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'Put the helm hard over.' Chuff-chuff-chuff went the antique O & S engine with its saturated exhaust. 'Hard over! Hard over!' Jim Hendrick's voice now carried a sense of urgency as the AFRICAN QUEEN moved out into the harbor under steam for the first time since 1976. This was not Humphrey Bogart issuing orders to Katharine Hepburn in C. S. Forrester's saga of the silver screen. No, it was the new owner of the AFRICAN QUEEN, telling me how to avoid a shoal area in the Florida Keys. Jim had recently acquired this historic steamboat of movie fame and was determined to get it under steam again.
The 1950s was the end of that era of the big bands and motion pictures that we could take the family to see without first checking the Hays Office for an R or G rating. The Viet Nam conflict had not infected our patriotism to the point where a good war story could not command attention at the box office. The motion picture African Queen was a story of World War I in East Africa and ultimately the sinking of a German gunboat on Lake Victoria. Jim Hendricks of Louisville, Kentucky, and Ocean Reef, is a Columbia Law School graduate now retired from law practice, who has had the singularly good fortune to be not only successful in his chosen profession, but a lover of history, a Bogart buff and connoisseur of fine old steam machinery.
It will be recalled that Rosie (Hepburn) was a missionary in Uganda and Charlie Allnut (Bogart) the gin-soaked mining engineer whose joint mission it was to single-handidly win that episode of WW I in their part of the world by an improbable voyage aboard a steam-powered riverboat on a tributary to Lake Victoria. When Walter Huston began shooting the story on location in Uganda, he needed an authentic river steamboat for the part. Just such a vessel was available there in real life and this same 70-year-old craft lives today in an auroa of nastalgia in another Bogart locale, the one for the film Key Largo. In fact, the QUEEN often rests atop her flatbed trailer not far from the Carribean Bar used as the real life set for Key Largo.
The AFRICAN QUEEN underway at Ocean Reef, Florida. Jim Hendricks is up forward along with Jerry Barner. The author stands his watch as engineer while Lon Munsey can just be seen with head above the gunwale while struggling with the fire. Barbara Hendricks is at the tiller.
But, let's get down to the steam historical details that we are all interested in. The QUEEN was built in England around 1906 with a vertical fire tube boiler and a double acting single cylinder steam engine in a 30' long hull for use on the river tributaries to Lake Victoria in East Africa. She was built to last in this difficult service with riveted iron hull plates now showing some signs of salt water corrosion pitting. She was provided with a black mahogany fore deck and a seat in the stern for the helmsman. Cargo, passengers chickens, people, what ever fared as best they could be sharing space with boiler and engine. Somewhere along the passage of time she has lost her original boiler and now has one made by a State of Oregon pressure vessel fabricator to ASTM standards. Her original engine too has been lost to time but the O & S 6 x 6' engine installed in a more recent refit is authentic as to size and age. In her original freshwater service area, it was satisfactory to feed the boiler with river water. For this a duplex reciprocating pump had been provided. Now, however, in sea water this is not possible so that she has been fitted with a Pemberthy injector and the duplex pump converted to a bilge pump. There is a 30-gallon fresh water tank now installed forward of the boiler to provide boiler make-up water.
The Florida Keys are essentially arid coral islands thus Ocean Reef Resort has its own reverse osmosis desalination plant. This means that the boiler feed runs around 500 ppm of dissolved solids but so far the boiler hasn't complained. The fuel supply is wood. Local wood is not the best that there is for firing a boiler. The mangrove tree is the most prevalent but is really not suitable and driftwood is to be avoided due to its salt content.
Another interesting aspect of this old timer is the propeller shaft drive system. The engine which is rated at 150 rpm is not directly connected to the screw propeller. Instead, there is a step-up set of V-belt pulleys. It would appear that originally this was a 'rope' drive since in 1906 we had not come upon the extensive use of V-belts.
The turn of the century saw British expansion of its Empire into East Africa and the building of the East African Railway from Mombasa on the Indian Ocean some 600 miles inland through Nairobi to Kisumu on Lake Victoria to open up Uganda to commerce. She was already entrenched in Egypt and the Sudan, but entrance to the upland and the source of the Nile had to be from the other coast. In M. F. Hill's book 'The Permanent Way,' are descriptions of the importation of steam boats into the interior over the meter gauge rail line. The AFRICAN QUEEN was one such boat that survived until the 60s in cargo service on rivers such as the Sio feeding Lake Victoria. There were a number of larger craft such as the CLEMENT HILL (250 tons capacity) that carried inbound and outbound traffic on the lake between developed harbors, but it was little vessels such as the hero of our story that were so essential to the development of the country. Cotton, coffee, hides and other plantation products of Uganda reached transportation centers on the lake by way of these little river steamboats.
Our story centers around an interlude in her career in 1951 with the on-location filming of the motion picture of the same name. After her thespian incursion she went back to mundane cuffing away as a cargo hauler until Californian Fred Reeve had her shipped to America and exposition service in San Francisco Harbor. Later, Hal Bailey moved her to Oregon. At this point she got her new boiler and was re-engined for tourist service on the Sun River. Then it was the carnival circuit before coming to Ocala, Florida, where Jim Hendricks found her. Now one can only hope that this will be her home as an operating museum piece for those days when steam made the world turn.
