Unforgettable: Engineer Recalls 10 Favorite Steam Engines

Gary Yaeger recalls his 10 favorite steam engines.

| August 2008

With more than 50 years' experience as a traction engineer, Gary Yaeger has had ample opportunity to get acquainted with a wide variety of steam engines. Here he reminisces about 10 that loom large in his memory. 'They're not the 10 strongest or toughest,' he notes, 'just some meaningful opportunities.' 

Born during the World War II era in Lewistown, Mont., in the heart of the Judith Basin grain farming country, I grew up on a farm with two steam engines: a 32 hp Reeves steam engine cross-compound and a 20 hp Reeves Highwheeler, each a heavy-duty Canadian Special. As a boy I played on both engines and Dad often took time to try to explain their operation to me.

Those two cold steam engines didn't do nearly as much for me as this next situation. At age 11, I learned the true meaning of the phrase 'live steam.' The first steam engine I lit a fire in was a Nichols & Shepard 20-70 double-cylinder steam engine at the Tyler Ranch in Moore, Mont. The late Charlie Tyler was an engine collector, having seven as I recall. His grandson Mike Tyler and I have been friends since our early school days. I finally was able to stay a weekend at the Tyler Ranch in the fall of 1954.

I had befriended Charlie, as I liked his chosen hobby, plus I never had a living grandfather. Our 20 hp Reeves Highwheeler was scrapped in the 1940s, but Dad put the derelict Reeves 32 hp engine out of sight during the scrap drives of World War II. Charlie knew about that 32 hp engine and asked me to ask my dad if the operable Nichols & Shepard could be traded for the derelict Reeves. The trade was consummated the day I first lit the fire in the Nichols & Shepard. When I was a boy, Dad frequently reminisced about steam engines and he wanted his sons to learn how to operate them.

I often visited with our neighbor Adolph Kolar about steam. He had his family's Reeves 32 hp double-simple Canadian Special. They had traded a 15-30 McCormick-Deering for it during the Great Depression. I also visited with Alva Stevens who'd bought the Kolar brothers' Reeves new. Charlie Colwell was another old neighborhood steam man I visited with. I was after any steam information I could get. Dad often mentioned a Reeves 32 hp cross-compound Canadian Special owned by another neighbor, Herman Otten. Dad ran the engine in 1930, but it was subsequently sold to an area sawmill.

Before Charlie Tyler passed away in the spring of 1956 (I was his last visitor), he bought what we referred to as the 'Otten Reeves.' I had become friends of Charlie's sons, Max and Earl. They were steam men in the steam era and I listened to what they told me about the subject. Only in recent years did I realize how fortunate I was to learn from these steam men in our neighborhood.