A Brief History of The Utica Steam Engine and Boiler Works of Utica, NY1831-1983

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RIGHTHAND ENGINE.
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The engravings illustrating this story were all taken from the 1875 Utica Steam Engine Company catalog.

R.D. 2, Box 842 West Win field, New York 13491

What was to become one of the most varied and interesting
companies in central New York was founded in 1831 by Philo Curtis,
Sr. It occupied a large site on Whitesboro Street and was directly
on the old Erie Canal. Until quite recently, the old out lines of
the canal basin could be easily traced to the west of the building.
Canal boats could leave the canal and tie up to the company dock to
load or discharge coal, iron and manufactured items. It has also
been stated that at one time there was a winch anchored nearby
which would drag canal boats out of the basin and either inside or
close to the works for re pairs. When the Erie was superseded by
the Barge Canal, located to the north about a half mile, the old
Erie was filled in and became Oriskany Boulevard, so named as it
led to the village of Oriskany and the Oriskany battlefield, site
of one of the bloodiest battles of the American revolution.

As originally initiated, the business was primarily a machine
shop, but when Philo Curtis Jr. joined the firm a boiler shop and
foundry were added. At this time the Utica area was a fast growing
center for a vast array of industries. Many of these were
manufacturers of heavy machinery for mills of all descriptions.
Many foundries were also located here, producing everything from
parlor stoves to gristmill machinery. There were also other steam
related firms in Utica, such as the large Utica Steam Gauge
Company, and the extensive locomotive headlight business of Irwin
Williams, which occupied a five story building and at one time was
turning out 1,600 coal oil and kerosene burning headlights per
year.

Under the management of the Curtises, the business continued to
grow until it was one of the largest concerns in the area. Later it
was bought and operated by Joel Omens, who had started out in the
boiler shop. He operated the company until about 1896 when the
business was incorporated and ownership transferred to Mr. Tom
McKough and Mr. Will McCann.

When Mr. McKough died in 1919, his interest in the company
passed on to his wife, Florence Fisher McKough. Needing help to
carry on the business she called upon her brother, Benjamin James
Fisher. He was operating, at that time, the Merrimac Mills in
Huntsville, Alabama. It was recently related to this writer the
experiences of the long trip from Alabama in the rear seat of a
Buick touring car with his two brothers. One feature of the trip
was going aboard the night boat, car and all, from Cleveland to
Buffalo.

Within a year or two Will McCann passed away, and the firm was
operated solely by Mr. Fisher. He suffered a heart attack in the
1940s and asked his son Morgan to temporarily operate the business.
This task he accepted, not dreaming he would run the company for
almost 40 years. He was joined in the business by his brothers,
Edwin and Ben; Ben later left to form his own company, the
still-operating Oneida County Boiler Works.

As the age of steam and heavy industry passed from the central
New York scene, the company was forced to seek other areas in which
to operate. One of these was structural steel. The local high
school here in West Winfield was constructed in the 1970s using
steel fabricated and erected by Utica Steam Engine Company.

It was my good fortune to have been able to wit ness some of the
operations of this company. Through the good graces of Morgan
Fisher, I was able to stroll through the building on many
occasions. Of course steam engines and boilers were no longer being
produced, but the items they did work on would stagger the
imagination. The foundry operation was very large and I remember
dump trucks arriving with old engine blocks from the junkyard
across Oriskany Boulevard to add to the charge in the Cupola.
Eventually the. foundry part was phased out due to the high costs
of conforming to health and safety rules. These regulations were
the cause of the demise of many other foundries about the same
time. The general ironwork operations were also fascinating, with
huge lathes, milling machines, etc. in operation. Two large
blacksmith forges were generally in operation as well. To
illustrate the size of some of their machines, they had a metal
brake capable of handling steel 14 feet wide!

One time I observed a large amount of railroad boxcar wheels and
axles in the shop. They were being hoisted in some of their big
lathes and being turned true. Upon inquiry I found that they were
using them for the rollers for an overhead crane they were
building. This was to pass over the top of a nuclear reactor to
replace the core rods. Almost anything was possible at Utica Steam
Engine.

After many successful years the firm was sold in 1979 to a
company called Heat Extractor Company. They had developed and
manufactured a device which recovered the lost heat going up the
stack from large boilers and also scrubbed the air to cut down on
stack emissions. For reasons I am not aware of, the company did not
survive and was bought by a European firm in 1983.

So ended 152 years of operation turning out everything
imaginable from portable and stationary boilers and engines in the
19th century to reactor gear in the 20th. Today the ancient stone
and brick buildings are no more, the victims of arson and
vandalism. So passes the relic from an earlier age and so it has
always been. Many are the products they produced that still exist,
ranging from a very early portable steamer in the Kingston, Ontario
museum to the steelworks in modern buildings.

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