Industrial Strength: 1917 Vilter Corliss Steam Engine

Thanks to the Scott-Carver Threshers Assn., a 1917 Vilter Corliss steam engine powers its way into its second century.

| June 2019

vilter-steam-engine
From any direction that you examine it, the steam engine is huge. Built in 1917, the Vilter is 40
feet long and 20 feet wide. Plans call for the engine to be repainted.
Photo by Nikki Rajala.

When large industrial operations go through decline, layoffs and eventual closure, preservation of industrial relics is rarely considered. Fortunately, when a leading Twin Cities meatpacker shut down, that was not the case.

The saga begins in 1979, when the Armour & Co. meatpacking plant in St. Paul, Minnesota, shut down. The closure idled three 150-ton Corliss steam engines (built by Vilter Mfg. Co., Milwaukee) that had been used to compress ammonia.

For 10 years, the engines languished at the plant while thieves helped themselves to parts, especially those made of brass. The three engines were side by side. The two outside units suffered the worst of it; the one in the middle was mostly untouched.



Federal officials went to more than a little bit of effort to find a good home for one of the Vilters. The Armour site had been taken over by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which offered the middle engine to three separate entities: two clubs and one private party. The middle engine was the most complete of the trio. Before the plant closed, it had been taken down for repair and partially disassembled.

All three entities were given the opportunity to explain to HUD why they wanted the engine. In the end, the presentation made by Scott-Carver Threshers Assn., Jordan, Minnesota, proved the most persuasive, and HUD awarded the Vilter to that group. The remaining engines were scrapped.

Vilter-Corliss-valve
This picture shows the Corliss engine valve linkage of the steam engine built by Vilter Mfg. Co.
Photo by Bill Vossler.

Seven trips to haul it home

Once the group was given access, Scott-Carver member Dennis Krill began documenting engine parts. He attached yellow cow ear tags to each individual part, and hired a photographer to take pictures of each part and its location. When everything was documented, 10 members began taking the engine apart.

Then began the process of transporting the engine to the club’s showgrounds about 45 miles southwest of St. Paul. It was, to put it simply, a massive undertaking. Built just over a century ago, in 1917, the Vilter Corliss engine measures 40 feet long by 20 feet wide, with an 18-foot flywheel. The crankshaft and flywheel together weigh 35 tons.

vilter-engine-flywheel
The Vilter’s 18-foot-diameter flywheel is what first catches most
visitors’ eyes. The flywheel and crankshaft together weigh 35
tons.
Photo by Nikki Rajala.

The pieces were loaded onto a semi lowboy trailer using a manual overhead bridge crane in the building. The crane picked them up, rolled them across the building and set them down on the ground. From there, a club member handled loading onto the trailer, determining weight limits and load size.

It took seven trips to get the engine hauled to the Scott-Carver grounds. The club had no shelter for the pieces, so the parts sat outside on the ground for a few years.

Slabs and footings for massive machine

One year after the parts were taken to the Scott-Carver grounds, a group of club members formed a cement base for the engine. “Fortunately,” club member Dale Rieppel says, “there were people in the club in 1990 who were talented in getting the concrete slab poured, with studs in the concrete to match up with the mounting holes on the engine.”

vilter-rieppel
Dale Rieppel checks and adjusts the running of the 150-ton steam engine.
Photo by Bill Vossler.



A crane operator was hired to lift the engine sections, set them into position and level them so they could be bolted together. “We had the actual Vilter company blueprints for that part of the operation, the slabs and footings,” Dale recalls. But for various reasons, the work stopped soon after.

Then, in about 1995, club member Mike Thuening and a group of workers – nonviolent offenders in the Minnesota Sentencing to Service program – erected a building around the slab and parts, protecting the parts and club members as they worked on the engine.

Tracking down parts last seen in ’95

Eighteen years passed until real progress started to be made in 2013. Deciding that the big engine needed to be reassembled, Dale took the project under his wing.

It was the largest project he’d ever worked on. But Dale had considerable experience in repair of very large machines during his service in the U.S. Naval Construction Battalion (or Seabees), where he repaired bulldozers, jeeps and cranes. That experience evolved into a career in construction equipment repair for Ziegler CAT in Bloomington, Minnesota, where he worked until his retirement.

vilter-pumps
End view of one of the two ammonia pumps that oppose the
steam cylinders.
Photo by Bill Vossler.

The first big project was tracking down the engine’s parts. Over the course of two decades, they’d been scattered over the Scott-Carver grounds. “The engine had been apart for 20 years,” Dale says, “and the people who had been working on it were no longer working on it, or were deceased, and the engine parts were left sitting idle.”

Some parts turned up in the steam shed building; others were found hanging on walls and hidden behind other engines. “As we started digging through things, we were amazed at what we found,” Dale says, “considering the stuff had been sitting for so long. But we were still able to recognize the parts.”

Vilter-ammonia-pumps
One of the two ammonia pumps that oppose the steam cylinders is shown in this photo.
Photo by Bill Vossler.

