A Firefighter’s Steamer

The saga of Case No. 26701: a 1912 75 HP single-cylinder, double-acting steam engine

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Another view of the 75 HP Case, with purchased and rebuilt fuel and water bunkers.

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With any piece of equipment this old there is bound to be an account on how it survived. Many times we remark, “If only this engine could talk, imagine the tales it could tell.”

Fortunately, the history of this steamer can be told, for in its life it has only had four owners. For the past 45 years, it was owned and cared for by George Miller. When George agreed to sell it to me I visited him, along with my father, to hear his story. My dad wrote down this tale and I’m fortunate to have it to share with you.

If you ever visited Absarokee, Mont., you may have noticed this steamer tucked back into the corner of George’s yard. George says there had been a steady stream of visitors to the engine over the years. Although he planned to operate it again, the years just seemed to slip by, and when he turned 92 he decided it was finally time to sell it. I’m grateful he decided to sell it to me.

Jump to a section:
— Origins of Case No. 26701
— With a new owner, the restoration begins
— Firing up after more than 50 years 
 

The saga of Case engine No. 26701

According to George, this steam engine was built in 1912. It is a 75 HP, single-cylinder, double-acting steam engine.

It was shipped by rail to the J.I. Case dealer in Billings, Mont. The dealer did not sell it immediately, so he leased it for plowing and threshing in the fall of 1912. It pulled a 12-bottom plow with the plows spaced 14 inches apart, plowing a 16-foot-wide swath.

In 1913, the engine was bought by two brothers, Jake and Howard Swinaker. They drove it 85 miles from Billings to their farm near Nye, Mont. Traveling at 2-1/2 MPH, the trip took 3-1/2 weeks. They had to reinforce the bridges that they crossed, and even then the engine nearly broke through one bridge; the bent wheel and broken step the steamer sustained from this near accident are still visible almost 100 years later.

For the next year the Swinaker brothers used the engine alternately for farming and to run their sawmill.

In 1915, Jake bought a 15 HP J.I. Case steam engine to use on the farm. Howard took over the 75 HP steam engine to permanently power his sawmill.

The sawmill was called the Picket Pin Sawmill and was located at the foot of Mount Wood on Forest Service land south of Nye. The trees were felled and bucked into 16-foot lengths. The logs were hauled down the mountainside using a steam powered donkey engine, spar trees and high-wire logging.

The sawmill had a 24-inch diameter circular saw and a 32-foot long carriage. The logs were turned by hand with cant hooks. The steam engine had two belt pulleys. The larger diameter flywheel pulley drove the saw and the smaller diameter outboard pulley moved the carriage back and forth on 32-foot long rails.

The sawmill ran with a crew of three to five men. The steam engine burned cord wood.

The wheels were removed, but fortunately kept nearby. The coal and water bunkers were discarded because they got in the way of the wood firing.

Howard and his two sons ran the sawmill from 1915 to 1938. Howard died in 1938.

After his death, the sawmill and its steam power plant were purchased by Montana Polytechnical College (Rocky Mountain College). They operated the sawmill to teach sawmill engineering. The U.S. Government took over the sawmill and ran it from 1944 to 1946 to cut mine timbers, which were needed for the nearby chromium mine. A teacher from the college bought the sawmill from the government at the end of the war. He ran it for two years and then shut it down. When the teacher died, the Marsfield family inherited the sawmill.

It is at this point that many of these early steam engines met an untimely end. Fortunately for No. 26701, George bought the sawmill and this Case from the family for $1,000 in 1950.

George ran the sawmill and the associated logging operation from 1950 to 1958. There was a good supply of timber within high-wire logging distance and the sawmill never moved from its 1915 location. The government closed the forest to logging in 1958 and ordered the sawmill and the steam engine off the land. The boiler was given its annual inspection by Pat Whelan, the Montana boiler inspector, in 1958. It was in good operating condition when it was shut down. This was the last time the boiler made steam.

At this time George reinstalled the wheels and running gear, and using a Caterpillar D-9 bulldozer pulled the Case out of the woods to Herb Russel’s ranch between Nye and Livingston. It sat out in the rain on the Limestone Ranch from 1958 to 1978.

In 1978, George had the Case loaded on a flatbed truck and hauled to his yard in Absarokee. It sat in the open, peeking out from behind George’s house, for the next 23 years.

I purchased the Case in April 2001, had it loaded on a lowboy trailer and hauled to my ranch in White City, Ore., where I began the two year refurbishment.

