Volunteers coax a century-plus Frick Eclipse steam engine back to life.
Howard Horne inside the firebox. The opening on the firebox door measures all of 13 inches.
More than a century after it was built, and decades since it had last run, a 1912 Frick Eclipse recently got a second wind, coaxed back to life by a crew of volunteers. The history of the 7-inch x 10-inch double-cylinder engine (serial no. 16043) is unknown. The Eclipse predates the time when the Frick Co., Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, began to maintain records; no records exist for it at the Frick Engine Club repository in Julian, North Carolina.
After Bill Drake bought the Eclipse, in about 1970, he took it to his farm near Huntsville, Alabama. He made some initial efforts to restore it, but soon gave up. The Eclipse needed an enormous amount of work. The crankshaft, valvetrain, clutch, reverser, cross shaft and axle were rusted solid. The engine’s background is unknown. If Bill – since deceased – told anyone where he got the engine, we’ve yet to hear of it.
Bill’s brother, Tom Drake, is the current owner of the Eclipse. In October 2014, he gave the green light for restoration. Tom has faithfully supported the effort with his presence, encouragement and footing bills for replacement parts. Burton Marsh, Greenbriar, Alabama, directed the project, and I became an assistant. Maurice Thompson, Somerville, Alabama, joined the crew as a regular co-worker. Ray Ferguson, Harvest, Alabama, and Walter Clement, Old Salem, Tennessee, worked as our machinists, and Walter has been our main steam technical advisor. Others (including Mike Rodgers and Brad Jennings, both of Huntsville, Alabama) have contributed to this dirty and often difficult job. Most of us have declared it a highlight of our lives, outshining many other projects involving antique equipment.
The initial goal was to free the engine and run it using a smaller, separate boiler. Chainsaws were used to remove maple trees from under the front axle (the wood was later burned in the boiler). All of the peripherals were removed: the original Frick/H. Belfield Bourdon tube pressure gauge, 2-inch Pickering governor, 1-1/2-inch American Steam Gauge & Valve Mfg. Co. pressure relief valve, McCullough steam lubricator, water level sight glass and Penberthy steam injector. Connecting rods and valve linkages were disconnected and removed, as were the cylinder heads.
With lots of penetrating oil and a 10-pound hammer applied to the crossheads, the pistons were finally dislodged. Rings on the right side were worn thin and broken. Those on the left were hardly worn at all, but a complete new set was purchased from David Reed at Otto Gas Engines in Elkton, Maryland – except that in each of the four 5/8-inch ring grooves now rest a pair of 3/8-inch and 1/4-inch rings, since the wider ones were much less available and these serve very well. In the past, wood sliders were crafted and placed under the cross heads, possibly from the factory. A new set was cut from maple blocks.
The crankshaft and flywheel finally yielded to a long pry pole chained to the spokes and, with lots of penetrating oil, eventually spun freely. The valve eccentric also came free, and its linkages were exercised (both valves use the one eccentric). The steam chests were opened and the D-valves examined. The valves were worn, but completely intact and serviceable, though leaky, as we later learned.
The crank rods and valves were reconnected and packed, with careful attention to positioning the pistons with the steam supply ports and setting the valves to admit steam to each piston at exactly the right points of travel. A separate boiler was piped into the bottom of the governor housing using a 10-foot length of 3/4-inch line, delivering 50 pounds of steam. With manual encouragement applied to the flywheel, the assembly slowly began to rotate under its own power. A hearty celebration ensued. It is impossible to tell when the engine was last operated, but it was likely replaced by a gasoline or diesel tractor prior to 1930, like so many of its huge, cumbersome counterparts.
Why stop there? The clutch fought valiantly, but finally broke over and clamped the wooden shoes against the inside of the flywheel. Attempts to disassemble the shoes have so far been too daunting to pursue, even though under load, the shoes don’t have enough grip to drive the gear train. But this engine has a set of locks that slide into place and override the shoes, fixing the flywheel to its mating driven plate and gear.
