Austrian mountain steamer: Dream of owning an American steam traction engine comes to fruition for one European steam enthusiast
Life is often a series of events, with each one necessarily leading to the next. Yet, we often don’t realize where a particular chain of events is leading us. Certainly, I did not realize when I visited the U.S. in 1992 that I was setting off a chain of events that would ultimately lead to my owning a Case steam traction engine.
When I visited in 1992, my only intention was to buy parts for old motorcycles, mainly Harleys and Indians, which I occasionally restore. While in Davenport, Ill., I met fellow Austrian Brullmayer Bruno, who had told me about a Labor Day meeting for old steam engines in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa.
I was immediately intrigued, so my friend Hans Seiwald and I traveled to Mt. Pleasant to see the steam engines on display. During the drive to Iowa, I turned to Hans and said, “If only one tractor is steaming, the long journey will be worth it.”
About three miles away from Mt. Pleasant, we noticed black drifts of smoke rising in the air, but we couldn’t have dreamed what was waiting for us at the show. There were dozens of steam traction engines on display, with Case, Rumely, Russell and many others represented, along with huge tractors manufactured by Hart-Parr, International and Avery, as well as large numbers of stationary engines. And they were all working.
Coming as we do from the alpine region of Austria, we had never seen anything like it before, and by the time we left Mt. Pleasant, I was infected by the steam bug. Returning to Austria, I made up my mind that I wanted to buy a steam engine, and I could barely wait for my next chance to visit the U.S. and take part in another American steam meeting.
A few years later in 1994, during a journey through the Czech Republic late one day as it was gradually getting darker and the rain was pouring down, I thought I saw something special sitting next to an old barn. What I found was an 8 HP Wichterle portable steam engine, serial no. 775, manufactured in 1914 in Prosnitz, which was then part of the Austrian-Hungarian empire.
I located the owner, and he was willing to sell the engine. However, it took more than a year before I became the proud owner of my portable Wichterle, as I had to secure an export permit from the Czech National Museum before I could take possession.
Once I had the engine in Austria, I immediately and eagerly started the effort to get it working. Up to that time, I had restored several motorcycles and engines, but I had never worked on a steam engine.
I dismantled the engine and cleaned all the parts, most of which still had their original color. As a result, I decided to leave it in its original appearance and not paint the engine.
As I got close to finishing the engine, I turned my attention to the boiler and subjected it to a water pressure test, which showed the flues were faulty and had to be replaced. It didn’t take long before I found a company in Salzburg that still had 20 old roller expanders in stock, and they even gave me a helping hand at rolling the new pipes. A little later, I was able to acquire the rare tools after the company went bankrupt. The portable Wichterle is once again in operating condition, running like new and regularly put to work cutting firewood.
In 1995, I traveled to the Great Dorset Steam Fair in Dorset, England. I had turned into a steam engine enthusiast and the dream of buying a traction engine was building – I hoped I might find an engine in Dorset.
Unfortunately, there weren’t a lot of engines on offer, and, apart from a few steamrollers, those that were offered were very expensive. Although I really like the English traction engines and the perfectly restored showman’s engines, I found I preferred the American workhorses such as Case, Rumely and Russell that I so admired at Mt. Pleasant. Unfortunately, it seemed an American traction engine would remain nothing more than a dream.
In July 1996, my friend Hans and I journeyed to Holland to visit the large meeting for tractors and stationary engines that takes place in Sevenum. It was a fantastic event, and I got to see a Sawyer-Massey and a Case traction engine on display there. The machines fascinated me, and suddenly the dream of owning a steam traction engine was rekindled. I returned home with the addresses of people who traded in tractors, and sometimes steam engines. My curiosity continued to build, so Hans and I decided to visit some of the traders we had met at Sevenum.
The first trader we visited had nothing to interest me, but we struck gold with the second trader we called on, finding an unrestored but complete traction engine. And what was more it was a Case, my favorite American engine.
The asking price for the Case, 45 HP serial no. 21403, built in 1909, was reasonable, and the Case seemed to be complete. I was only a small step away from making my dream come true, yet suddenly I had doubts. After all, it isn’t every day that you buy a steam traction engine.
