Staff Writer, Des Moines Register Photos by Harry Baumert, ©
1999 The Des Moines Register and Tribune Company. Reprinted with
The following article was sent to us by Francis C. Cox, 506
10th Street S.W., Humboldt, Iowa 50548-1950. It is reprinted with
permission from the Des Moines Register, where it appeared in July
One of Iowa’s heaviest and most unusual antiques goes on
exhibit this week, fulfilling a dream that Jim Hamilton thought he
might never see. The antique is a 150-ton Corliss steam engine that
once generated electricity for convicts at the Iowa State
Penitentiary at Fort Madison. Hamilton, now 72, of Des Moines,
helped dismantle the machine in 1982, when it was hauled to Des
Moines in a move that required 11 trips by heavy trucks.
The massive engine gathered rust outside a Des Moines restaurant
for a time, then was brought to Hawkeye Antique Acres, four miles
south of Waukee on Interstate Highway 80. About 40 volunteers have
helped rebuild the machine, toiling thousands of hours to make
long-struck mechanical parts run freely again. The workers finally
got the lumbering engine operating in September for the first time
in many years, and its prowess will be demonstrated the next
Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the Old Time Power and Machinery
Show. The event is hosted at Hawkeye Antique Acres by the non
profit Central Hawkeye Gas Engine & Tractor Association.
‘We’re just lucky we got it running,’ said Lyle
Stoberl, a retired farmer from Stuart. ‘It was called ‘The
Sleeping Giant.’ The day we got it started, they said, ‘We
woke the Giant!”
Jim Hamilton shows off the champagne bottle that he, Roger
Greever and others emptied last September when they finally started
their giant steam engine at Hawkeye Antique Acres.
Hamilton, who operates a Des Moines towing and crane service,
said that when he finally saw the machine’s flywheel begin to
spin, ‘My heart just went into my stomach, I just loved
‘We didn’t think we would live long enough to see that
The coal-fired steam engine was one of two identical 1,000 HP
units built by Murray Iron Works of Burlington. The other engine
was shipped to China. The machine was made in the late 1930s or
early 1940s and it was reportedly used at the Fort Madison
maximum-security prison until the 1950s. The huge machine then sat
motionless for years because it was cheaper to buy electricity from
In 1982, officials with the state’s Surplus Property
Division tried to donate the steam engine to the State Historical
Museum in Des Moines and to the Midwest Old Threshers’ Reunion
& Museum in Mount Pleasant.
Lyle Stoberl is dwarfed by the 150-ton steam engine that once
generated electricity for the Iowa State Penitentiary. Stoberl
helped resurrect the engine.
But there were no takers.
Finally, the Waukee steam engine enthusiasts acquired the
machine for $1.00 after a Des Moines businessman dropped his plans
to develop a museum.
Although everyone agreed the old steam engine was a magnificent
artifact, it was no small task to get it running. At times, groups
of six to 10 men used a 40-ton crane to put some of the biggest
parts in place. They poured 135 cubic yards of concrete to build a
base with steel reinforcing bars.
‘It’s big,’ said Dick Stacy, a retired Adel farmer
who worked on the project.
The steam engine is so huge that a machine shed was built around
An empty champagne bottle hangs on the wall adjacent to the
steam engine. After workers got the machine running last fall, they
celebrated by driving to Waukee for dinner. Then they returned to
Hawkeye Antique Acres and toasted their success.
‘All in all, it was a lot of hard work,’ Stacy said.