The rear wheels were jacked up and blocked (the tractor weighs about 12 tons) and the clutch was engaged against the flywheel. Two of us tugged the flywheel back and forth, advancing an inch at a time, and slowly moved the wheels. Hard clay wasp nests were dug from each cog gear tooth and grease was slathered in. After a full revolution, we declared the drivetrain ready for steam. But little else was.
The main steam supply valve’s foot had been broken off and was badly damaged. The Buckeye throttle valve was intact, but so worn that it couldn’t shut off the flow. The governor was rusted solid and its springs had rotted away. The pressure relief valve was unreliable, holding pressure up to a point, but then failing to reseat, such that it would have dumped the entire boiler had it ever actuated. Burton had a similar size replacement that works perfectly.
The steering chain linkage on the right side was intact, but the axle bracket on the left was missing. We used log chains to reattach to the axle, leaving lots of slack since the adjustment turnbuckle was rusted solid. The original pressure gauge, cleaned and checked against a new one, worked perfectly. The original three-note chime whistle was cleaned and installed, and produced marvelous and very loud signals.
The original smokebox door and liner were held on by one hinge. A replacement was cast by Emmanuel King at Cattail Foundry, Gordonville, Pennsylvania, using the original Frick wood pattern. Years ago, the Frick Co. donated all remaining wood casting patterns to the Frick Engine Club. Many were later sent to Cattail for use in making replacement parts.
Cattail also cast a cleat used to attach the front axle pedestal to the boiler. One of the bolts securing this piece had rotted away. When the front of the boiler was lifted while attempting to move the machine, the cleat that was loaded only by the one remaining bolt snapped in two. Ray machined four 3/4-inch by 12-pitch anchor bolts; these are serving very well with the new cleat.
All four spokes on the original steering wheel had been snapped off. Although the pieces had been retained, a new wheel and knob were cast at Cattail. Ray machined them to fit the steering shaft.
When the boiler was filled with water to perform a hydrostatic test, we found that one of the 50 fire tubes had a significant leak. Wood plugs were cut to fit and pounded in place on each end. One obstacle was the 13-inch diameter firebox door, through which none of us could fit. A slender friend, Howard Horne, Huntsville, Alabama, was recruited to crawl inside and set the plug (more on that later). With numerous other leaks, the pressure test was inconclusive.
Shim stock of .015-inch thickness was ordered from McMaster Carr Supply Co., sheared into strips and punched to fit the flyball governor. Opening the balls took some time, but with a soak in boiling kerosene, each opened to accept the spring strips. The ball ranger that adjusts the governor response is still badly corroded inside, but since need for its function is minimal in our limited operation, it was not restored. Otherwise the governor performs as intended.
The McCullough steam lubricator pump is of a strange design. Apparently it was never particularly reliable; few are found in use after the early 1900s. The McCullough employs a simple concept of an oscillating differential screw, but is inefficient and in fact unreliable for the purpose of supplying steam oil to the pistons and valves, as evidenced by the wear on internal engine parts. It has been replaced by a dual-pump Madison-Kipp force-feed oiler restored by Harold Stark. The Penberthy steam injector was not restored. Holes were corroded through the bottom of the water supply tank and the connecting plumbing had been removed.
Following repairs, the boiler was refilled and a repeat hydrostatic test was administered, holding at 70 psi, so it was time to fire the boiler. The peripherals – gauge, governor, pressure relief and a whistle – were installed. With the water level set to show at the top of the sightglass, the wood was lit. Ninety minutes later, steam began to hiss through the draft booster valve. Half an hour later, with the rear end again jacked and blocked off the ground, at 25 psi boiler pressure, we engaged the clutch and rotated the wheels, using the reverser to test that system as well. More celebration!
It quickly became obvious that this piece of machinery had become a local legend to neighbors who had driven past it for 40 years and watched trees slowly swallow it. While we worked, a dozen passersby stopped to chat. After that, crowds materialized every time smoke issued from the stack.
