Harrison Steam Engine Salvaged from Missouri River

1882 Harrison steam engine beats the odds and keeps on tickin’.

| February 2014

  • Harrison Machine Works was incorporated in 1878 in Belleville, Ill. The company built its first traction engine in 1881, just a year before this engine was built.
    Photo by Bill Vossler
  • The piece cast with "Harrison Machine Works" is the engine's steam chest; the lubricator is above it and the cylinder is behind it. The red piping is the water lines for the crosshead pump. The gold-colored piece at bottom right is the air chamber for the crosshead pump. The red part cast with “1-1/2” is the governor.
    Photo by Nikki Rajala
  • Harrison Machine Works made other steam traction engines, like this 20 hp model from the company’s "Jumbo" line, which used an elephant as its logo.
    Illustration courtesy Bill Vossler
  • Elegant scrollwork supports headlights on the 1882 Harrison 10 hp steam traction engine.
    Photo by Nikki Rajala
  • An ad for the 10 hp Harrison steam traction engine claims it "will pull more than any other traction made, of same size."
    Illustration courtesy Steve Kunz
  • Steve’s friend John Brewington drives the 1882 Harrison 10 hp steam traction engine.
    Photo by Bill Vossler

The spring of 1915 was uncommonly wet in northeast Kansas and northwest Missouri. When the rain continued into July, something had to give. “The great bulk of the run-off was concentrated in the Missouri River,” noted an account in Monthly Weather Review, Vol. 43, No. 7, “and the great bulk of the loss fell upon agricultural interests.”

At least one farmer on Howell Island, a 3,000-acre farming property in the Missouri River near St. Charles, Mo., felt that loss especially keenly. His 1882 Harrison 10 hp steam traction engine (No. 714, built by Harrison Machine Works in nearby Belleville, Ill.) was stationed on the bank of the Missouri.

“The Harrison had been taken out there years before to farm that island,” says Steve Kunz, Valley Park, Mo. “But that spring the engine was apparently close to the channel, which washed out, and the engine ended up in the river.”

Buried treasure

Silted in and buried, the Harrison languished in the Missouri for 40 years until a trio of young men found it in the 1950s. “They found it during a dry season when the river was low,” Steve says. “Every weekend they’d paddle down to the island with a boat, take their shovels and dig at it.”

The work took most of the summer and fall. The trio had a difficult time freeing the wheels and gearing so the engine would roll. Just when they were about to give up, the wheels finally loosened enough to move. Then Mother Nature decided to call the shots. “They’d planned to use a barge to haul it across the channel, but winter came on and the river froze,” Steve recounts, “so they towed it over the ice with a tractor.”

After all that, the trio’s enthusiasm for the project petered out. Although they’d originally planned to restore the engine, the men lost interest in the Harrison. At that point, Louis Kunz — Steve’s dad — stepped forward. “My dad had been told that they wanted an enormous amount of money for it, a fortune of thousands of dollars,” Steve says. “But our neighbor’s brother worked with one of those guys, and he knew my dad had steam engines, tractors, gasoline engines, and just about everything else that’s farm-related. He figured Dad could get it for a reasonable price.”


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