Second Wind for Port Huron Steam Engine

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The Vonderau family’s Port Huron steam engine and water wagon, preparing for threshing, in 1932.
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Jerrod Bennet, engineer, with the Port Huron at the 2005 Maumee Valley Antique Steam and Gas Association Show, New Haven, Ind.
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The Port Huron in the 1940s, before restoration.
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The Port Huron at the Black Swamp Steam & Gas Show at AuGlaize Village (near Defiance, Ohio) in 2006. The steamer is the focus of an unsolved mystery: In 1996, the Port Huron’s front and rear wheels were stolen, and replaced with a worn set. The crime remains unsolved.
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Gears that were changed out of the Port Huron in 1928 still lay behind the barn at the Robert Vonderau farm, New Haven, Ind.
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Original manual that came with the Vonderau Port Huron.

For more than 80 years, a Port Huron steam engine has been a part of Robert Vonderau’s life. Although he now sees the steamer only when attending local tractor shows, Robert remembers clearly the day the massive engine arrived at his family’s farm.

The Port Huron Model 24-75, no. 7973, built in 1919 by the Port Huron Engine & Thresher Co., Port Huron, Mich., was purchased in 1922 for $2,500 by the Vonderau family in New Haven, Ind. Robert Vonderau was just 3 at the time, but remembers the momentous event. His father chose the Port Huron, he says, because its compound-cylinder design was efficient and powerful. Steam entered the first cylinder, expanded and transferred into the second cylinder to be used again, then moved up the smokestack, creating draft for the boiler. Weighing in at nearly 21,000 pounds, the engine was rated at 24 hp on the drawbar and 75 hp on the belt.

In 1928, Robert recalls, the steamer’s differential gears were changed, requiring removal of the right rear wheel. Using a large screw-type jack, two men raised the wheel about 2 inches off the ground. Then, working with long bars, they slowly worked the wheel off the axle just far enough to get at the gears. Great care was taken to prevent the wheel from falling over, as there would have been no way to pick it up: Front-end loaders and forklifts did not yet exist.

Steam Engine Maintenance

Inspection of the Port Huron’s boiler was a regular weekend event. Robert’s father was vigilant in searching for leaks around flue tubes. If a leak was found, the firebox door was removed and Robert, then age 7 or 8, would crawl through the opening into the boiler. He inserted a special tool into the leaking flue pipe and tapped, expanding the flue pipe and sealing the leak.

Even on Sunday afternoons, after the fire had been out for the weekend, Robert says, the boiler remained very hot and uncomfortable. If the creek water used in the boiler the previous week contained a lot of mud, Robert had to open the drain holes, release the water, scrape out the mud, then refill the boiler with water to the sight line. In late summer, he’d make a paste of green tomatoes and water, and dump it into the boiler: Acid from the tomatoes cleaned the boiler’s interior.

Farming with Steam

The job of hauling water fell to Robert when he was perhaps 10 or 12 years old. It was a hard day’s work, as the Port Huron consumed up to two tons of coal (working dawn to dusk under a heavy load) and 2,000 gallons of water per day. Water from a nearby creek was hauled in a horse-drawn 500-gallon water wagon. Coal, Robert remembers, cost $5 a ton.

Building up steam in a cold engine took two to three hours. If the engine faced into the wind, start-up took a little longer. A tailwind, though, created a draft. Robert’s father used wood or corncobs to start the fire, adding coal later. When the engine had between 10 and 30 pounds of pressure, steam was sent up the smokestack through a pipe inside the stack, creating a draft for the boiler. Coal was then shoveled in until the engine reached its operating pressure of 175 pounds.

The engine’s belt pulley usually ran at 400 rpm … unless the load suddenly went away. “If the belt to the threshing machine would break or come off the pulley,” Robert recalls, “then the steam pressure would quickly build and blow off the safety valve.” The loud release of steam would scare everyone around, including the horses.

Robert well remembers the engine’s peculiarities. “The friction clutch used when driving forward or backward with the engine was made out of bass-wood, which was a special wood without growth rings,” he says. “Sometimes it would engage smoothly, but quite often it would suddenly catch and the engine would jerk.” Another characteristic unique to steam engines: “You could go from full forward to full reverse with damage,” he says. “The engine would simply come to a stop, and turn the opposite direction.”

The Vonderau family used the Port Huron for threshing until 1942. The next year, the engine was sold for $650 to John Harper, who planned to use the steamer to power a sawmill. Harper’s son later donated the relic to the Defiance (Ohio) Historical Society’s AuGlaize Village and Farm Museum, where Robert Vonderau found it on his return from World War II military service in 1945. Since then, completely restored by the historical society, the Port Huron has found a secure home at AuGlaize Village and is a prime attraction at local tractor shows. FC

For more information:

Black Swamp Steam & Gas Show, June 9-10, 2007, Defiance County Historical Society / AuGlaize Village and Farm Museum, P.O. Box 801, Defiance, OH 03512; (419) 782-7255.

Don Voelker is a freelance photographer and writer in Fort Wayne, Ind., specializing in tractors, farm equipment, historic sites, museums, barns and covered bridges. View his work at

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