THE STEAM SHOVEL

An Erie Advertisement

Courtesy of Lt. Col. John E. Merriken, 122 Hunting Lane, Simpsonville, Maryland 21150 (An Erie Advertisement, self-explanatory)

Lt. Col. John E. Merriken

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122 Hunting Lane, Simpsonville, Md. 21150

The pleasures which occupied a small boy of forty years ago would pale by comparison with the more sophisticated pastimes that engage the youth of today. Though, apart from organized-supervised-subsidized play, the curiosity of any boy's mechanical propensities in those days 'came to grips' with reality in a more tangible sense than Junior's present-day observation of an airplane of the quaint gadgetry employed by his spy hero on television. How many boys currently fascinated by the intricacies of a jet aircraft have ever examined its inner workings? Or what aspiring young rail-fan has actually seen what makes the roar beneath the hood of a GP-35? With good reason, of course, rules of security and safety have ordained certain totems and taboos which inhibit the inquisitive. But in a former less formal era of simpler machines, the young bystander, if he watched closely and listened well, was often rewarded with permission to ask, to touch, even to participate.

It has been said that of all man's many inventions, perhaps the Steam Engine was the most nearly 'human' of all machines. From the feathered opening of a steam valve, as the first motion stirred almost imperceptibly to the thundering fury of The Capitol Limited doing 80-plus, the iron horse was capable of a response not unlike the ones of real flesh and blood. A steam engine was either alive or dead; it could purr or bark; it might drool or spit; but when it did begin, the elemental forces of cause and effect were completely exposed for the more zetetic to see and understand.

In the age of the coal-fired boiler, there was of course the glamorous locomotive, the romantic steam boat, or the highly-polished stationary engine which drove some large generating plant, and the all-purpose farm tractor. But another impressive adaptation of this power was the common Steam Shovel.

'They're fascinating things - - these hybrid brutes. Their throat less mouths ever opened wide, Deliberate - - they gorge on clay and roots, Swinging their great blind heads from side to side' (Frederick W. Branch)

To be sure, those magnificent behemoths that dug the Panama Canal or worked the large open-pit strip mines were also steam shovels; but the more frequent neighborhood variety was a smaller machine, which usually arrived overnight to begin some large foundation or start ripping up the asphalt along Main Street. By some coincidence, all but one of the steam shovel names reflected the industries of Ohio. There was the BUCYRUS, the MASSILLON, the VULCAN, the OSGOOD and the The equipped with horizontal pistons; or the MARION and the ERIE with their vertical cylinders.

In addition to the main hoisting engine, there were on each shovel, two auxiliary mountings known as the swinging engine (for rotating the whole body) and, on the boom, a crowding engine which controlled the thrust of the dipper. Each engine had its own exhaust, but it was the crowding engine's vent pipe at the tip of the boom, which whistled an invitation for blocks around. Whenever there was a pause for any length of time, the unused pressure would be released via long piercing blasts from the safety valve. And as work resumed, condensation in the cylinders was cleared briefly by several spouts of scalding water from the boom; and a gush of hot mist from the stack.

With the main engine operating, the hoisting friction was engaged automatically by a steam ram mounted on the side of the winch; and when taking a bite at a particularly obstinate tree stump or boulder, the fulcrum action of the boom might lift the whole rear end right off the ground. The controls on the OSGOOD differed, in that an overhead throttle;, in addition to a manually-operated friction ram, required a fourth lever to be constantly re-set with each reversal of the hoisting drum. The dipper was lowered and relatched through the action of a foot brake. By a synchronous wielding of four levers, a foot pedal and a rope, a skillful operator could coordinate the Bite-Swing-Reach-Load-and-Return in one rhythmic spiral, which was an art all its own.

For emptying the pay-load from the dipper, a latch was released by means of a rope to the cab. As the dipper extended or retracted, this rope was played out or retrieved by a small drum on the side of the crowding engine; though some of the older shovels, without this refinement, required the operator to gather in an armful of rope before he could trip the latch. If a load of earth was sticky or stubborn, the crowding engine could be agitated in such a way that the dipper tongue applauded repeatedly in a loud clapping noise.