Joe Graziana traveled from Indiana to Huntsville to apply his ultrasound unit at critical places around the boiler walls. All showed 75 to 80 percent of the original thickness, indicating that this engine likely never saw heavy or continuous use during its working life. With that report, and with more minor leaks sealed, the hydrostatic test held at 90 psi. It was time to see if the engine could move itself around the yard.
The differential, the final system awaiting inspection, is located in an enclosure inside the left wheel. Because of the stiffness of the drivetrain, we had been unable to check the differential manually, so we jacked up just the left wheel. When the steam pressure came up sufficiently, we engaged the clutch. After a partial spin, both wheels began turning together again, and the engine rolled off the jack.
We continued around the yard, fully exercising all systems. It became apparent why one often sees two people on the operator’s platform. The engineer handling the clutch, throttle and reverser had scant time to maneuver from where the tractor had sat for 40 years, into the open. The steering wheel needs at least 40 turns to move the axle from lock to lock, and we had so much slack, even that proved minimal. The packing blew out from the right valve stem, ending the exercise, but the dream had come true: “Old Bill” (the new name for the old Frick, in honor of Bill Drake) had left its longtime resting place under its own power.
The much-shortened task list now included smoothing the valve rods to remove corrosion pitting caused by water in the stem packing. Walter performed that repair using a lathe in his shop that is older than the Eclipse. Later, he also smoothed the piston rods, which exhibited the same corrosion. When the valves were removed, the mating surfaces were examined for the first time. Both were worn. These mostly fit together, but still allowed leakage out the exhaust, robbing power from the engine. We reassembled the steam chests and determined to live with the leakage. Performance improved with continued lubrication and usage.
A new problem was revealed in the exercise. Both front wheels had so much wear on the axles that, when the direction of travel was changed, they flopped alarmingly side-to-side. The left wheel hub had been broken in the past and repaired with a set of rugged, hand-forged rings inside and out. The other wheel didn’t match, suggesting that the original had been broken and replaced. A section of steel exhaust tubing was cut to fit and driven into the gaps, with lots of grease, eliminating the wobble. Ray crafted a bracket to allow the steering chain to attach properly to the left axle. The turnbuckle at last came unlimbered, allowing the chain to be properly tensioned.
Again the boiler was fired to 70 psi and the clutch was engaged. After two passes across the lawn, when we had stopped to add water to the boiler, the wood plug in the firebox end of the leaky tube burned out, releasing a cloud of steam and putting out the fire. Afterward, a set of threaded rods and plates were inserted to capture the plugs, insuring against a repeat blowout. Since the source was the small hole in one tube, it wasn’t dangerous, but it was a stark reminder of how tricky steam can be. Most steam equipment was designed and built before safety needs were foremost in engineers’ minds. When something does go wrong, it casts a pall on operators and observers alike. Never allow carelessness to creep in.
We replaced the fusible plug in the roof of the firebox. It was intact and looked undamaged, but what couldn’t be determined with it in place was the condition of the zinc filler, which is designed to melt out and dump steam into the firebox if the water gets too low and the crown sheet overheats. In old plugs, the zinc has likely oxidized and hardened, raising its melt point beyond a safe limit.
Walter devised a method of sealing the leaky firetube. A wood spool was inserted inside the tube, spanning the leak. The spool swells when wet, sealing both sides of the hole with no net dislodging force and no exposure to flame. Since one tube already leaks, there are probably many more in the set of 50 on the verge of failing. A new set of tubes is the only real solution, but a decision to embark on that enormous task must be weighed against an assessment of difficulty and cost versus how often the engine will be operated in the future.
There are no current plans for extensive future operation or display of the Eclipse. Loading and unloading the behemoth would be enormously difficult; a massive trailer would be needed. Old Bill will likely be retired again. Someone may eventually take advantage of the engine’s generally good condition and acquire it for full restoration: new fire tubes, new front wheels, valve seating, cleaning and painting. But not this crew. We set out to restore the ancient relic to operation. We were successful, and it was the thrill of a lifetime. FC