Fighting a fire for old friends

Absarokee, Mont., seems like a long way away from Oregon, and without a specific reason to go there I don’t think anyone would happen upon this little town. In the summer/fall of 2006 I was working as a pilot for Erickson Aircrane, a large firefighting helicopter operator. We flew all over the U.S. last year, from Texas to Massachusetts to Oregon. Toward the end of the summer I was based in Plains, Mont., as an initial attack helicopter. This means that we are the first responder of observed smoke and as such fly all over the state putting out fires.

So when I was dispatched to Big Timber, Mont., I didn’t really look where the fire was, I just flew to it to begin work. The fire was already large when we arrived, much too big for a single helicopter to contain. And later that first day the fire blew up and became a monster. It swept down toward a town called ... Absarokee. So there I was working near a town that I did not expect to ever see again.

This is where it got interesting and personal for me. When we bought the Case steam engine and wrote down George Miller’s story, he had clear memories of where the engine worked cutting timber its whole life. It was parked on the Picket Pin Mountain, cutting timbers for the nearby chromium mine. He also related where the engine was moved and sat (the Limestone Ranch) after it was removed from Picket Pin.

The Big Timber fire covered more than 150,000 acres. When I looked at the map during a morning briefing, I noticed many familiar names and finally realized where I had heard them before – at breakfest with George, many years before. I was flying over the places that had been only memories before, yet I was getting to see where the engine had been. It was fascinating connecting the past with the present.

The fire turned out to be very bad for Dorothy Miller and her family, with much of their grazing land burned. I certainly didn’t realize when we were fighting the fire, especially on those first couple of days, that there was this connection, and I found it amazing. I was glad to be able to do my part to reduce the toll on her family. [Back to the section menu.]

A new owner

As with most projects, I can honestly say that if I had known what I was getting into I might not have done it.

However, the fact of the matter is that I did buy George’s engine. I really didn’t do any research before buying the Case: I thought having a steamer would be fun and when I saw this one it looked like it needed a new owner. The engine was sort of just stuffed amongst the other “collectibles” of George’s life, and piles of stuff just grew up around it.

From my inexperienced eye, the Case looked mostly complete. Of course there were some visible problems: the bullet holes in the heat exchanger, the front of the cylinder hanging off, lots of rust and so on. Mostly it appeared that if someone didn’t take care to restore it, this engine would become just another piece of junk rusting away.

Bringing history home

The project immediately began to show its size; what seemed to be an easy job (just put it on a trailer) became much more than that. First of all everything was stuck, and despite all our efforts to make the engine roll it wouldn’t budge. Lowboys are expensive and having one sitting around I could hear the “ding ding” of the cash register. We finally determined it would be easier to lift the Case and place it on the lowboy. Wrong again. At 10 tons it wouldn’t lift with the Cat 966 front end loader we had begged from a local construction site. So we lifted just the back and voilà, rolled it on its front wheels onto the trailer.

Next, permits were required because it is exactly 6 inches over width.

The trucking company did a great job, and one day later it rolled into my driveway. I thought I was prepared to roll it off and had a forklift there to, once again, raise the firebox end and roll it off. No dice. The forklift wasn’t big enough to do the job. So I brought out a John Deere MFWD tractor to drag it off. Still no dice. The driver was a patient man and the bill had been agreed on in advance.

I figured the next best thing would be to start the disassembly of the stuck parts right then and there. So, that’s what we did. Fortunately, we found in short order that the rear wheels would move, and by disengaging the drive gears from the spur gears we could roll the engine back. And that’s how we discovered that all the drive engine parts were totally rusted together. But the first step was complete, the Case now sat outside of my shop. Little did I realize it would sit in that spot for the next two years!

It wasn’t that I didn’t work on the 1912 75 HP Case; in fact, it was just the opposite. From the day it arrived, it seemed that I was working on the engine. I quickly found there were many times that two or more people were required to disassemble something, and one of the real charms of these old pieces of iron surfaced – folks just loved to help.

Whether it was a neighbor who came by or the UPS man seeing me struggle with a heavy part, it seemed there was always a helping hand when it was needed. Along with the hand usually came a story and 10 minutes of work could easily become an hour, but that was part of the fun. Very little of the restoration would have happened were it not for the chance meeting of a true steamer’s friend.

When I purchased the Case I flew to Billings, Mont., and on my way from the airport we drove by the D&H Spring shop. I noticed a variety of steamers sitting outside and stopped to meet the owner, Corky Staudinger. How fortunate I chanced upon Corky, for he was the catalyst that sparked the whole restoration effort. I had never worked on a steam engine before. In fact, in southern Oregon they are a pretty rare item and I had seen only one or two actually under power before. Although I had worked on many pieces of farm equipment, I found this one a bit intimidating. Obviously all the running gear had to come off, but I had no idea where to start.