Organizing, cleaning and polishing

Parts were laid out on a bale trailer as the crew looked for those that needed to be paired. Main bearings, for example, were in four pieces, and had to be paired up until the pieces made the bearing. Connecting rod bearings, large and small, also had to be paired. “A lot of details of bearings and stuff weren’t really marked,” Dale says, “so we just matched things up until it all fit and made an assembly. We even found extra parts.”

The crew even took bearings from non-running machines, finding all the parts that were needed until they determined they had enough to do the job. Working five-hour shifts on Wednesday and Saturday mornings for one year, the team found all the parts and prepared them for reassembly, cleaning and polishing as they went. “It’s a big machine,” Dale says with some understatement.

vilter-crankshaft
The center line of the crankshaft with the lubrication connections is shown in this photo.
Photo by Bill Vossler.

Despite the crew’s best efforts, a few parts never turned up, and those – including governor driveshafts – had to be made. “There’s a 3-foot driveshaft that comes out and runs a flat belt from the crankshaft to the driveshaft that drives the governor,” Dale says. “Someone took all three driveshafts. The governors were all there, fortunately, and we were able to employ a machinist to build us a new driveshaft, guesstimating what it was like.”

Always pushing forward

The group of six Scott-Carver volunteers who tackled reassembly had no blueprints for the engine, but bolstered by the photos taken at the plant and more than a little common sense, they slowly gained ground.

“Every week when we finished, one of the guys on the team set the agenda for the next week,” Dale says. “‘We need more cleaning fluid, an extra wrench, sanding discs ...’ So when we weren’t there, the rest of the time we were gathering supplies, making tools, all kinds of things.”

Dale made a pattern for a head gasket and his next-door neighbor made the gasket in his garage. Specialized tooling was also produced to lift parts into place and thread them in, and put things together.

Working toward a common cause

Throughout more than four years, nobody gave up. “It was frustrating sometimes when people would come through while we were working and say, ‘It ain’t going to happen’ or, ‘You’re not going to have enough boiler to make it run’ or, ‘There’s no way you can make it work.’ But we enjoyed working together and seeing how it progressed,” Dale says. “Very few times did we get backed up on something. Every now and then we’d find something that didn’t fit right, so we had to do a little machining or whatever. We were always pushing forward.”

Some of the work required removal of rust with a wire-wheel or hand-sanding parts. “It wasn’t an engine that we dared sandblast,” Dale says, “because there were too many places that sand could seep in during that operation.”

Team members did whatever was asked, with no grumbling about volunteer assignments. “I went around to different areas of the engine every day, making suggestions and seeing how things were going,” Dale says. “Everybody worked well together. We couldn’t have hired a team to work together better. And most of them had never worked together before.”

Putting the lubrication system back together proved to be the biggest puzzle. That required fitting together at least 1,000 pieces of small pipe. “At the dismantling they were numbered and bundled,” Dale says, “but all we had for reference was those pictures.”

Music to the ear to hear it run

Four and one-half years later, in time for the 54th annual Scott-Carver Old-Time Harvest Steam & Gas Engine Festival in August 2017, the 1917 Vilter engine was set together. On Aug. 3, 2017, on the day before the show opened, volunteers turned the engine over, and it started.

“When the engine started working, when the giant flywheel started moving, some of the elderly members had tears in their eyes,” Dale says. “Unfortunately, some of those who had been involved with it earlier had passed away. For me, the ultimate satisfaction is that you worked that long and hard on something, and then it functioned very well. There were a few minor glitches, and adjustments that needed to be made, but it was running well.”

vilter-flywheel
The Vilter’s giant flywheel is shown in this end view, beyond
one of the ammonia pumps.
Photo by Bill Vossler.

Dale says his involvement in the project allowed him a uniquely close look at a remarkable piece of early engineering. “When you go over every inch of it like we did, and see the craftsmanship used at the time it was built,” he says, “it was amazing.”

Three years later, he remains actively involved with the Vilter and is part of the crew that shuts it down for the winter. When the big engine is finished for the season, the team makes sure all fluids have been drained. “Then we tie a cable onto the big flywheel and pull it one full revolution with a tractor or car,” Dale says, “so if there’s any water left in, the liquid is pushed out and it’s ready for winter.”

All the engine’s parts must be oiled before it is started for the first time in the spring. Then the flywheel gets a manual full-revolution spin to make sure anything that is set – not stuck – limbers up. Then the Vilter is ready to go again.

vilter-crosshead
This photo shows the high-pressure cylinder rod and crosshead.
Photo by Bill Vossler.

Every engine has its own unique sound, Dale says, and the Vilter is no exception. “It’s a kind of music to the ear to hear it run, and in the case of the Vilter, hearing the click and clack as the linkages go,” he says. “That’s what I enjoy most about this engine.” FC

For more information:

Dale Rieppel, 30 Vista Gardens, Vero Beach, FL 32962; phone: (612) 968-1130; email: engindale@gmail.com.

The 56th annual Scott-Carver Old-Time Harvest Festival will be held Aug. 2-4, 2019, at the club grounds, 19375 Fairview Lane, Jordan, MN 55352. Find the Scott-Carver Threshers' Association online and on Facebook; phone (952) 492-2062.

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; email: wdvossler@outlook.com.



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