, we would have had a lot more trouble.”
With the Case mostly unearthed, by the crew’s task shifted to rolling it upright so they could pull it out of the hole they’d created, which by then had grown to some 50 feet in diameter.
Using chains hooked to the Cat’s bucket, they started pulling the engine free. “We were being super careful all the time, we didn’t want to mess it up,” Forrest says. Even so, the weight of the Case and the pull of the clay resulted in multiple chain breaks. “We started with four or five log chains, and ended up with a dozen,” James says. For his part, Forrest thinks it might have been a blessing the chains broke when they did. Otherwise, he thinks they would have inflicted more damage on the Case.
At a little after 4 p.m. the engine was free, and they started pulling it out of its now very watery grave. By this time a large crowd had gathered, anxiously waiting to see the Case in its full glory. “If we could have charged admission, we’d about have enough money to rebuild the thing,” Forrest jokes.
Not surprisingly, the Case wouldn’t roll out, its rear drivers and front wheels apparently locked tight from years in the ground. That made pulling it out a time-consuming project, in the process of which a chain slipped, hitting the smokebox ring and breaking it. Luckily, the smokebox door was undamaged.
At approximately 5 p.m., the Case was finally pulled up onto high ground. No longer a mythical engine, the Case was real. Unbelievable, it was standing on its own, and appeared remarkably complete, although a thick coat of mud and clay obscured many details.
As crew members shoveled the remaining mud and clay off a Clay Center fire truck pumped 2,500 gallons of water on the engine and through the boiler to help clean it up.
The next day the crew returned, filling in the hold they’d created and restoring the levee back to its former shape. Ironically, threat of rain forced them to pull the engine farther up away from the river. They didn’t want to lose it again.
The Case still wouldn’t roll on its wheels, which the crew knew would make loading the engine onto a lowboy that much more difficult. Looking at the drivers and gearing, they saw the clutch was engaged. With the engine clearly locked up, there was no way the rear drivers could roll on the hard field where the Case now stood. Pondering their next move, Shawn decided to see if he could disengage the clutch, something they all agreed would be impossible. Amazingly, when he tried to loosen the locknuts on the clutch shoe turnbuckles, they turned easily, and in a few minutes the clutch was free and the Case was rolling.
Well, on three wheels at least. The left front wheel was stuck fast to the axle, and as they pulled the engine the axle ended up spinning in the axle stanchion. Remarkably, old grease started to ooze from the right front wheel.
The Republican Case
Ones the engine was out, the Stewarts’ still weren’t sure exactly what they had. They knew it was a Case, thanks mostly to the surviving smokebox door with Case’s Old Abe proudly cast in, but that was about it.
After seeing the engine and sharing notes with Case history buffs Chady Atteberry and Robert Rhode, we’re fairly confident the engine is a late 1922 or early 1923 65 HP. That it’s a 65 HP is without question, a fact cemented by the boiler specifications, “HTG SUR 229.4,” stamped above the firebox door. The “229.4” refers to the boiler’s 229.4 square feet of surface area, a size employed only by the 65 HP model.
The engine serial number is missing, making exact dating a bit harder, but a little bit of detective work confirms its general year of construction. According to Chady, Case boiler numbers are generally 11,000 to 12,000 numbers behind Case engine numbers. Case didn’t make the boilers on its early engines, and when the company finally started making its own, it picked up its own serial numbers, which explains the wide gulf between boiler and engine serial numbers.
Robert’s 1923 65 HP Case carries engine serial no. 35654 and boiler serial no. 24411. The Republican Case carries boiler serial no. 24270. This puts its boiler ahead of Roberts by 141 units. Simply subtracting 141 from Robert’s engine serial number gives a theoretical engine number of 35513.
However, according to Chady’s records, the last batch of 65 HP Case engine for 1922 were engines 35482–355076, and the last and only batch for 1923 were engine 35482–35681. As Chady notes, it’s impossible to get an exact date working off just the boiler number, but looking at the available evidence it’s pretty clear the Republican Case was built either late in 1922 or early in 1923.
The Next Step
The Stewarts are well aware they have a major project ahead of them. The engine is still locked up, although the head and valve chest both came off quite easily. The preheater is broken, as it the smokestack, and the right rear and right front hubs are also broken. The bunkers are mostly rusted away, and the injector and governor are in very bad shape. The flues, as expected, will have to be replaced, but the boiler, at least on initial inspection, appears remarkably sound. Interestingly, more than a few of the valves on the engine still turn, as does all the streering gear. It is a rebuildable machine, but it’s going to take some work.
Forrest is the first to admit they don’t know a lot about steam, but he’s eager to learn. “Dad always said, ‘there’s nothing as smooth as steam,’” Forrest recalls, and he’s eager to apply himself to the task of restoring the engine.
Things have quieted back down around Clay Center, its moment of fame having passed on. Even so, the Stewarts and everyone else involved with raising the Republican Case are sill marveling at the realization of a long-held dream. Reflecting on the dig, son James says, “It was like digging up a prehistoric skeleton.” Only this time, the skeleton may actually come back to life. ST
Kansas’ Republican River swallowed more than one steam engine. Read about a 16 hp Avery that was saved from its depths: “Avery Rescued from Republican River.”