Minnesota Club's Steam Attraction Features Rare 1887 Engine
Volunteer Kermit Nelson keeps the Wetherill oiled and running for the Stearns County Pioneer Club of Albany, Minn. It's a job he clearly loves.
In the summer of 1987, one hundred years after this giant Wetherill 350 HP Corliss steam engine was built, the Stearns County Pioneer Club (SCPC) of Albany, Minn., got it back up and running. In between, the 15-ton steam engine had quite a ride.
Built by the Robert Wetherill Co. of Chester, Pa., in 1887, the engine was first used in a Louisiana sawmill. Although exact dates are scarce, at some point it was moved to a Ford Motor Co. plant, and in 1951 Kimberly Clark Corp. (manufacturer of Scott paper towels) bought it to use in one of their plants. In the 1980s it ended up in Eland, Wis., intended for use in a new Small Business Administration-funded sawmill operation.
Bob Hawn, chief engineer of the SCPC, says the club first heard about the giant engine in 1981 from a couple of their Wisconsin members, Dale and Vern Gunderson. "The party who was going to incorporate the engine into the sawmill had an ornate designed building with old lattice work on the eaves, a very attractive building."
That, however, wasn't enough to keep the business concept from floundering. The engine was in the basement, and had never been put together after being hauled there. "The engine was partially assembled on a 7-foot pedestal," Bob says, "with the flywheel, crankshaft and backbone in place. None of the valve or connecting rod, or crosshead pieces had been assembled onto it."
The real challenge was taking the 16-foot diameter flywheel apart. Along with several other members of the club, Bob says, "We tied come-alongs and chain hoists to the upper half of the flywheel, then jacked and blocked, and lowered the bottom half of the flywheel off the crankshaft, slid that out, then put a saddle and bolt assembly to hold the upper half to the crankshaft." Using come-alongs and chain hoists, they rotated the flywheel so the top half went to the bottom, and using the same procedure as previously, jacked and lowered that half of the flywheel down.
After that, the crankshaft was hoisted out of the main bearing saddles and set down on the pedestal, slid over to the edge and lifted off with a heavy-duty forklift. The same procedure was used on the backbone and steam chest of the engine. When all the pieces were on the floor, a boom truck loaded them onto lowboy trailers for the several-hundred-mile haul back to Albany, Minn.
But before they could leave, the crew – the Gundersons, John Peternell, Jerry Swedberg, Jerry and John Schimnich, Gary Van Heel, and Bob – had to have some turkey. "We did this all over Thanksgiving Day weekend, so we didn't have our turkey at home, but in Wittenberg, Wis.," Bob says.
The trucking end of the move went nicely, Bob says, and it was off-loaded on the SCPC grounds with cranes from Blattner Construction of Avon, Minn. Then came the big project: putting it together.
The previous owners had put new rings on the piston, and everything else was in good shape, Bob says, except for the missing crosshead wristpin, which they had made.
"Hard to say how long it took. I know my son and I made a trip darn near every night one summer to clean and prime it, and then on weekends, too." Others from the club helped, too. They used Bob and Peternell's 20-ton Lorain crane to put it together, piece by piece. "I think we started assembling it in spring, and we test ran it that fall." The next year it was hooked up to a Minneapolis steam traction engine, and a high-pressure steam hose was used to get the big machine running so it could be displayed.
The club raised funds for a foundation and building, and bought and plumbed in a Leffel boiler. They upgraded the steam piping to 4 inches to meet Minnesota industrial division specifications on steam piping, and now the engine can run to its heart's content, protected and secure in its permanent home.
The Wetherill is run every day of the SCPC Albany Pioneer Days Threshing Show, usually starting after the safety meeting, about 9 a.m., and runs until noon, when it is shut off, then started again and run until 5 p.m., says Kermit Nelson, who helps run it during the show.
He says it takes very little to get the engine started once steam pressure is up, although getting steam up can take six hours with the outside boiler, as it produces steam for three different engines in the building. The boiler is fueled with waste wood from the sawmill on the grounds, which is also run during the show. Once the steam is up, Kermit says, "Just turn the valve and steam pressure on the end of the cylinder pushes the piston one way or the other."
Kermit's duties include oiling the huge engine to ensure moving parts slide easily. "Parts of the machine are quite heavy, and made of different metals, so the oil helps separate them and keeps heat from bonding them together."
A tallow-type lubricant is mixed with the steam to lubricate the metal-to-metal areas inside the steam cylinder, Kermit says. The packing is lubricated too. "Originally they used leather, which didn't stand up too well, so eventually they found other materials and kept experimenting with things that would seal better."
Kermit says he began working with the Wetherill by chance. He became interested in steam because his father ran the last threshing rig north of Hawley, Minn., using steam in the early years before changing to a tractor. His interest drove him to earn a steam license at the Rollag, Minn., steam school, but he never used it very much.
"About six years ago I went down to Albany to see what the show had, because I knew they had all the OilPull tractors ever made, and that year the show was incorporated with Allis-Chalmers, so that got me there to start with." He discovered the SCPC needed help with the Wetherill, and since he had a steam license, he volunteered.
Once Kermit signed on, he had to learn some of the basics of the Wetherill, including how the valving works and why it's called a Corliss engine. "That's because of the valves," Kermit says. "It has two rotating valves on the top for the inlet and two rotating valves on bottom for the outlet, which allows for more control of letting the steam in and out. It's more efficient than the slide valve that's found on most steam engines." The valves cut off the steam so full pressure isn't in the cylinder to be discharged out the exhaust. "On some engines, you can hear them chugging when they're not pulling a load, and that means they're wasting steam. As a result, you have to haul more water and use more fuel to replenish the steam that was used unnecessarily. Other engines, you don't really hear anything when they're not pulling a load, so they're not wasting any steam."
In the Wetherill, Kermit says, a polish-rod is connected to a shoe or slipper that carries the end of the rod and also the connecting rod. The connecting rod changes reciprocal motion to rotary motion at the crank pin, or crankshaft. The shoe – or slipper or crosshead, as it is variously called – takes pressure on both sides, depending on what side of center the crankpin is on. If on the bottom, there's upward pressure on the shoe, if on the top, downward pressure.
"What fascinates me about the Wetherill steam engine," Kermit says, "is how the technology grew." And Kermit loves watching the amazement on people's faces as he shares how the engine works. "Most of it is simple," he says. "You have reciprocating, rotating and propulsive motions." Reciprocating is like a cylinder or knee that goes up and down, and back when riding a bicycle; rotating motion is like the crankshaft on an engine or crank pin on a steam engine; and propulsive is when you put motion in a belt.