I called D&H and in no time Corky had me squared away. Bit by bit I disassembled it all, from flywheel to flues. In fact, I found out, unlike modern steel, if something was stuck I couldn’t just apply more force. When I tried that on the old Case, things simply bent or broke. Even bolts as thick as my thumb sheared off if I used a big enough cheater bar to make them move. So the steamer taught me the lesson that Corky had first spoken about – patience, and lots of it.

Over time, though, it slowly became a pile of parts and after a few months I had boxes of parts ready to send to Corky. You can probably imagine how anxious I was to get the parts back, but it took more patience (about a year’s worth) before all the pieces arrived. Corky had resleeved the cylinder, machined new surfaces on the valve box and balance valve, and rebuilt the governor. He rebuilt the cross slide and machined a new piston rod. He also calibrated the oiler and sent along a half dozen replacement spokes for the rear wheels. But the most important thing Corky did was share his experience and the right attitude to adopt when taking on a project like this, and I thank him for that.

Boilers and fittings

While the engine and other parts were at Corky’s there were dozens of other things to do, but foremost in my mind was a careful inspection of the boiler and related steam fittings. A savvy buyer would have this kind of thing checked before the purchase, but George Miller, the previous owner, assured me everything was good, and I believed him. The boiler inspector, however, wanted more assurance and so it was onto the next step.

First a careful visual inspection, which had me removing the fire pan so the interior of the firebox could be checked. The fire pan literally fell apart when it was removed, so this was my first fabrication project. Removing the fire pan to get access to the firebox was important, because if there was any evidence of an overheated crown sheet it would show as a warped plate and possibly damaged stay bolts. George described how the engine was parked near a spring and how it always had a plentiful supply of water, so I wasn’t too worried.

I also removed all the hand hole covers so the stay bolts and water legs could be inspected. An interesting note is that the original fusible plug was still installed. I took this as a good sign, and other than a considerable build-up of scale the boiler and related parts visually checked out OK. I spent considerable time cleaning the scale deposits, and found a vacuum and a long pipe were pretty handy. Next was the more intensive ultrasonic inspection, which involves smoothing spots on the boiler so a device can be attached that measures the thickness of the steel.

Dozens of places were checked and compared to the factory drawings to determine any loss of thickness. Once again the water legs and crown sheet around the firebox were of major concern, but when it was all completed I was relieved that George had been correct: The boiler was fine. I was told to replace all the steam pipes and valves with modern schedule 80 fittings and was cautioned to replace a half dozen rivets where the flue sheet connected to the smokebox, as the heads had become badly corroded. This was to be my next project.

I contacted a suggested boiler repairman who specialized in this type of work and was astonished to get a price of more than $3,000 for this small job; something about “liability and old engines.” I felt this wasn’t the appropriate price or attitude and decided I would do it myself. I work as a helicopter pilot and have an airframe repairman license. I figured if I could rivet together an airplane safely, I could certainly perform this work on the Case. A quick call to Corky for the necessary tools, rivets and “how tos” and I began the work. I’m happy to report, it really is a pretty simple procedure, and in short order the needed rivets were removed, and the replacements were heated and set.

It was during this time I noticed issues with some of the flues. Some just didn’t feel right as I worked the flue brush in and out of them. I made an air pressure tool and found a number of the flues had holes. It seemed only right that I was going to get some hands-on experience at replacing flues as well. I figured modern boilers had flues, so a look in the Yellow Pages turned up a local shop that said they would take a look. When the repairman showed up he was all smiles, and said compared to swimming pool boilers and the like, this job looked like fun. With that kind of attitude, he was hired.

We had to measure and special order the correct flue tubing. This took a week or so and during that time I removed the old tubes. Since I didn’t have a tubing cutter, I carefully used a die grinder and removed the bead. I then slid the tubes out. Having some of them removed sure made it a lot easier to get to the remaining scale inside the boiler, so it was back to vacuuming.

Once the tubing arrived the repairman returned and in no time the new tubes were fixed in place. It was about then when the parts from D&H arrived and I was ready to begin the real heart of the restoration.

