Farm Collector

A Firefighter’s Steamer

With any piece of equipment this old there is
bound to be an account on how it survived. Many times we remark,
“If only this engine could talk, imagine the tales it could

Fortunately, the history of this steamer can be told, for in its
life it has only had four owners. For the past 45 years, it was
owned and cared for by George Miller.

When George agreed to sell it to me I visited him, along with my
father, to hear his story. My dad wrote down this tale and I’m
fortunate to have it to share with you.

If you ever visited Absarokee, Mont., you may have noticed this
steamer tucked back into the corner of George’s yard. George says
there had been a steady stream of visitors to the engine over the
years. Although he planned to operate it again, the years just
seemed to slip by, and when he turned 92 he decided it was finally
time to sell it. I’m grateful he decided to sell it to me.

The Saga of Case Engine No. 26701

According to George, this steam engine was built in 1912. It is
a 75 HP, single-cylinder, double-acting steam engine.

It was shipped by rail to the J.I. Case dealer in Billings,
Mont. The dealer did not sell it immediately, so he leased it for
plowing and threshing in the fall of 1912. It pulled a 12-bottom
plow with the plows spaced 14 inches apart, plowing a 16-foot-wide

In 1913, the engine was bought by two brothers, Jake and Howard
Swinaker. They drove it 85 miles from Billings to their farm near
Nye, Mont. Traveling at 2-1/2 MPH, the trip took 3-1/2 weeks. They
had to reinforce the bridges that they crossed, and even then the
engine nearly broke through one bridge; the bent wheel and broken
step the steamer sustained from this near accident are still
visible almost 100 years later.

For the next year the Swinaker brothers used the engine
alternately for farming and to run their sawmill.

In 1915, Jake bought a 15 HP J.I. Case steam engine to use on
the farm. Howard took over the 75 HP steam engine to permanently
power his sawmill.

The sawmill was called the Picket Pin Sawmill and was located at
the foot of Mount Wood on Forest Service land south of Nye. The
trees were felled and bucked into 16-foot lengths. The logs were
hauled down the mountainside using a steam powered donkey engine,
spar trees and high-wire logging.

The sawmill had a 24-inch diameter circular saw and a 32-foot
long carriage. The logs were turned by hand with cant hooks. The
steam engine had two belt pulleys. The larger diameter flywheel
pulley drove the saw and the smaller diameter outboard pulley moved
the carriage back and forth on 32-foot long rails. The sawmill ran
with a crew of three to five men. The steam engine burned cord

The wheels were removed, but fortunately kept nearby. The coal
and water bunkers were discarded because they got in the way of the
wood firing.

Howard and his two sons ran the sawmill from 1915 to 1938.
Howard died in 1938.

After his death, the sawmill and its steam power plant were
purchased by Montana Polytechnical College (Rocky Mountain
College). They operated the sawmill to teach sawmill engineering.
The U.S. Government took over the sawmill and ran it from 1944 to
1946 to cut mine timbers, which were needed for the nearby chromium
mine. A teacher from the college bought the sawmill from the
government at the end of the war. He ran it for two years and then
shut it down. When the teacher died, the Marsfield family inherited
the sawmill.

It is at this point that many of these early steam engines met
an untimely end. Fortunately for no. 26701, George bought the
sawmill and this Case from the family for $1,000 in 1950.

George ran the sawmill and the associated logging operation from
1950 to 1958. There was a good supply of timber within high-wire
logging distance and the sawmill never moved from its 1915
location. The government closed the forest to logging in 1958 and
ordered the sawmill and the steam engine off the land. The boiler
was given its annual inspection by Pat Whelan, the Montana boiler
inspector, in 1958. It was in good operating condition when it was
shut down. This was the last time the boiler made steam.

At this time George reinstalled the wheels and running gear, and
using a Caterpillar D-9 bulldozer pulled the Case out of the woods
to Herb Russel’s ranch between Nye and Livingston. It sat out in
the rain on the Limestone Ranch from 1958 to 1978.

In 1978, George had the Case loaded on a flatbed truck and
hauled to his yard in Absarokee. It sat in the open, peeking out
from behind George’s house, for the next 23 years.

I purchased the Case in April 2001, had it loaded on a lowboy
trailer and hauled to my ranch in White City, Ore., where I began
the two year refurbishment.

A New Owner

As with most projects, I can honestly say that if I had known
what I was getting into I might not have done it.

However, the fact of the matter is that I did buy George’s
engine. I really didn’t do any research before buying the Case: I
thought having a steamer would be fun and when I saw this one it
looked like it needed a new owner. The engine was sort of just
stuffed amongst the other “collectibles” of George’s life, and
piles of stuff just grew up around it.

From my inexperienced eye, the Case looked mostly complete. Of
course there were some visible problems: the bullet holes in the
heat exchanger, the front of the cylinder hanging off, lots of rust
and so on. Mostly it appeared that if someone didn’t take care to
restore it, this engine would become just another piece of junk
rusting away.

Bringing History Home

The project immediately began to show its size; what seemed to
be an easy job (just put it on a trailer) became much more than
that. First of all everything was stuck, and despite all
our efforts to make the engine roll it wouldn’t budge. Lowboys are
expensive and having one sitting around I could hear the “ding
ding” of the cash register. We finally determined it would be
easier to lift the Case and place it on the lowboy. Wrong again. At
10 tons it wouldn’t lift with the Cat 966 front end loader we had
begged from a local construction site. So we lifted just the back
and voilà, rolled it on its front wheels onto the trailer. Next,
permits were required because it is exactly 6 inches over

The trucking company did a great job, and one day later it
rolled into my driveway. I thought I was prepared to roll it off
and had a forklift there to, once again, raise the firebox end and
roll it off. No dice. The forklift wasn’t big enough to do the job.
So I brought out a John Deere MFWD tractor to drag it off. Still no
dice. The driver was a patient man and the bill had been agreed on
in advance.

I figured the next best thing would be to start the disassembly
of the stuck parts right then and there. So, that’s what we did.
Fortunately, we found in short order that the rear wheels would
move, and by disengaging the drive gears from the spur gears we
could roll the engine back. And that’s how we discovered that all
the drive engine parts were totally rusted together. But the first
step was complete, the Case now sat outside of my shop. Little did
I realize it would sit in that spot for the next two years!

Read part two of this story covering the restoration of the
Case 75 HP in the next issue of
Steam Traction.

Contact Joseph Berto at 10984 Meadows Road, White City,
OR 97503; e-mail:

  • Published on Mar 1, 2007
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