Farm Collector

1999 Mystic Seaport Antique Marine Engine Exposition

By Gail E. and erson

As the granddaughter of generations of farmers on one side of the family, and the granddaughter of a steam and gas engine enthusiast on the other side, I grew up knowing a little something (notice I said a little, but at least I knew that much) about farm power of yesteryear. However, I knew next to nothing well, let’s face it, I knew nothing about how engines were once used in non-agricultural (i.e. marine) applications.

Now that I’ve got a husband with a burning interest in marine power, and particularly marine steam power, I’m learning more about it myself, and finding it fascinating. I ask stupid questions whenever we’re out in our steam launch Reciprocal, or whenever he’s got its engine torn apart for “tweaking,” like “What’s that gauge telling us? Where’s the water come from? Where’s the steam go next? If you fall overboard and drown, how do I get back to shore?” You know, the basics. And he never hesitates to try and teach me more. We’ve been to boat meets, toured steamboats and steam-powered ships, been in the engine room of a Liberty ship while it was under steam and under way all great places to learn.

I have to say, however, that of all the places we’ve been in this quest for knowledge, none compares with the great times I’ve had at Mystic Seaport’s Antique Marine Engine Exposition. In six years, we’ve been to this show three times, and I enjoy it more each time.

Mystic Seaport, “The Museum of America and the Sea,” is a fascinating place to hold an engine show. The site is one of the country’s foremost maritime museums, with countless exhibits and activities for the whole family. There are sailing ships to board and explore, demonstrations of old-time seafaring skills, sea chantey sing-alongs, tales of sails and whales, planetarium shows about navigating by the stars, exhibits of ship carvings, a gallery of fine paintings of ships good and true, displays of small craft and the engines that powered them…oh, it never ends! This is not to mention the setting within which all of these things are presented: a village filled with the authentic shops and structures of a coastal settlement. Not a frou-frou seaside resort where pretty people promenade, mind you, but a real working seaport.

Doesn’t it sound great? And I haven’t even begun to really tell you about the show yet! Well, let’s get on with it!

The show itself is held within the DuPont Preservation Shipyard area of the museum. Here you can see stacks of wood being seasoned for use in building and maintaining the ships on display, learn about shipbuilding techniques, and see some of the tools and equipment used in that trade. We even saw a ship under construction: a full-scale replica of the Amistad, the vessel which played a role in a landmark case involving the slave trade in early American history (see the movie of the same name!). By July 2, 2000 she’ll be departing Mystic Seaport for Operation Sail in New York City.

The 1999 Antique Marine Engine Expo, the 8th annual, took place August 21 and 22 and was a grand success. Seventy-nine exhibitors from eleven different states and Canada brought with them 185 separate engines, powered by the gamut of steam, gasoline, diesel, kerosene, oil, alcohol, propane, butane, and electric. There were 62 inboards (ten installed in boats), and 73 outboards.

Thirty-four models were displayed, many operating on the steam, compressed air, and electricity provided by the museum.

Fifteen boats were on hand throughout the show, and were featured during a ‘parade’ each afternoon led by the Seaport’s steamer Sabino. Rides aboard Sabino, the last coal-fired passenger steamer in operation in the United States, are offered throughout the day, and steam engine fans won’t want to miss it. She’s powered by a 75 HP two-cylinder engine built in 1908 by James H. Paine & Sons of Noank, Connecticut. It’s a beautifully maintained piece of machinery, around which bench seating is arranged so that if you want to you can park yourself engine side and watch it work for the whole trip (that’s what my husband likes to do, anyway).

Eight of the engines at the 1999 show were known to have been built in the 1800s, the oldest one identified to have been built about 1878, a steam launch engine owned by Carl Grosser. Also on display was an 1892 Salisbury electric outboard, the oldest outboard known to exist, owned by David Ostrowski.

Besides the engines brought in by exhibitors, Mystic Seaport also has a fine collection of its own. One piece that shouldn’t be missed, and really can’t be missed ’cause it’s so big, is the 850 HP compound steam engine which once powered the tugboat Socony 5 as it plied New York Harbor under ownership of the Standard Oil Company of New York. The engine, built by the Staten Island Shipbuilding Co., stands 14 feet high, and weighs 40,000 pounds. Its two cylinders, each with a stroke of 28 inches, have bores of 19 and 40 inches. The engine’s working pressure is 160 pounds per square inch, which turned a 10-foot diameter propeller.

Another piece in their collection is “The Hyde,” built in 1927 by the The Hyde Windlass Company of Bath, Maine. They also have several inboard engines, including a 70 HP inboard diesel built by the Wichmann Engine Co. of Bergen, Norway, circa 1930, and a 90 HP J.W. Lathrop & Co. diesel built in 1946.

While at Mystic Seaport, make sure to visit the museum store and gift shop. Neither my husband nor I are what you’d call shoppers, but we love browsing in here (don’t miss the second floor bookstore and print gallery). And feel free to follow your nose to the gourmet goodie shop in the back corner of the building for some sweet treats and a good cup o’ Joe. In fact, as far as food goes, it’s good and plenty at the museum, ranging from snacks to cafeteria lunches to fine dining at the Seamen’s Inn (where we thought we might be underdressed in our engine show clothes but to the contrary were made to feel quite welcome and enjoyed a delicious dinner).

In addition to all the sites at the Seaport, we enjoyed visiting the Mystic Aquarium across town (I could watch the seals and the penguins all day, I swear). Another site to visit is B.F. Clyde’s Cider Mill on Stonington Road in Old Mystic, the last steam-powered cider mill in New England, which recently received a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark award. They’re not open during the engine expo, but if you’re in the area in the fall you can see the mill in operation on weekends, September through December, at 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m.; call 860-536-3354 for more information.

A great side trip for steam enthusiasts is a day in Essex, Connecticut, for a ride aboard the Valley Railroad behind a steam locomotive; I can recommend the combination train ride/boat excursion. The railroad is located on the outskirts of town, but don’t leave the area without venturing into Essex proper for a visit to the Connecticut River Museum, 67 Main Street, to see their fascinating collection of artifacts. The museum has a steamboat and launch show of its own (see David Williams’ show report on page 9 of this issue). Their show is usually the weekend before the Mystic show; there was a scheduling snafu for 2000, so they’re two weeks apart, but by 2001 they should be set up again so that a steam engine buff can make a week of it in coastal Connecticut.

In all the time we’ve spent visiting Mystic Seaport, I still don’t feel I’ve seen it all that’s how much there is to do at “The Museum of America and the Sea” and the Antique Marine Engine Exposition. This is an invitational show, with criteria for participants which ensure good quality exhibits. No outside vendors are allowed, and so this show is really all about the engines.

The 9th annual Expo will be held August 19 and 20, 2000. Contact Mystic Seaport’s engine collection manager, George King III, Mystic Seaport, 75 Greenmanville Ave., P.O. Box 6000, Mystic, CT 06355-0990, telephone 860-572-0711, for information about the show or to apply for an invitation to exhibit.

  • Published on Jul 1, 2000
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