Rescuing a 1916 16 hp Avery Steam Engine from the Republican River

A waterlogged steam engine gets a second lease on life.

| May 2009

Forrest Pense may have been 92 years old, but he wasn’t going to miss out on the fun. He sat down on the banks of the Republican River near Scandia, Kan., during Memorial Day weekend in 2000, and began removing his shoes.

“We asked him what he was doing,” says Ted McNamara, Dayton, Minn. “He said ‘I want to be in the middle of this.’ So Gene Zopfi and I hoisted him up, waded out and carried him across to the island so he could be closer to the Avery as we dug it out.” Forrest had waited 65 years for that moment.

Lost to the flood of ’35

In 1935, brothers Nathan and Emil Isaacson supplemented income from their grain elevator by pumping sand from the Republican River near Scandia, near the state line in north central Kansas. “Their equipment consisted of a barge with a (1916 16 hp Avery) steam engine and a dredge pump,” writes Mary Jo DeSota in the Nowthen (Minn.) Threshing News. “The end of the pump was placed in the sand and the steam engine was used to pull the sand out of the river.”

That May, heavy rains in southeastern Colorado were building up to a catastrophe downstream. When the river surged and floodwaters swept down the Republican, the Isaacsons could do little more than watch as their barge swamped, flipping the Avery and the dredge pump into the river. Deciding they’d had enough, the brothers signed over salvage rights to Forrest, who was starting to collect steam traction engines.

Some might have called Forrest eccentric; others might call him a man ahead of his time. He once hopped a freight train to Peoria, Ill., to see where Avery engines were manufactured. On another occasion, he bought a steam traction engine near Lincoln, Neb., drove it to Harvard, Neb. (a distance of about 75 miles), parked it and never used it again. Ultimately he would build a collection of nearly 30 steam traction engines, including a 1916 Avery 16 hp model (boiler no. 51) like the one mired in the Republican River.

For 35 years, Forrest kept an eye on the Avery. When the river was low, parts of the engine showed above the surface. But if you knew where to look, the Avery could always be seen, even if water levels in the non-navigable river were high. As time passed, Forrest determined which of the engine’s parts might be damaged, salvaged what he could and scouted replacements, preparing for the day when the steam engine would be rescued. In the late 1960s, he tugged on the Avery with a Caterpillar D-8. The effort was not a success. “He pulled one wheel off, snapped the axle and bent some side irons,” Ted recounts. During the next 30 years, Forrest made three more attempts at salvaging the Avery. Finally, surrendering to advancing age and ill health, he gave up.