A Big Steam Engine and Blue Skies

A 1925 Skinner Universal industrial steam engine gets a new lease on life.

| January/February 2004

Clear blue skies, palm trees and Arizona desert sands created a perfect setting for a reunion of huge proportions between engine and engineer last April at the Tucson, Ariz.-based Power from the Past Association's spring show. Wilbur White, who worked for the Apache Powder Co. in Benson, Ariz., was reunited with the Skinner Universal steam power plant he operated for 18 years until he left the company in 1966. After a quick inspection around the massive 14- by 22-foot engine and a check of the gauges, he happily fired it up for the first time in honor of its newfound home at the Pima County Fairgrounds in Tucson.

'It's bigger than I remember it being,' Wilbur remarked during the event.

'Big' is usually the word people associate with it the first time they set eyes on this Erie, Pa.-made industrial steam engine - and for good reasons. The 1925 Skinner Universal Uniflow steam-powered electricity generator utilizes a heavy-duty 22-inch-diameter floating piston that directly drives a 250 KW AC generator. With a horsepower range of 100 to 400 and a 7-foot-4-inch flywheel that runs at 200 RPM, the 65,000-pound engine is among the biggest steam engines anyone in the old-engine club had seen in Arizona. But before Wilbur could fire up the old engine, it had to be retrieved from its original home 50 miles away in a dynamite processing facility.

Engine Origins

In 1926, R.E. Huthsteiner of El Paso, Texas, sold the Skinner engine brand new for $10,260 to Apache Powder Co. for use as the plant's primary power source. The engine-powered generator was the sole supplier of power until the factory added a six-cylinder Liberty engine in 1958. The two power plants worked in tandem until the Skinner shattered its main bearing in 1981 and was decommissioned by Apache where it sat until members of the Power from the Past Association became aware of it in 1999.

Curtis Dupee intently stares at the huge 1925 Skinner Universal steam engine that was pulled out of a dynamite processing plant in Benson, Ariz.

Club member Gary Sandve, Saint David, Ariz., says the club heard of the giant engine after his wife, Pat, bumped into an Apache Powder Co. supervisor at the grocery store. 'Pat and Mr. Fisher happened to see each other at the grocery store and were discussing tractors and engines, when conversation turned toward a large engine at the Apache plant,' Gary recalls. 'After I heard about it, I quickly 'got on my horse' and went to talk to the man in charge at Apache.'