A Big Steam Engine and Blue Skies

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Adjustments are a necessary part of running any old steam engine, and the Skinner is no exception.
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A close-up view of the 250 KW AC generator that powered the Apache Powder Co. until 1981.
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The front end of the cylinder shows just how big this steam engine is.

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.’

Wilbur White, who operated the Skinner Universal steam engine
for 18 years, was given the satisfaction of starting it up for the
engine’s ‘maiden’ run at Power from the Past
Association’s spring show last April.

This brass nameplate is the only tag left on the Skinner engine.
All others were missing when club members moved it to the
fairgrounds.

At first, the processing facility was hesitant to let it go. But
as talks between the two parties developed, Apache realized it was
a win-win situation, says club member Jim Blair. ‘It was a
combination of Apache wanting to get more room in their powerhouse
and us negotiating to get it,’ he says. ‘They had seen our
1897 Nordberg steam engine set up at the fairgrounds and knew
we’d take good care of it, so we acquired it.’

The Elephant in the Room

Securing the permission to take the huge engine was just the
start of a monumental task. Extracting and transporting the Skinner
was easier said than done. In 1999, about 12 club members
sacrificed their weekends to disassemble and move the steam engine
from its longtime home at the factory’s powerhouse. But before
work could begin, Gary says, Apache required club members to
complete a safety class and supply their own tools for the
extraction in order to reduce liability for any accidents that
might occur during the heavy-duty transportation. Once they were
cleared, they launched into a major disassembly that lasted six
months and required the crew to call upon all of their resources,
from flexible schedules, understanding families, tools and time to
heavy equipment such as tractor trailers, cranes and forklifts.

The mammoth steam engine was disassembled into four major
sections: the main casting, which included the cylinder and piston;
the flywheel, which was broken into two pieces, weighing 13,000
pounds; the crankshaft and alternator rotor, weighing 12,000
pounds; and the starter for the alternator, attached to the outside
of the rotor, weighing 6,000 pounds. To make matters even more
difficult, the crew discovered the engine was sitting over a deep
pit that housed the flywheels and the business-end of the engine
where all the piping connected to the engine, Gary says. The main
casting – cylinder and piston – was then carefully set on machine
rollers and pushed onto a rollback semi truck. ‘After this
huge, heavy case was put on machinery rollers,’ Gary notes,
‘literally only seven people were required to push it to the
truck.’

Most crews would’ve been hesitant to move a 32-ton piece of
machinery, but Jim wasn’t so pessimistic. ‘Sure it was a
chore … but it really wasn’t at the time,’ he admits.
‘We enjoyed working with club members to get it done. In fact,
one Apache worker was amazed at our progress and knowledge to get
it done so quickly.’ Gary echoed Jim’s assessment of the
extraction job as well. ‘One Apache supervisor said after we
were done that they wished they could get their people to work that
hard,’ he recalls with a chuckle.

The Skinner engine’s original boiler was left behind, Gary
says, because of its huge size and because it was coated with a
layer of asbestos insulation. Even without the boiler, the Skinner
engine required four semi tractor-trailer loads to haul it off.
Many minor parts such as fittings, seals and smaller components
were moved with club members’ pickup trucks. ‘Some of those
bolts took two people to carry them,’ Gary recalls.

The 1925 Skinner steam engine made its debut under the clear
blue skies of the Arizona desert at the spring show on the Pima
County Fairgrounds in Tucson, Ariz.

Restoration

Once the Skinner steam engine was delivered to the Pima County
Fairgrounds, club members began their assessment of the engine and
how to proceed rebuilding it. With no boiler and foundation, and a
shattered main bearing, the club’s work had only begun, and no
one knew if the engine’s reassembly would be problematic.

Aside from the obvious problems, the engine looked
well-preserved, both Gary and Jim say. Not many parts needed
replacement because the engine was stored indoors, out of the
weather. ‘It was sticky, but not stuck,’ Gary adds. All of
the brass nameplates, however, were gone except for one indicating
the original seller as R.E. Huthsteiner of El Paso, Texas.
Evidently, someone ‘borrowed’ the other nameplates. Brass
plates were attached to the engine before the club took control,
but were curiously missing after they removed the engine. The
generator was worn and the wiring looked ratty, Gary says.

Foundation work for the enormous engine began in late 1999 while
other club members began brainstorming ideas to find a boiler and
fabricate a main bearing. In 2002, Jim – a machinist by trade – and
others began work on the main babbit bearing, which they fabricated
themselves. ‘That bearing was a lot of fun to do,’ Jim
says. The finished bearing for the Skinner engine is made of four
pieces and, put together, measures 20 inches in diameter each piece
weighing between 75 and 100 pounds.

In April 2003 the club’s meticulous attention to detail and
hard work was rewarded when the 10-foot tall engine was
reassembled. ‘It seemed rare to go together so good,’ Jim
remembers. The main bearing was a success and all of the parts were
retrofitted relatively easily. Only the generator has yet to be
restored.

Blowing Steam Again at Last

The Skinner engine was finished in time for Power from the
Past’s spring show in April. The club rented a 20 HP riveted
boiler in Wagon Mound, Ariz., giving the piston 80 pounds of
pressure for display purposes. Jim says the club would like to
purchase a 75 to 100 HP boiler for optimum performance, but one
hasn’t been located yet.

Both Jim and Gary were impressed to see the huge engine run
again after so many years. The men agree, however, that the
highlight of the engine’s return was seeing Wilbur operate the
engine. Sadly, Wilbur passed away in July 2003.

Ironically, the finished Skinner engine, originally manufactured
to produce up to 400 HP, only powered two 1-1/2-volt Christmas
lights during its maiden run. That may not be the brightest bulb
the engine ever powered, but after all the hard work and
perseverance to save the old Skinner, seeing Wilbur start the
engine he once powered in the Apache Powder Co. plant brightened
everyone’s day who saw it.

For more information about the Skinner steam engine or
Power from the Past Association’s annual spring show in Tucson,
Ariz., contact Jim Blair at 1631 W. Pine St., Tucson, AZ 85704
2233; (520) 621-2598; e-mail: jlblair@engr.arizona.edu

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