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



Though this 1885 Ames portable steam engine doesn't run, it still attracts attention at the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion.

Though this 1885 Ames portable steam engine doesn't run, it still attracts attention at the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion. Small compared to later engines, this model was designed to be pulled by horses from site to site.

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.”