Steam engines

Robert Most collects 1880 style steam engines of which he has three that are being renovated. ''With a steam engine, it takes five minute to find the problem and a week to fix it,'' he says. Tribune photo by August Staebler.

August Staebler

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Reprinted with permission of Leland Hawes, Features, Editor, Tampa Tribune. Submitted by William L. Hetzer, 2309 West Comanche, Tampa, Florida 33603

Robert Most collects steam engines.

Not scale models, but real coal burning, fire-breathing, 87-ton, 1880 style steam engines. He has three of them which are being renovated and readied to ride the rails once again.

'The total purpose of my interest is to save and restore the steam engines so that one day, they can be enjoyed by the public, young and old alike,' the Tampa insurance man said.

'MY INTEREST is not in trains. Trains, per se, do not interest me. The steam is what holds my interest.

'The steam locomotive is, in my opinion, the most fascinating piece of machinery ever invented. It is a fascinating invention and holds more universal interest than anything else ever built.

'It has a degree of nostalgia and fascination when operated. And to see the people's expressions when it's being operated it's just fantastic.'

BUT MOST SAID the steam engine's demise was not really necessary. Rather, he said, it was the result of a new invention, the diesel locomotive, and a fantastic amount of promotion by its builders which took the steam engines off the rails.

'During the 40s, there was a massive promotion of diesel engines. They went all out with portfolios, pictures, facts and figures and that's what did most to drive the steam engine off the tracks.

'There are many factors that went into it. Diesel engines have advantages over steam. Likewise, steam has advantages over diesels, too.'

HE SAID the diesel engine can be operated with fewer men, with more needed for the steam engine. But the steam engine is a simpler machine, with fewer problem areas.

'They say in a diesel it takes a week to find the problem and five minutes to fix it. With a steam engine, it takes five minutes to find the problem and a week to fix it.'

Unfortunately the steam engine lost the challenge from the diesel, 'one reason being the steam engine builders never promoted their product.

'THE STEAM ENGINE was around since the 1800s. Its manufacturers never saw it being challenged.

'But you can't have both operating at the same time, there are no likenesses between them. There are different fuel requirements and supplies and different maintenance needs. Corporations couldn't afford both.'

But Most maintains the steam engine's usefulness is far superior to anything built 'in the olden days.'

'This steam engine was built in 1905. It can still do an honest day's work at an acceptable rate,' he said, pointing to a picture of one of his engines.

'NAME ME a product built in 1905 that can still do that. A plane? A car? A sewing machine? Nothing. There's absolutely nothing. This 69-year old machine can still do a good day's work.

'The steam engine built this country, too. It brought New York within four days of California when before that, the quickest was three months.'

But, 'as the steam engine is today, it will never be commercially operated again. There are only two corporations General Electric and General Motors that build diesel engines. Conversion costs would be astronomical.

'It's funny. People look at a steam engine and think it's so complex. Actually, it's the height of simplicity.'

Most explained that heat from the coal-fueled fire's heat is sent through pipes in the engine's boiler. The pipes are surrounded with water which heats up and creates steam which is sent down to cylinders on each side of the engine.

'The pressure from the steam pushes the piston back and forth and that, in turn, turns the wheels. It's as simple as that.

'The steam engine is nothing more than a big tea kettle on wheels using principles that man has known about for centuries.'