The Allis-Chalmers Corliss Steam Engine

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Bob Reinhart with the Corliss engine a few years ago.
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This photo shows the crankshaft, with the throw and counterweight to the right of the main bearing and the valve operating eccentrics to the left of the bearing.
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The black box houses the engine’s steam chamber, valves and steam cylinder. The main steam valve (ball-shaped with red handle) is shown above the steam chamber and below the water separator.
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To start the engine, this 10,000-pound flywheel has to be turned by hand.
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Steam travels through the tank on the top and into the engine.
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This photo shows the enormity of the Corliss’ flywheel. When it ran a tile factory in South Dakota, the mammoth flywheel produced enough energy to power everything in the plant.
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The Albert City Corliss uses an intricate oiling system providing automatic oiling to the valve eccentrics and the connecting rod.
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Side view of the Corliss steam engine.
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The Corliss engine was patented in 1849 by engineer George H. Corliss, Providence, Rhode Island.

Manufacturer: Allis-Chalmers
Year: Circa 1920
Cylinder bore: 12in
Piston stroke: 36in
Engine speed: 100-120rpm
Power developed: 100-125 hp
Flywheel: 10ft diameter; 22in wide
Flywheel weight: 10,000lb
Valves: 5in diameter rotary
Governor: Enclosed flyweight type

Bob Reinhart’s earliest memories include an Associated gas engine. But most recently, the Pocahontas, Iowa, man traveled even further back in time, with a 1920 Allis-Chalmers Corliss 125 hp steam engine at the Albert City (Iowa) Threshermen and Collectors Show.

“I grew up on a farm, and have always been interested in mechanical things,” he says. “In fact, I remember my first engine, a 1925 Associated 2-1/2 hp engine my grandfather bought new. It was used in the house I grew up in. I remember it running in the basement, hooked to the air compressor, which filled the air tank, and that air in turn ran two water pumps, one from a shallow well, and one from the cistern – so we had both hard and soft water in the house.”

In the 1970s, Bob began collecting gas engines and tractors. He even restored that Associated engine. It all set the stage for his involvement with the Albert City Corliss.

Settling in as a permanent display

Karl Lind, a longtime member of the Albert City club, was involved with the engine from 1984, when it was brought to the Albert City grounds – in parts – from a tile factory in South Dakota. “By that time, Ed and Agnes Sundholm had given us the 15 acres that established a permanent home base for us,” Karl says. “Ed apparently had a connection and found out about this engine in South Dakota.”

After it was brought over on three fifth-wheel trailers, the engine required some attention. First, extensive concrete engineering was needed to mount the engine in one place “without falling apart,” Karl says. A blueprint of the engine’s previous installation was a big help. “But it still required some experimentation to get everything designed so it would work not only for one year,” Karl says, “but 25 years later.”

The plumbing had to be redone to accommodate the new installation. While the engine was disassembled, it was also painted. “Once that was finished and it was installed, we had to do some touch-up painting,” Karl says. “After everything was done, it has proved to be a very good engine for us, very dependable, with good people working with it, too.”

Volunteers come forward to help

In a friendly gesture reminiscent of the way farm neighbors once helped each other, experienced volunteers from the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion museum in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa (where several Corliss engines are on permanent display), travelled to Albert City to lend a hand. Albert City club members also got involved.

“There have also been individuals who have stepped up to the plate to help learn a little more about operating that engine, and keep it in operating condition, like Bob Reinhart, and now Terry Applegate,” Karl adds. “They’ve been very, very helpful in getting things done prior to the show and during the show, thinking of what’s ahead, and what needs to be done during the weekend. We’re blessed with people who are willing to dig in early and stick with it. And as some of us got too old to handle some of these things, new individuals have learned from the older ones.”

During the first year after the engine was set up at Albert City, a steam traction engine was used to provide steam power. After a year or so, a replacement boiler was procured. The freestanding unit is housed in a lean-to.

Spring cleaning for a steam engine

After spring cleanup – mostly removal of dust – it’s time to fire up the engine. Water for the steam engine comes from a well on the grounds. “We take the water from the hydrant and it goes into the holding tank,” Bob explains. “From there, it’s injected into the boiler with a steam injector, a type of Venturi system that prevents too much water from being injected into the boiler. The level of water has to be watched closely, because if it gets low, the boiler has to cool down before we can put water into it manually the next day.

The boiler used for the Corliss on the Albert City grounds is much smaller than the one that would have been used with it in the tile factory. “It makes just enough steam for demonstration purposes,” Bob says. “The boiler with that engine in its working day would have had a much bigger capacity, and it would have been fired with coal. Ours is fired with fuel oil. In the spring, we clean the boiler out manually, pump a little extra oil in the cylinder, because it’s been setting all winter, and turn it over by hand.”