I turned to Hans and said, “I really like the Case, but, unfortunately, I don’t have a space large enough to put it in.” Hans looked at me and replied, “You don’t have enough room for a small one either, do you?” He was right, of course, and so I decided to purchase the Case. The following night I couldn’t stop thinking about the Case, and I hardly slept.
In 1997 I got the Case home and started assessing its true condition. The engine was in a good state, missing only the standard steam pump. With the exception of the countershaft pinion, all the gearing looked good. At first, I thought it would be possible to run the engine without any boiler work. However, further inspection revealed small bulges at the crown sheet, as well as welding around some stay bolts. I also found rust damage on the smoke box and the front tube sheet, which further eroded my confidence.
A water pressure test showed the truth. At 100 psi, water appeared at some of the welded stay bolts. I wanted to be absolutely certain of the boiler’s condition, so I increased the pressure to 160 psi. Suddenly, there was a loud bang followed by a noise that made me think of a waterfall: The crown sheet of the firebox had been torn away from the stay bolts. You can imagine what this would have meant under pressure. Further investigation found the material for the firebox to be only 2 millimeters (0.078 inch) thick in some places. I made the only decision I could: The boiler had to be properly repaired.
I couldn’t find a company in Austria proficient in the technique of manufacturing and repairing boilers, but A.H. McEwen Boiler Repairs Ltd. in England, was recommended as a specialist. In 1998, I sent the naked boiler shell by truck to Alan McEwen’s shop for repair. The overhaul involved the manufacture of a new firebox, barrel, tubesheet and new pipes. Sections of the boiler wall were reinforced, larger diameter stay bolts were installed and everything was newly riveted. After all this work, the English boiler inspector approved an operating pressure of 160 psi.
Initially, McEwen promised the boiler would be ready within five months, but then the job turned into an almost never-ending story. After a while, I decided to visit McEwen at his shop so I could convince myself of the high quality of his work. I was impressed by his work.
During the two years that it took McEwen to overhaul the boiler, I cleaned, repaired and painted the remaining parts of the Case, and then arranged them into assembling units. My friend Wilfried Urbanek installed new rubber tracks on the treads of the wheels to enable the engine to move on paved roads. I also happened to find an authentic C.T. Ham headlight at a German antique dealer, who had brought it from the U.S. as an old train lamp.
In 2000, when the boiler finally arrived from England, everything went quite fast. With the help of my friends Hans and Wilfried, we had the engine assembled within two months. In July 2000, I took the Case for its maiden voyage, a trip that will certainly remain a memorable experience for the rest of my life. My wife, Barbara, who showed more than a little patience for my engine and me, named the Case “Feurige (Fiery) Barbara.”
With the help of Jim Bridden in the U.S., who I got to know at Rollag in 1999, I managed to find the original Marsh steam pump. I still owe him a lot for that, because without his help I never would have gotten the engine into the original state it is in now.
When I visited the Rock River Thresheree in Edgerton, Wis., in the fall of 2001 (where I met Chuck Sindelar and his friends, all of whom own really beautiful Case engines), I got the Marsh steam pump and took it back to Austria.
As I started running my Case, I kept coming up short on water or coal. As we do not have shows in Austria comparable to those in the U.S. and England, I mostly engineer my engine on our country roads on weekends.
I found I couldn’t make long runs, so I decided to build a water wagon such as Case offered in 1909. It took a long time, but I finally found an old riveted barrel suitable for the wagon. My friend Gunther Dieterer built authentic steel wheels, and an old craftsman who lives in our village built the wooden frame. Now, we have 10 barrels of water and 300 kilograms (661 pounds) of coal, and our rides can last all day.
I also fixed an old passenger seat on the front of the wagon, making it possible to take two passengers with me so I can enjoy my rides with my friends.
I am looking forward to the next tour with my Case, and maybe a steam show in England or, with luck, another show in the U.S. STContact steam enthusiast Peter Gabriel at Kellau 134, 5431 Kuchl, Austria; e-mail: email@example.com. Contact H.A. McEwen Boiler Repairs Ltd. at Farling Top, Cowling, Keighley, West Yorkshire BD220NW United Kingdom; www.mcbo.co.uk.