Southern Engine & Boiler Works Steam Engines

Rising from the burning embers of the Civil War, Southern Engine & Boiler Works steam engines shone brightly.

Portable Engine

Woodcut of Southern portable engine with water-lined smokebox.

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The hard-fought Civil War was nearing its horrible end in 1865. Both sides, but especially the South, had lost much, and Jackson, Tenn., was among the razed communities. A year before, Union Colonel Fielding Hurst's army had laid waste to the town's business district, burning much of the industry.

But just a few years after the war, the first signs of rebuilding began. In 1871, the Citizen's Gas Light Co. was formed, making available manufactured gas to the area. The time was now ripe for people to return and plant the seeds of a blossoming industrial age in the deep South.

Among those pioneers were a Mr. Sherman and Mr. Cole who began the Sherman Manufacturing Co. in 1874, repairing steam engines. The firm changed its name to the Southern Engine & Boiler Works in 1884. Business prospered, and then in 1896 stock was sold to local shareholders to raise capital for a large state-of-the-art factory on Royal Street.

Jackson was a great location for a manufacturing company since it's midpoint position between Memphis, Tenn., and Nashville, Tenn., gave it close proximity to both the Pearl and Mississippi rivers, and the nearest industrial hub was located a state away in Corinth, Miss. Demand for steam power was growing in the mid-South as well since the region was rife with cotton gins and sawmills requiring steam power.

10 to 25 Horse Power.


Southern Engine & Boiler Works built steam engines and boilers of various types and sizes including center-and side-crank slide-valve engines, rocking valve engines, automatic engines and Corliss engines. The firm also sold portable engines mounted on wheels and skids, and steam-powered components such as sawmills, woodworking machinery and milling supplies were advertised in the firm's catalogs. In later years, Southern Engine & Boiler Works built gasoline and kerosene engines, and even birthed an automobile company, the Marathon Motor Works.

Early steam engines were simple slide-valve types, but by the early 1900s Southern offered an increasingly diverse line. Among these new lines was a slide-valve engine built with balanced valves, which offered more bearing surfaces than an unbalanced valve.

Typical side valves operate by steam pressure, forcing the valve against the valve seat. But at higher pressures, this valve tends to scuff and wear out. Southern's balanced valve design had springs that forced the wearing surface on the opposite side of the valve to mate either to a machined surface on the inside of the valve chest cover or to a large machined cage. This design reduced wear on the slide valve by distributing steam pressure to both sides of the valve across the steam chest, allowing for engineers to run their rigs at a higher steam pressure with less engine damage.

Few and Far Between

Operational Southern Engine & Boiler Works steam engines are few and far between, but one is known to operate at the Wommack Mill, a historic gristmill in Fair Grove, Mo.

The stationary steam engine was manufactured about 1900 and once powered an Oklahoma sawmill. But 20 years ago, it was sent to Fair Grove in poor condition. The engine's new owners, however, knew that with a little care, the rare engine could be restored to working condition, and over the next two decades a group of dedicated individuals restored the engine, storing it in temporary locations until they found a permanent location for it at a century-old gristmill located at the Wommack Mill.

Today, antique iron lovers get a good look at the steam-powered gristmill every year at the annual Fair Grove Heritage Reunion held each September. Nearly 50,000 people participated in the festival last year, and visitors to the mill could observe working demonstrations of the old operation in motion, among other farm-related attractions.

For more information about the rare Southern engine at Wommack Mill, pick up the January 2004 Farm Collector, or contact Dan Manning at P.O. Box 115, Fair Grove, MO 65648.


Southern also produced a Corliss-style steam engine, which used rotary valves that opened by eccentrics mounted on the crankshaft. These rotary valves had levers that connected to vacuum chambers called 'dashpots' built into castings under the cylinder. When the eccentric opened the valves to allow steam to fill the cylinder, the valves automatically tripped and released, forcing the dashpots closed to conserve steam. These Corliss engines used four valves per cylinder, comprised of two intake valves and two exhaust valves. Accordingly, they were expensive to build and to purchase. Owners complained they were hard to maintain and suited only the largest of operations where fuel savings over time would offset the initial engine price tag. For the average sawmill and other timber operations in the South, it was cheaper to burn excess wood for fuel than it was to buy an expensive but efficient Corliss engine.

