Second Wind for Port Huron Steam Engine

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.


| December 2006



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The Vonderau family’s Port Huron steam engine and water wagon, preparing for threshing, in 1932.

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.