Rebuild

With so many of the parts coming back rebuilt by Corky, it would be easy to think that by installing them the job would be complete. Unfortunately, these parts were only a fraction of the total project. Some parts were simply missing, like the handles to the smokebox door. Others such as the step frames were broken and beyond repair. It was through Emanuel King at the Cattail Foundry that replacements were sourced. He cast perfect replicas for most of the small iron parts I needed, but there were other problems.

Fifty years of sitting outside had a predictable effect on bearings and axle shafts, so all of the rotating parts had to be removed and cleaned. When you consider that some of the parts aren’t supposed to come apart easily, such as the flywheel to crankshaft, trying to make them come apart was an exasperating experience. The parts are big and unwieldy. Too much force or heat would damage them irreparably. I spent hours and weeks trying to get them apart, sometimes measuring a day’s work in minute amounts of movement. But patience and perseverance prevailed, and eventually the rear wheels were off the axle, the countershaft and pinions gears were removed, the giant differential gear was on the floor, the flywheel and clutch assembly were removed, and the intermediate gear was set aside.

Removing the parts was only half the battle. Seeing all those parts and making them fit was sort of the low point in the restoration process. But it was winter and with plenty of long nights I reworked the pieces in my own shop. Over the next couple of months all the rebuilt parts were reinstalled.

With the help of eBay I was able to purchase a Case steam engine manual, original including grease stains. It is remarkable how complete the old manual was, and I found the page with the top view of the engine to be especially helpful in locating where all the parts belonged. I really enjoyed reading about timing the engine properly. This is the procedure where all the associated parts, namely the piston, slide valve, valve gear, eccentric, reverse head and many other parts work in harmony to introduce steam to the piston at just the right time. The manual pretty much takes you through step by step, from locating the index marks on the flywheel, to finding dead center and dividing the leads, and a bunch of other neat old terms. Everything just seemed to move like it was supposed to.

When I was actually able to grasp the flywheel for the first time and rotate it, I was thrilled to hear the air hissing out of the open cylinder cocks. The Case was almost breathing again! It was time to look at all the plumbing and associated valves, but before I got started there was one other big project to tackle.

When I purchased the engine from George it did not have any fuel bunkers attached. There had been bunkers at some point, but once it was parked in the woods they had become a nuisance, and were removed and discarded. George did have a really rusty set of bones I was able to pick through to get some original parts to begin the reconstruction of a new set.

I was just getting started on the restoration when I came across Duane Woods in Wallace, Neb. We got to talking and I realized Duane could supply me with a set of bunkers for about what it would cost to build them myself. So I sent my old parts to Nebraska, and a couple months later Duane’s bunkers showed up. Duane will send bunkers in any stage of completion and I got the semi-kit style with plenty of detail work still needed, because I wanted to use as much of the old bunker steel as possible. In some areas I actually removed Duane’s work so I could install old steel. In others, it was removing modern bolt fasteners and replacing them with rivets. In the end, between the two of us, I got a set of bunkers I was really happy with. After a week or so of painting I had them just where I wanted them – on the back of the steamer. Best of all, Duane supplied me with a wonderful water transfer factory scene and this completed the job.

Now that I could easily step up to the quadrant shelf, it was time to duplicate, fit and replace all the steam pipes I had removed earlier. Aside from dozens of trial fits and some really stubborn ends that fit into the boiler, this part was routine work. At one point I even hooked the engine to my air compressor and marveled at how, for a few short moments, the beautiful running gears would all silently move. After two years of work the Case was looking like it was ready to move with steam. But was I?

Rebuilding the fuel bunkers

This Case engine was built in 1912. At that time an engine like this often had to travel from job to job to do the threshing on many farms. On the rear of the engine was a platform the driver and fireman could stand. Additionally, a set of contractors bunkers were mounted to carry enough fuel, usually coal or wood, and water to last at least an hour. This engine originally had bunkers, but when it was parked as a stationary power plant for a sawmill the narrow platform and step made it difficult to fire, so they were removed. When I purchased the engine there was a set of bunkers included, but they fit a 65 HP Case and were in such poor condition that they could only be used for patterns and small castings.

The new bunkers were constructed by Duane Wood of Wallace, Neb. Duane built the coal tenders, and he did it quickly and at a reasonable cost. He integrated the new and old parts and made them look as original as possible. I took what he sent and reworked many of the new parts to include the parts from the older, original bunkers. This involved removing screws and bolts, and replacing them with hot set rivets wherever possible utilizing the original metal to make the toolboxes, coal doors and rounded corners. [Back to the section menu.]

