A Tale of Resurrection

1882 Harrison engine

The 1882 Harrison engine as Mr. Kunz found it.

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6131 Savio Drive, (Affton) St. Louis 23, Missouri

In the year 1882, exactly eighty years ago, older by far than most readers of this story, steam traction engine No. 714 was built by Harrison Machine Works of Belleville, Illinois.

Rated ten horse power, yet powerful and modern for the era, this engine was fitted with conventional equipment including cross head boiler feed pump and independent steam pump. Despite the fact it incorporated chain drive between crankshaft and idler gear, and that gear arrangement in front of flywheel made belting from the rear a necessity, it must have been considered a prize possession by its original owner. To date, all attempts to ascertain his identity have been without success.

But past and recent history as regards 'Old 714' unfolds a fascinating chain of events which easily approaches the extraordinary. Moreover, at this writing the end of the chapter is nowhere in sight.

Howell Island, located on the Missouri River some twenty miles upstream from St. Charles, Missouri, currently encompasses an area of nearly three thousand acres. It derives its name from an owner listed in early deeds of record. Normally, access is only by boat or barge.

In earlier years items of bulks, alive or otherwise, once transferred from the mainland were never returned. They were destined to finish out their existence amidst the island's eerie surroundings and the prevailing cold, clammy atmosphere.

Descendants of the family, who in 1903 were the owners engaged in farming the rich alluvial soil, recall that in that year the island was inundated by what they consider its most destructive flood. The raging stream had swept away livestock, implements, and all other possessions then in use. Wheat had constituted the principal crop.

Before action of any kind could be resumed, new equipment was required. No. 714, already more than twenty years old, was included in the ferrying operations. Later, as larger separators were utilized, more powerful engines were needed to handle them. This relegated 714 to inactive status or to occasional light tasks such as corn shelling and the like. Ironically, recent years witnessed the heavier, more modern engines on the island being cut up for scrap. Scheduled for the same fate, 714 was spared, but only because of difficulties of access brought about by the following events:

Submerged by flood waters in 1935, No. 714 was abandoned. It then gradually sank deeper and deeper into the swift, muddy waters and rapidly shifting sands of the great Missouri, all but forgotten in the luxuriant growth that soon sprang up around it. Thus, while this road toward oblivion provided the means for escaping the junkman's torch, it happily was not a road without end or interruption. Resurrection and restoration would later become the order of the day.

Should accolades be passed around for efforts at recovery, initial tribute should be allotted to a group of intrepid men, who, several years ago, learning quite by chance of the happenstances surrounding 714, became interested in the idea of rehabilitating the unusual relic. Suiting action to the thought, legal title was obtained by the quaint procedure of locating some twenty-five surviving heirs to the island and its appurtenances, and paying the reported sum of one dollar to each one.

Next came the process of uncovering and bringing once more into the light of day, the practically entombed remains from beneath its shroud of sand and the entangled roots of underbrush and trees. In several instances, trunks of trees emerged from between the spokes of wheels.

As reported to the author by one of the group, the task of clearing away the debris and other obstructions, and unfreezing and dismantling or demounting various items such as wheels, gearing, steering apparatus, etc., in preparation for moving, proved so difficult at times as to cause doubt the project could ever be successfully completed. Working Sundays, the group required a half year or more to complete this phase of 'Operation Recovery.'

A new form of worry then developed: How to safely transport 714 across intervening sloughs, or alternatively, across the main channel, headed toward the mainland and a new home. Fortunately, the season being winter, a severe cold spell propitiously set in, thus permitting towing by tractor over solidly frozen canals and sloughs onto firm ground.

Once transferred to more congenial surroundings, a comprehensive restoration program was put into effect. This included new boiler shell, front flue sheet, and new flues. Also required were new piston and rings, piston rod and other extensive machine work, including reboring engine cylinder and refacing valve and valve seat. Remounting of engine, crankshaft and bearings, front axle, rear axle stubs, and gearing on boiler followed.

Once again 714 was in condition to roll on its wheels, although still far from full restoration.