My association with the AFRICAN QUEEN came about by reading an article in the Miami Herald while wintering on Long Key in the Florida Keys. A follow-up phone call to Jim Hendricks brought out the information that he was looking for technical help to get the old girl working again. There were a thousand details to be handled before she could again ply her element. Not the least of these was the passing of U.S. Coast Guard inspections and certifications. What's to do about all of the paper work? Who had the drawings on the boiler and piping? What did the Coast Guard require? But, by systematically working the problem, the day finally arrived when she was ready for trials.
There had been some dry land tests performed for the authorities. The 225 psig hydro-test had been passed with flying colors and a small fire had been lighted for the inspector while he set and sealed the safety valve at 150 psig. However, the moment of truth a run at sea had not yet been faced.
The boatyard crew had off loaded her from her trailer and set her gently into her element. Not a drop of water was made. Every fitting, plug and seam was tight. And so the first battle was won. By now Lon Munsey had a fire going in the 8 horsepower boiler and there was just enough warm-up expansion air to give the whistle a toot much to the enjoyment of the dockside crowd that had gathered to watch the proceedings.
A watched pot never boils and a fire tube boiler seems to take forever to heat. Soon, though, about twenty pounds was showing and I opened the steam line to the induced draft in the stack. That helped the fire a bit but this was to prove to be one of the problems of the day. If the Keys have no water, they have even less of that specie of wood that is suitable for firing a boiler. It took forever to get up to fifty pounds pressure, or so it seemed. That was enough, however, to try out the engine but, of course, not enough to operate the injector. Actually, no one knew which valve position was forward or reverse at that point. But, with a 3/4-glass showing we decided to try out the engine while still tied in the dock. The first try proved to be reverse. OK, now we know. At that point Jerry Barner, who has been around boats since old Caesar was a puppy, took his switchblade knife out and carved a great big 'F' on the quadrant. By now the cylinder was warm enough to close the drains but it didn't really matter. We were out of steam. The fact that the engine exhaust into the chimney with the sweetest chuffing sound that any steam man could love didn't do a thing to the draft. We had to make it with the blower or nothing. Now, this was not really a fault of the boiler but was due to the quality of the fuel.
The AFRICAN QUEEN underway among the mangrove bounded waterways of the Florida Keys reminiscent of her days in East Africa and the River Sio.
With that, Jim's wife came struggling up with a gunny sack of scrap wood from a local construction project and that got us up to enough pressure to run the injector and so Jim ordered, 'Cast off all lines', and we were on our own.
By some type of mutual agreement, I got elected to handle the tiller and put the old girl on some sort of course. Jim had her in reverse and we backed out of the slip as majestically as if we had been in that other famous Queen 'Mary.' Someone even remembered to blow the whistle and a great cheer went up from the throng that had grown measurably since we had started operations. A news photographer's boat scurried out of the way as we backed out as did every other boat that saw us coming that day good judgement.
A fixed screw boat as compared to an outboard does not respond to the rudder while reversing. We were getting too close for comfort to a beautiful yacht tied nearby and Jim closed the throttle and swung the quadrant to 'ahead' and opened the throttle so I could steer. Horrors! Dead center!
Left: Looking forward from the helmsman's station the view is blocked by engine a boiler. Right: The main engine is a 6' square O & S single cylinder masterpiece of the engine builder's craft.
Now, you will recall from the film, Bogie was always kicking the engine. We soon found out why. It is provided with a flywheel that looks like the wheel from a very large valve. The smooth rounded rim is a hand hold to grab on to and move the engine off dead center. I abandoned the tiller as useless and Lon momentarily gave up his battle with firing and we both made a dive for the flywheel to get her off dead center before the stern carved its initials in the white topsides of the fast approaching yacht. With that Jim nonchalantly opened the throttle and we sailed out into the main part of the harbor in style.
My relief was short-lived for that was when the urgent order was given, 'Helm hard over,' we were headed for a pile of rocks marking the entrance to one of the channels. Soon that problem was solved and I settled back to rest my laurels on the stern seat with visions of Rosie sitting there clutching her broad-brimmed hat that sheltered her against the equatorial sun. Now that was 100% Hollywood. Sitting in that seat was comfortable enough but in no way could one steer from that position unless they had a side-viewing periscope like Lindberg had to see around the mammoth gas tank of the Spirit of St. Louis, for the view ahead was completely blocked by engine and boiler. Another myth gone as with the morning mist from the lake.
Once we all got the hang of our jobs things began to run smoothly and soon we were pulling alongside a pier so family and friends could come aboard with a reasonable degree of safety.
Although the engine is rated at only 8 horsepower, it appeared capable of driving the vessel at full hull speed. In a displacement hull, as this one is, 8 miles per hour is probably all that should be expected and we were obviously approaching this with only about 70 pounds pressure. Once a good grade of fuel is found for her then 125 pounds operation should be achieved. Cole Walters suggested it be converted to burn LPG. I suggested the purchase of a few bags of steam coal, but Jim Hendricks is not about to lose one whit of authenticity. She'll run on wood even if her flues have to be scrubbed after each trip. I think that I secretly agree.