One of the older shovel manufacturers was named for Richard Thew, the skipper of a Great Lakes ore freighter. In an effort to expedite the loading of iron ore, Captain Thew had conceived the idea of a revolving turntable which first enabled a full-circle swing mounting for a power shovel. And unlike most other machines that used an independent crowding engine on the boom, the THEW employed a horizontal beam which guided a chain-driven shipper action. But the thrust, being thus restricted to a horizontal plane, imposed limitations on its ability to reach out. By contrast, the more flexible crowding action of a long dipper handle, fully extended, could load a wagon or truck atop a 16-ft. bank. The advantages of a high reach from deep cellar excavations were thus reserved to the more conventional type of shovel design.

The improved models crawled about ponderously on continuous-belt caterpillar treads; though many of the older shovels were mounted on massive cast iron wheels which required heavy timber mats to be dragged forward with each move to afford solid footing on the soft earth. With the propelling clutch in gear, the shovel steered itself by means of a tiller which could be coupled to the turntable.

Among those remembered best, was on old red MARION which stayed for more than six months, as she cut through all the new streets, east-west, north-south, leaving our houses high and dry amid a sea of mud. The encampment included tons of soft coal, loads of 2-inch water pipe to be assembled to the nearest fire hydrant, and bales of hay for the horses corralled each evening under a small circus tent. As a persistent spectator, I had soon completed several pencil sketches of this daily scene which, before long, concentrated more on drawings and wooden models of the old MARION. My keen observations were soon acknowledged by the steam shovel crew; and eventually earned for me an unofficial status as sort of juvenile apprentice mechanic. I ran errands to the store, raked the ashes from the pan, carried wood for the morning fire, and coiled the hose. But my real badge of authority was a large brass oil can and wad of waste which entitled me to climb all over the shovel during the waits between wagons. To this day, I have never seen the builder's diagram of a steam shovel, though can safely say that old MARION never lacked for proper lubrication.

At intervals, we observed a ritual known as 'taking the grade' A spirit level would be attached to a cord drawn taut from the surveyor's stake at the head of the cut. Then a surveyor's mast was held vertically against the cord to determine that the cut was so many inches too high or two low. Through a somewhat more complicated process, we could also verify the degree of ascent. Guts were always made up hill - never down grade.

The noon hour, pay call or quitting time were always announced by a long blast of old MARION'S mournful whistle. During the lunch hour, one of the wagons was backed up to her boiler to replenish the coal bunker. On the opposite side, the fireman had rigged up a home-made steam chest that could launder the greasiest overalls which came out remarkably clean. At the end of the day, we occasionally reversed the large teeth on the dipper and turned them to equalize wear. From constant digging, those teeth were burnished to a high polish that fairly glistened. On rainy days when the earth became too muddy to work, the wagon drivers were out of work; though the crew of the shovel were always kept busy cleaning the flues, repacking the steam couplings, or relining the clutch.

After months of bustling activity, it was a bleak day in January when old MARION finally completed her mission. They banked the fire, lowered her boom, and towed by two large dump trucks,, she started back to the city, clattering down the street on those big cast iron wheels. I followed her to the new job, but the distance involved, and school obligations, soon prevented my daily duty with the Steam Shovel and her crew who, meanwhile, had become my good friends. In time, she moved even farther away.

Thereafter, I would travel by bicycle to watch and draw any steam shovel working within a radius of five miles. Eventually, the BUCYRUS builders were merged with ERIE; the THEW shovel became a LORAIN; and the MASSILLON disappeared entirely. Newer models were introduced as a one-man operation with gasoline-compressed air power; but they somehow lacked the fury of fire and smoke, or the enchantment of steam with that deafening blast of a safety valve.

As with sights and sounds, there is also a formula of smells which carries us,, vicariously, to the pleasant scenes of long ago. Indeed, if fragrance is a matter of personal preference, one of mine would include the ingredients of soft coal smoke and steam mingled with that sweet freshness of the good earth.