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.

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.


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