Rare Ames Steam Engine: Ames Iron Works Design Prone to Boiler Explosion

There’s not much known about this early Ames steam engine except it has a poor boiler design

| June 2010

Mark Pedersen says there’s not a lot known about his Ames return-flue portable steam engine.

“We think it’s an 1885,” he says, “but someone told me he thought it was an 1882. We think it’s about a 12 hp, but we’re not sure of that either, because there just isn’t much information available.” What he is sure of is that it’s an unusual machine. “I’ve never seen another one,” Mark says, “though I heard there is another one around.”

Roots in North Dakota

The Ames surfaced in Art Bayliss’ wrecking yard in Enderlin, N.D. “I would guess he got it from somewhere in southwest North Dakota,” Mark muses. “As far back as I can remember, it sat under a big tree in his yard. Old Art used it as a yard ornament. He even had it painted up one time.”

Mark, who lives in Luverne, N.D., cannot remember the engine ever being in running condition. “The boiler is in no condition to even consider it, although I wouldn’t rule out getting it ready in the future,” he says. “Adding to the problems, those old Ames engines were notorious for having a poor boiler design, which led to a lot of explosions.”

Mark’s Ames is a portable engine. Horses were used to pull it from site to site. “As long as roads remained firm and dry, the engine could be moved from field to field and farm to farm,” says the booklet Cooper Agricultural Steam Engines.

Mark says most return-flue engines like the Ames are of the spiral-flue type, essentially a tube within a tube, with the heat inside and water outside. “This one is a little different,” he says. “It’s made like a closed horseshoe, which pinches together at the bottom, so you have an arch with the fire, and another arch with the water.”

Ash from the fire and the water eventually mix together, forming sulfuric acid. “When it’s under pressure, the horseshoe is actually trying to straighten out,” Mark explains, “so when the sulfuric acid weakens that ash pan area, and it can’t hold any more, that’s just what it did: it straightened out. And that was the end of that.”

5/15/2018 1:04:10 PM

My overly wording post previously continued: Any steam enthusiasts should definitely plan a visit to The Henry Ford to see their display of very early and some of the largest engines over the years, including one of the 6000 hp gas-steam stationary engines that powered the Highland Park Model T Ford plant, having 36 inch and 72 inch diameter high and low pressure tandem steam cylinders at 72 inch stroke on one side of the flywheel/dc generator, and two tandem 42 inch dia x 72 inch stroke double acting coal gas cylinders on the other side, the control being on the steam side. They are simply astounding! generating 250 volts DC at 4 megawatts. The plant had, I believe 11 of them in service at the time.

5/15/2018 1:04:08 PM

On a trip to the Henry Ford (museum) in Dearborn, Michigan a couple of years ago I was able to view some very old stationary engines and boilers. Early boilers were very scary to imagine even firing up at the very low pressures of the time. I believe the famous ship "The Great Eastern" built in the 1850s only ran about 25 psi for it's supposed total 11,000 hp from its engines for both sidewheels and screws..Some of these boilers were simply spherical on top and curved up from the bottom towards the center with no tubes at all! A fire was simply built underneath the thing, any chimney or draft obviously being built into the brickwork or stone masonry. Still, it was amazing technology at the time, The earliest steam engines were simply pump engines, a rocker arm pulling on a "sucker rod", the opposite side of the rocker being pulled down by a single acting steam cylinder with no crank or flywheel for rotary motion at all!