The Phantom Whistle

Steam Car

This photograph comes from an early 1970s human interest story in the Morristown (NJ) Record. It is captioned, ''Behre and steam car - 20 m p h with ease.

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108 Garfield Avenue Madison, New Jersey 07940

One Sunday afternoon I was reading the paper out on my sun porch with the windows open to admit the gentle breeze. Above the ambient noises of the neighborhood I thought I heard the unmistakable sound of a steam locomotive whistle. Now I'm not so far away from the railroad tracks through town and I can often hear an engineer blowing for the Convent crossing. This wasn't a diesel's air horn. It was steam. It just had to be steam!

Thinking back, I had heard that whistle once before, perhaps a month or two earlier. Now and again I fire up my Crown Sheet Sales boiler to run my Stuart 5A engine out in the driveway and do probably annoy the neighbors by blowing its whistle from an ex-B&O freight engine. Was this the Flying Dutchman of whistles coming to haunt me?

Let's go find it! So off in the car with the windows down trying to vector in on the intermittent sound. Around the corner and a block away is a large church setting well back from the street which is surrounded by extensive parking facilities and driveways. The sound was coming from there. Pulling in off the street, I was face to face with an apparition coming towards me belching steam and emitting the sound that had originally attracted my attention. A tall slim boiler with its stack extending its height even further was hiding the operator of this vehicle. The seat he was occupying was a part of the angle iron frame. Suspended beneath this frame was a flat, twin cylinder steam engine of the Stanley Steamer genre and was propelling this collection of steam era memorabilia.

I parked my car to one side and melted into the crowd of onlookers that had gathered. What appeared to be the owner and his son and a friend were attending the needs of this unique transportation device. They had shut off the LPG burner and were unscrewing the whistle. The whistle? Next, water was being added to the boiler from a jerry can through the whistle connection.

This was too much. I broke my silence and asked, 'Why don't you use the injector?' A Penberthy injector was piped up to what turned out to be a rectangular water tank beneath the seat.

'We can't get it to work,' replied John Behre, its owner. By now the filling was completed and the whistle returned to its rightful place and the fire again lighted. I probably should have accepted his answer and let it go at that. Not me, I've got to get involved and most times I figure that 'no' or 'can't' is not an acceptable answer when the innate cussedness of inanimate objects such as an injector is involved.

Should have stayed home.

I nursed that injector and used every trick that I knew and tried to remember a few from 'Why The Injector Don't Work' (Mac Taylor, IMA January/February 1988). It would pick up nicely, the overflow shut off and the boiler check open momentarily then slam shut again with water again coming out the overflow. I finally had to give up, at least temporarily, for I was already late for a date to take my wife to dinner so I hurried off.

'Once late, a bit later is not going to be noticed' was the rationale used while I pawed through back issues of IMA looking for November/December 1987 and the centerfold material on the Penberthy injector. This we intended to drop off enroute to the restaurant hoping that it might contain an answer for the equally mystified steam enthusiasts.

My wife walked over to the group with me. They were again filling the boiler through the whistle opening. She looked around and spotted the principals involved and remarked, 'Who would have thought that there would be two steam nuts within a block of each other in this town?'

John and his helpers have since taken that injector apart, cleaned it, lapped the seats and put it back together. It still did not work. Now it simply had to be something besides the injector and it was.

The rig was originally built by John's father, the late John Behre, Sr. After his death it remained in the family garage and workshop until recently when John Jr. decided to get the 'steam car' into operation again. The boiler needed retubing and so was removed for that job. After hours of knuckle-skinning work in the cramped quarters of the firebox, the job was completed. When it was again mounted on the chassis and piped up it was like the boy that took the alarm clock apart and when he put it back together again he had a few parts left over. Somehow the piping between the injector and the boiler check valve didn't get put back the same way it came off.

For some reason the elbow that had been against the check valve was replaced with a tee. The run of the tee had a 6' nipple and a gate valve added so the boiler could be filled from a hose.

What was happening was that this added nipple and valve acted like a surge chamber and this was preventing the even flow of high velocity water to the check valve. By very carefully throttling the injector's water inlet valve I had been able to reach a point where a very small amount of water was entering the boiler while at the same time much water was issuing from the overflow and the overflow valve and the check valves were giving off a humming sound as they did a dance tuned to the cavity of the added nipple.

I wasn't the one to figure out the answer. It was John who finally put all of the facts together, including trying to remember how it was piped up in the first place. The piping was taken apart and redone with just a straight horizontal run from the injector to an elbow at the boiler check valve. After that it ran perfectly. Anyway, all you Iron-Men, here's one for the books. It is important that the run from the injector to the boiler be direct and without any branch piping.

The late John Behre Sr. was a steam man from many years back. His early collection of steam equipment was the subject of a photograph in the September/October 1967 IMA (p. 47). One day while visiting a Morristown, New Jersey junkyard he caught the 'junkie' cutting up, of all things, a Stanley Steamer! The body was gone and he was about to tackle the engine next when John Sr. rescued this twin cylinder 3' x 5' engine. That was in 1967. By the early 70's he had built the 'steam car' that I had met head-on in the church yard.