First steam-up

A recent boiler explosion at a state fair had really brought to light how an inexperienced hand could needlessly cause injury and harm to others. Since I had no experience to draw on, I was really torn. I was anxious to run my steamer, yet I wanted to do it in a safe manner. I was very fortunate to read about a steam school in Brooks, Ore., and when I called for information I found they would be holding their annual school in only two months. For that long I could be patient. In fact, it was during this time that my dad visited to see how the project looked.

As pleased as he was, he couldn’t help but notice that one of the front wheels was really crooked. This and other damage came from the engine’s first trip from Billings to Nye, Mont., in 1912. While crossing a stream the bridge collapsed, and the evidence from this accident was not yet repaired. Dad figured since he had trued up many bicycle wheels this one couldn’t be much harder. Lots of elbow grease and penetrating lubricant proved him right, and the wheel now looks much better. Dad also built me a custom 1912 Case step for the side of the steamer.

Two months passed in a flash, and the steam school was wonderful. There were about 20 of us attending and we learned about the safe operation of a steamer from front to back. Best of all it turned out they had nearly the identical twin to my engine – a 1911 Case 75 HP! By the second day we were all happily clanking around and blowing whistles, grinning from ear to ear. It was interesting to note that of all the people, none of them owned a steam engine.

Most were there to be certified so that at the Great Oregon Steam-up, Brooks, they could operate Antique Powerland’s own rolling stock. So it felt pretty good to be driving home to my own freshly rebuilt engine.

To say I was excited just doesn’t begin to cover the accomplishment of rebuilding the Case. It took several years of perseverance, a commitment of funds and the enduring support of my wife, Dianne, to make this day happen. But when the next Sunday rolled around I was finally ready. Following the procedures I had learned at Brooks and in the Case manual, I precisely filled the boiler and water tank, lubed everything, carefully made a fire in the firebox and watched as a small tendril of smoke made its way out of the smokestack for the first time in more than 50 years. Such a joyful feeling.

As winter rain fell, bit by bit the boiler warmed, the fire grew and the pressure slowly built on the steam gauge. The unmistakable smell of wet steam and ash surrounded the engine with its sweet aroma. A turn of the blower knob and the steam hissed up the stack, a cloud of vapor to mark the occasion. Like the whole rebuilding process, the firing of the Case I named after George took patience. The metal sang, the fire popped and the pressure grew. And finally, after all, I blew the whistle, opened the cylinder cocks, set the reverse lever and opened the throttle. As silently and smoothly as you can possibly imagine, the piston moved and the flywheel turned. Just like that, the Case steam engine that sat frozen in time for five decades was alive again.

Epilogue

I have so enjoyed this Case steam engine. It is one of the most satisfying projects I have ever begun. I use the Case on our ranch several times a year and marvel at the power it displays as it pulls a 16-foot harrow across my fields. The sound the engine makes at full song is exquisite – the deep chuff of the stack and the soft whisper of the open cylinder cocks. I have tried many whistles on it, but the original three-tone chime is definitely my favorite, as it was to George. The sound attracts people who come from miles away to watch it work.

Running the engine at the ranch is completely different than at shows, where a bit of steam pressure seems to last all day. We fire the engine with wood, so it takes a careful engineer to keep the pressure up and not blow the relief valve. It certainly takes a lot of wood and a lot of water, but the result is pure steam power. Since we have horses, it is easy for me to make the comparison between the nostalgia of both on a farm. I can certainly see why the farmer embraced steam power so quickly and what a miracle it must have been when the first steam engines made their presence known.

As for me, it is a privilege to own and operate this engine. I am finding more interesting information about it all the time. For instance, it has been suggested to me that the Case has a very rare tapered clutch slide, a part that most engines had field replaced in 1913. Apparently, since this Case was already parked in the trees, no one thought to remove it. I’m also asked if I plan to paint the engine, something I just can’t bear to do since I like the fact that it still has the grease and grime on it from when George last ran it, not to mention his unique smokebox art.

I certainly encourage anyone who dreams of having their own engine to give it a try, for there are many knowledgeable people to help you. I only know there is something deeply satisfying about owning and operating a steam engine. It’s not like owning a Model T, which aside from its reliability is not much different from what you drive today. A steam engine somehow captures and delivers a timeless essence that few other pieces of machinery can, and it is the reason why men like George Miller keep and cherish them for their entire lives. This essence is why – when I fulfilled a promise made to once again make the engine run – when George’s wife played the video of the sounds of the Case operating, tears flowed from his nearly sightless eyes. So when all is said and done, I would do it all over again, because restoring a piece of mechanical history and making it yours is, in the end, priceless. [Back to the section menu.ST