Corliss engines were widely popular for their efficiency and were built under a patent from George Corliss by many firms around the world. What separated Southern's Corliss engine from other firms was its patented inertial governor, built into a small housing and powered by a belt extending from the crankshaft. This unique governor made Southern Corliss engines look different from others, which typically used a Watt-style governor. Sold only through Southern, the firm released a special catalog each year featuring only its Corliss engines.


Southern also offered a rocking-valve engine. This engine used only a single rotary valve that functioned much the same way as a slide valve, opening and closing the exhaust and intake ports. Unfortunately, this design permitted cooling of the passages from exhaust steam. Despite the drawback, Southern rotary-valve was much more efficient than a typical slide-valve engine and much more simple in construction than a Corliss engine.


Yet another arrangement the Southern firm sold was a large, two-cylinder slide-valve engine with a side crank and center-positioned flywheels. These engines were ideal for large industrial applications. As many engineers know, when a single-cylinder steam engine stops on dead center the engine must be manually rotated off dead center to resume work. Stoppage of this kind can be particularly troublesome for a large steam engine that's belted to multiple machines.

Bill Carroll, chief engineer of the Memphis Hardwood Flooring Co., recalls that in such a situation his crew was forced to roll the large flywheel over to start the engine a most troublesome task. Today, Memphis Hardwood Flooring is one of the last few remaining two-cylinder, steam-powered mills in existence, located in Grenada, Miss.

A two-cylinder steam engine, however, doesn't have a dead center since the two cranks are offset by a 90-degree angle, allowing steam to enter at least one cylinder at any given time.


Southern also attempted to break into the ever-burgeoning automobile industry, opening the Marathon Motor Works in 1910. The company never became quite successful, beginning with its first car. During construction of its first prototype, suitable steel gears couldn't be obtained in time for a road test, so head engineer W. H. Collier had Southern pour and machine some cast iron gears instead. During the prototype's maiden voyage, the brittle cast iron gears disintegrated in the transmission within the first 20 miles.

Once the prototype difficulties had been reworked, Marathon built component-assembled cars in Jackson, Tenn., for a few years before moving operations to Nashville, Tenn., occupying an 1880s-era wool factory. The firm lasted only a few more years, unfortunately. Marathon did make history, however, as one of the very first automobile manufacturers to base operations in the southern United States, and the few remaining Marathon automobiles command a very high price among auto collectors.


Southern also manufactured portable steam engines, mounted on either wheels or skids. Timber cutters who constantly moved from one location to the next often owned portables. When the timber in a given area ran out, they moved the sawmill, engine and everything else to another location, and a portable steam engine was the perfect choice.

The 1898 Southern catalog offered a portable steam engine with wooden wheels that, curiously enough, mounted the rear axle to the front of the firebox. Most other portable and steam traction engines affixed their axles to either the rear or to the sides of the firebox. Southern catalog a few years later showed a metal-wheeled portable steam engine with the rear axles mounted to the sides of the firebox in a more conventional fashion.


Southern began to expand its place in the engine market in the 1910s when it released a new line of internal-combustion engines and a line of automobiles called Marathon Motor Works.

Beginning with hit-and-miss engines powered by gasoline and kerosene, the firm's newfound direction became popular in industry and agriculture alike. At its height, the firm employed about 400 workers. But as soon as engine sales blossomed, two of the company's key figures, Heath cock and Rush, left the firm to start a competing engine factory in Jackson. Although still hard to find, both Southern and Heathcock-Rush gasoline and kerosene engines are more common than their steam engines and boiler counterparts, of which only a handful are known to exist.

Unfortunately, the boon of the early 20th century had tapered off by the end of World War I, as much of the South was experiencing financial difficulty. Southern Engine & Boiler Works was sold in 1917 and began to splinter apart under new management. One group of investors bought the mill supply division, renaming it Southern Supply. W.H. Collier bought the manufacturing division in 1922, but by 1926, the writing was on the wall for Southern, and the firm was forced to close after almost half a century of proud engine production in Jackson.

I'd like to thank Robert T. Rhode for his assistance in preparing this article and Jack Wood of the Madison County (Tennessee) Library for his help in researching Southern Engine & Boiler Works. Thanks also to Walter Porter, Robert L. Johnson and Jesse Livingston for contributing material for this article.

Contact steam enthusiast Mike McKnight at 1025 McKnight. Loop, Mason, TN 38049; e-mail: