735 Riddle Road, Cincinnati, Ohio 45220
This article, 'Bill Lamb's Reminiscences,' has a story behind it. I met Bill, now 85 years old, at the Ohio Valley Antique Machinery Show in Georgetown, Ohio, this summer. When he learned my name, he recognized that I had written the Reeves feature which appeared in The Iron-Men Album's July/August issue, 1993. He invited me to Lexington, Kentucky, to interview him for an article based on his experiences with steam engines. Bill has an enviable wealth of knowledge and anecdotes concerning steam power, and I have attempted to incorporate many of his ideas and memories in the following essay.
Now to the story:
The words 'Steamboat Pilot' make us think of Mark Twain. In the same way, the words 'Steam Engineer' bring to mind William M. Lamb of Nicholasville, Kentucky. Give Bill a white suit and a cigar, and he could pass for the author of Tom Sawyer. Bill has the same glint in his eye and Twain's knack for telling a true story with enough salt to preserve it for future reference.
'Never put a price on it!' says Bill, his hand tracing the exclamation point on the air. 'I knew a fellow who had an engine. Now, he didn't want to sell that engine. He loved that engine! But along came a man to buy it. Figuring he could scare this man off, the fellow set what he thought was a high price, but the man said he'd pay it. Then the fellow confessed he didn't want to sell his engine. This man, though, had friends with him, and he said, 'I have witnesses. They heard you name your price, and they heard me agree to pay.' The fellow felt he had no choice but to sell. He was a man of honor. And he lost his engine to keep his integrity. Never put a price on it!'
When I have talked with Bill about his considerable knowledge of steam engines, he has worn Liberty overalls not a white suit. The overalls recall his years as the engineer for an agricultural traction engine near Lexington, Kentucky. He also has worn a cap recalling his distinguished military career. Retired out a First Sergeant in the Army, Bill saw action in the European Theater in World War II in the Fifth Armored Division and served with a Combat Engineer outfit in Korea in 1952 and 1953; but it was back on the 4th of February in the year 1930 that he was sworn into the Army. He was twenty-one years of age and would turn twenty-two in July. For one so young, Bill already had knowledge of steam power greater than anyone had the right to expect. Born in Athens, near Lexington, Bill had apprenticed on locomotives of the Southern Railway.
'They started you out by teaching you to fire locomotives,' Bill explains. 'Typically, a first-time engineer had spent four years learning to fire. You had to pass several tests as a fireman. You'd go out on trips with a different engineer each time. The engineer scored you. Sometimes, there in the yard before the trip, you could take one look at the engineer and know what kind of a score he was going to give you. It depended on whether he liked you, you see. I passed seven out of ten trips.' Bill sets his jaw, straightens his watch chain, and peers into the distance. Then he states, 'Firing is an art. You don't learn it overnight.'
The Stock Market Crash and ensuing Depression, however, interrupted Bill's progress toward becoming an engineer. 'The Southern was laying off men,' Bill says regretfully. 'I joined the Army.'
First, Fort Warren in Cheyenne, Wyoming, then Randolph Field in Texas were Bill's new addresses. Eventually, he returned to Kentucky to serve in the First Cavalry Mechanized Division, which was begun at Camp Knox (as Fort Knox was known before permanent barracks and headquarters were built). Bill's background in practical mechanical engineering paid dividends in helping him establish his military career.
Today, the cap he wears symbolizes years of achievement.
'One time during the war,' Bill mentions, 'we were stationed in California, and we'd just acquired a bunch of new recruits. And they were green! Well, one of these recruits came up to me one night and said, 'Can I talk to you? I ain't no soldier. All I've done my whole life is mechanical work. I like engines. I like tearing them down and fixing them up again.' I could see that he would be useful in Ordnance, so I filled out the papers and got him transferred over to Ordnance.'
Bill's eagle eyes flash, and the hint of a smile lurks beneath his mustache. 'A few years ago, I was attending the steam-engine show at Mount Pleasant, Iowa. A fellow had a 25-horsepower Advance on the giant sawmill, and I was watching that Advance work. Pretty soon, that fellow got my attention and motioned for me to step up on the platform. So I did. 'Sergeant,' he said, 'I don't remember your name, but you did me a big favor once.' It was that same recruit. His name is Dean Shellhouse, and he's from Devonia, Michigan. He'd seen my cap, and then he'd recognized my face.'
Bill laughs, 'Dean's a good engineer, but he couldn't figure out why his injector was so slow at picking up the water. Of course, he had practically a hundred feet of hose with one end coming from the supply and the other end going to the injector! I happened to have a pipe with a check valve in my van, so I installed it at the supply end for him. That check valve held the water up next to the injector, and it worked fine after that.'
Bill's engine background would stir up envy in a newcomer to the field of steam power. Bill's uncle, Ed Gerhard, in Saline County, Missouri (linked by State Route 24 to Twain's Hannibal), owned and operated the largest double-cylinder Nichols-Shepard engine ever built one of only three which the Nichols & Shepard Company constructed on such a massive scale as to be referred to as a '50/150-horsepower engine.' Bill recalls, 'On furlough, I'd always go to visit my uncle just to run that big engine! That was the biggest engine I'd ever seen!'
Uncle Ed threshed the whole township with a 42-inch separator to match the colossal traction engine. While Bill's uncle also owned a 65-horsepower Case to run the sawmill, the monstrous Nichols-Shepard captured and held Bill's fascination. Operated through the 1930s, the Nichols-Shepard required the constant attention of five men: during the plowing season, two men on the engine, a third named the 'plow-walker' whose job it was to keep all the plows at the proper depth, a full-time blacksmith, and a water boy; during thresher season, a supervisor of the separator replaced the plow-walker.
Like the dinosaurs, such mammoth engines lumbered across the earth in the twilight of an era, for big tractors, followed by smaller tractors, soon spelled a new, if less exciting, day in agriculture. In a fence corner, the Nichols-Shepard was parked for the last time. Later, Bill was riding in Uncle Ed's truck when they passed a junkyard with its tall gates swung open. From the corner of his eye, Uncle Ed glimpsed something he recognized. He put on his brakes. 'Goll dern, if that isn't the flywheel off my Nichols-Shepard!' Uncle Ed exclaimed.
Bill goes on, 'He was mad as a hornet, and he had every right to be. It was World War II, and somebody had commandeered his engine and sold it for scrap.' Bill clenches his teeth and shakes his head slowly. 'Whoever it was, junked his sawmill, too.' One corner of Bill's mustache arches up in a nostalgic grin. 'That was a beautiful big engine!'
'I've seen some mighty big engines,' Bill continues. 'I saw a 25/80-horsepower double-tandem-compound high-wheeler Port Huron.' That engine was owned by W. M. Jones and H. Hoskins of Winchester, Kentucky. 'Harry Woodman see rebuilt a 140-horsepower Avery. And a Mr. Solmon bought one of those high-wheeler Reeves engines.' To hear Bill describe Mr. Solmon reminds the listener that the term familiar to operators of steam engines eccentric has two meanings. Also, Bill tells a horror story involving a gigantic Peerless, the boiler of which was sandblasted without removing the engine. The rest can be left to the imagination.
Bill adds, 'And I've seen some big locomotives.' He recalls the locomotive engineers with whom he has chatted at steam engine showsmen like J. D. Roberts, an engineer on the Alton-Chicago road who hailed from the mountains of Kentucky and who served as Vice President of the Central States Threshermen's Reunion in the 1950s and 1960s, and Loran Hampsmire, an engineer for the Wabash Railroad whose Aultman-Taylor agricultural traction engine appeared on the cover of the Central States program for 1959. 'The locomotives those fellows drove would carry upwards of three-hundred pounds per square inch of pressure in the boiler. Some of those engines were not equipped with a trap door between the cylinder and the stack. When those engines would be coasting downhill, they'd pull cinders back into the cylinders.'
Bill pauses reflectively, then cautions, 'These farm engines you see at the shows are getting old and dangerous, and engineers should not be too quick to take unnecessary risks. The rivet heads in the ash-pan may be rusted away. Oftentimes, water has lime in it, and the lime'll form a crust on the tubes. The metal inside that crust will get red hot, and, if a chunk of that crust flies off, the cooler water hits that spot, and BAM! I helped a man sell a 13-horsepower Gaar-Scott boiler to a fellow who used it to steam tobacco. One day, he was pretty well barreled up on whiskey. I was within three to four-hundred yards of the boiler and saw him run over to put water in. I knew he must've been low, and I knew what was about to happen, so I stayed back. When that cold water hit that hot metal, it blew the crown-sheet down to where it was even with the floor of the firebox. The front door and the back door of the boiler blew clear off, and a wagon behind the boiler was blown backwards across the field. If that fellow had been standing just a few inches to his right, he wouldn't have survived. That took place on Leestown Pike.'
Bill slips a pair of glasses from the pocket of his overalls and wields a pen and a pad of paper to sketch a firebox and boiler. 'As I say, you can't let cold water or cold air come into contact with that hot metal. The vent in the firebox door, here, has an air-spreader inside to prevent the cold air from hitting the flue-sheet. Up here, in the smokebox, is a little drain hole. I used to put mud over that hole to keep the cold air out so as to protect the life of the engine and improve efficiency.
'Now, you have to know you have enough water here in the boiler. The water glass won't always tell you the truth. It could be that somebody's come along and screwed down the valves on the water glass, then it'd look like you have water when you don't! That's why you have try-cocks to make sure where you water level is. Now, look how many square inches are in that boiler! When you have 150 pounds per square inch, that's 150 pounds on each square inch all over the boiler. Some of these engineers today like to put a locomotive whistle on a farm engine. The inside diameter of the whistle pipe might be three inches, and they'll tap that three-inch pipe right into the steam-pipe from the dome to the cylinder, as you see.' Bill draws a big whistle.
'That whistle won't sound like much. It'll make a real low spitting noise, that's about all. It was intended for a locomotive carrying three-hundred p.s.i. Now, if that three-inch pipe were stepped down to, say, one-inch in diameter before tapping into the steam-pipe, it would improve the sound. And it'd improve the safety] Firebox steel is a special kind of steel. It's bendable. That means it's soft. When an engineer blows one of these locomotive whistles with a three-inch-diameter pipe on a farm engine, what I call a surge of water goes all the way up in that boiler. That's because it's all under the same pressure both the steam and the water. So the water surges straight up. Then the engineer won't shut the whistle off slowly. No, he cuts her right off again. And all that water comes straight down. It's like a huge hammer pounding on that soft firebox steel. The stay-bolts could easily pull out of the firebox, and the firebox would implode.'
Bill rests his pen. 'I've never seen an old-timer with a big whistle on a farm engine.' He folds his glasses and puts them back in his pocket. 'They know better.'
In terms of respect and admiration, Bill speaks of the gifted engineers with whom he has been acquainted: men like 'Big John' Limmer; Raymond Fork, 'a Baker man'; and Percy Sherman, 'He was a Russell man. Thought a Russell was the only engine made!' Like them, Bill has a treasury of steam-era experience, from knowing how early cylinder-oils were derived from sheep hides to understanding Frick's special process of creating rust-proof charcoal steel. He notices details others miss, such as the fact that only one engine was built in between Ray Wenger's Advance-Rumely and Fred Staton's Advance-Rumely. Bill has repaired valves, re-tubed boilers, and recognized subtle clues, like knocks, so as to get to the heart of fixing an engine without wasting time and effort in guessing what might be wrong. We might ask, 'When and where did he acquire such a hoard of wisdom about steam engines?' The question has a ready answer.
Before Bill apprenticed with the Southern Railroad, he spent half a dozen years threshing and steaming tobacco beds. In Fayette County, Kentucky, Bill Davidson and John McKinney co-owned an 18-horsepower double-cylinder Gaar Scott engine (built in 1917) and a 32-inch separator. Bill worked for them as their engineer. Eventually, one of the co-owners moved to a farm on Shannon Run Road in Woodford County, and it fell to Bill to guide the engine from Athens in Fayette County to Woodford County.
'That meant I had to go through Lexington,' Bill begins. 'You couldn't take a traction engine on an asphalt road because the weight would break up the pavement. I was going to have to hop that Gaar-Scott up on the streetcar tracks. I started when the last streetcar operator of the day assured me he was the last. As it turned out, the skid-rings on the front wheels of the engine fit so perfectly on the streetcar rails that I didn't even have to steer. Everything was going along fine, when here came a streetcar toward me! That other streetcar operator wasn't the last, after all! I had to back the engine off the tracks and onto a side road.'
Bill chuckles, 'Just my luck, here came the sheriff. Well, he put me in jail, but they called the owner of the engine. He explained the situation, and they let me go. The water boy had stayed with the engine, and I'd given him instructions about keeping the fire going and looking after the water. He was pretty scared, though.'
Bill drove the Gaar-Scott the rest of the way without incident. John McKinney sold that engine to a Mr. Carson in Scott County, and he sold it to a Mr. Kinney'Not McKinney but Kinney,' says Bill. In turn, Mr. Kinney sold it to the Holp family, and, from them, it made its way to its present owner, Ken Knowlton of Milan, Indiana. In mint restoration, that same Gaar-Scott which Bill guided along the streetcar tracks so late that night in Lexington has been featured on the cover of The Iron-Men Album. (July/August 1992see photograph at beginning of story.)
This evening, from the sitting room of Bill's daughter Patricia Ellis's Victorian mansion in historic Madison Place in Lexington, Bill gazes through the window, and, were it not for the houses across the street blocking his view, he could see just beyond them where he piloted the Gaar-Scott on the rails through the city. He checks his pocket watch. It is late, and others of Bill's stories of the legendary epoch when steam was king await another time to tell.
(As Bill puts it, 'These men could run engines and also fix them. When they couldn't fix them, they junked them.')
Harry Woodmansee; Percy Sherman; 'Big John' Limmer; Jack Eckberg; Ken Lewis; Bill Smallie; Frank Miller; Ray Wenger; Raymond Fork; Ed Gerhard; Frank Thomas; Jennings Barker; Charles 'Icky' Barker (Jennings' son); Lawrence Porter; Henry 'Doc' Davis; Ben Slaughter from Versailles, Kentucky; George Slaughter from Versailles, Kentucky; LeRoy Blaker (began Montpelier, Ohio, show); Hamp Hoskins; J. D. Roberts; Jack Tucker (undertaker in Georgetown, Kentucky); Tom Buller; and Pearl Thompson from Marshall, Missouri.
Everything was going along fine, when here came a streetcar toward me! That other streetcar operator wasn't the last, after all!