That’s done by turning the flywheel a couple of revolutions to make sure that no moisture or stray material has accumulated that would cause an obstruction in the cylinder. “Then we get the steam up, and it’s ready to go,” Bob says. “We usually start it in the morning when the show starts at 9 a.m., and run it pretty much all day, when there are enough people to tend to it.”

Bob says the Corliss is very easy to start. “You turn the steam on, and the steam goes into the steam box on top of the engine above the cylinder where the valves are,” he says. “The valve linkage has to be disconnected so you can take a lever and operate the valves manually to allow you to put steam in manually so it starts. Once it’s underway, you reconnect the linkage.”

A star attraction at Albert City

Then it’s show time, and visitors come nonstop. “There are always questions on how the engine works, and how the different machinery and valving works on it,” Bob says. “At times there can be a dozen or more people there, just watching.” Few people know much about stationary steam engines, so he starts with the basics.

“We aren’t sure what machinery the Corliss powered in the tile plant,” he says, “but I visualize it powering everything in a small operation: light for an extruder, lights, the repair area, line shaft and power tools. That’s what we think, but we really don’t know.”

Any time moving parts are present, people need to stand clear, Bob says, which is why the Corliss is fenced. “Workers also have to make sure they use leather gloves to open and close the steam valves so they don’t burn their hands,” he adds, “mainly when you’re going to put steam to the engine when you start.”

Winding down show season

Once the Albert City show ends, the Corliss is shut down for another year. “Cleaning the boiler isn’t difficult,” Karl says, explaining that two metal plates can be removed to allow access. “It’s more of a flush to make sure all the junk that accumulated on the bottom is cleaned out,” he adds. “Just draining it won’t do it, so we get in and rinse it from top and bottom to get as much of the loose scale possible. If we don’t get it out, it just adds to problems down the road.”

Power washing might seem like an easy solution, but it really isn’t. “The engine has so many flues in it that it’s hard to do much power washing,” Bob says. “This boiler is in really good shape, and we want to keep it that way 20 years down the road. The metal exterior is solid.”

They also make sure the engine’s steam line valves are open, as well as any low places where condensation might accumulate. “That’s so we don’t freeze the pipes or anything,” Bob says. “Also, we spray the shiny parts on it that were never painted with a preservative so it doesn’t get rusty over the winter.”

Bob believes the Albert City Corliss is one of the later ones built. “It’s not as crude-looking as some of the earlier engines, regardless of the manufacturer,” he says, “and it does have this particular oiling system on it that distributes the oil to the bearing on the main part of the engine, whereas some of the older ones had individual oilers in those locations.

An appreciation for steam

Bob has a real appreciation for mechanical things. “When the smaller steam engine in the blacksmith shop arrived at Albert City, it was all in pieces, and I got to put it together,” he says. “I had to learn how to time the valves and stuff, and that was very interesting to me.”

Karl also enjoys the interaction with visitors. “As far as the Corliss, I get enjoyment out of answering people’s questions and visiting with those people who stop by. That’s as much fun as listening to that engine operate,” he says. “People comment on the engine’s quiet operation, or marvel that boiling water actually provides energy. A lot of people ask why the flywheel is so big. The answer to that is because it was used to get more energy to run a bigger factory.”

Karl enjoys all the working parts that work so meticulously without hesitation. “It’s not hit and miss,” he says. “When steam is applied to the engine, it sits there and pecks away with a very consistent speed.” FC

For more information: Bob Reinhart, 308 NW 9th St., Pocahontas, IA 50574; (712) 358-2087;

Karl Lind, 4842 240th Ave., Albert City, IA 50510; (712) 843-5829.

Albert City Threshermen and Collectors, P.O. Box 333, Albert City, IA 50510.

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;

The Allis-Chalmers Steam Connection

The Corliss engine was patented in 1849 by engineer George H. Corliss, Providence, Rhode Island. Considered the epitome of stationary steam engine design, the Corliss was about 30 percent more fuel efficient than conventional steam engines with fixed cutoff.

That increased efficiency made steam power more economical than water power, allowing industrial development to move away from mill ponds. Corliss engines were typically used as stationary engines, providing mechanical power to line shafts in factories and mills, and driving dynamos to generate electricity.

Corliss’ 1849 patent expired in 1870. After that, many companies began manufacture of Corliss engines, including (after its formation in 1901) Allis-Chalmers.

In 1860, entrepreneur Edward P. Allis was producing steam engines and mill equipment in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. After the financial panic of 1873, the firm was reorganized as the Edward P. Allis Co. One of the newly reorganized company’s first hires was Edwin Reynolds, who had previously run Corliss Steam Engine Works. By 1900, the Allis company was a leading American steam engine producer.

In 1901, Allis-Chalmers Co. was formed as an amalgamation of Edward P. Allis Co.; Fraser & Chalmers, a producer of mining and ore milling equipment; Gates Iron Works, producer of rock and cement milling equipment; and Dickson Mfg. Co., producer of engines and compressors. In 1912, the company was reorganized as Allis-Chalmers Mfg. Co.

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