BOILER EXPLOSIONS

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This boiler was 5' in diameter, 23' long, built for 250 lbs. working pressure. It never had a hot crown sheet while I owned it.

106 South Elm Street, Newkirk, Oklahoma 74647

Lately there have been gruesome stories about boiler explosions
and scary tales of foaming boilers and I am almost afraid to attend
a steam engine show. What if some ‘engineer’ were to pump
water on to a red hot crown-sheet? Or maybe accidentally get a
spoonful of milk in his water tank?

Now, I want to tell a little tale about a dry boiler that
didn’t explode. In the tall white oak timber of the Arkansas
Ozarks back about 1934, a good stave mill operator named John
McKew, was running a stave mill. One day everything was going
nicely, but somebody noticed that there was no water showing in the
glass. The fireman had become careless or perhaps a check valve had
failed to close. Anyway somebody hollered ‘turn on the
injector’ but another yelled ‘no, no, it’ll blow sky
high if you do.’

John McKew was the kind of fellow that never was scared for a
full minute in his life, so he took command. He said, ‘Now you
all get behind the sawdust pile. I’m 76 years old anyhow and it
can’t beat me out of much, and I’ll turn the pump on.’
He did just that. Nothing happened, and before long the water
showed in the glass. The careless fireman built up his fire and got
up a head of steam, and the mill resumed making staves.

Now understand that I’m not advising anybody to turn on the
injector when the water is out of sight. It is best to cover the
fire with wet ashes. Drawing or dumping the fire will create an
intense heat that will do more damage or perhaps cause an
explosion. Getting a crown-sheet hot is sure to cause some damage,
so DONT LET THE WATER GET LOW.

Now I will tell a story of a hot crown-sheet that had much more
serious consequences.

The Missouri & Arkansas was a short line railroad that ran
from Southwest Missouri to East Arkansas. They had about a dozen
locomotives. The M. & A. was never very profitable, but during
World War II, they had plenty of business and were hard pressed for
power. At this time, with war material needing to be moved, Engine
No. 50 was allowed to pull a train out of Harrison, Arkansas, just
two hours after the time for its regular I.C.C. inspection. This
might not have caused any trouble, but after the train reached
Marshal, Arkansas, about forty miles to the Southeast, No. 50 blew
up. The boiler front, a disc of steel seven feet in diameter and
one inch thick, as a spectator said, sailed through air like a
straw hat. The crown-sheet pulled loose from the top of the flue
sheet and tore loose from the side sheets two-thirds of the way
back, the crown sheet seemed to have been soft as a blanket. Now
the incredible part: it closed off the fire door and neither the
engineer nor fireman was seriously hurt, although the forward part
of the grates were blown out.

My brother, Dewey, and I were operating our saw mill about a
couple of hundred yards from the R.R. shops and we were well
acquainted with most of the shop men and the road men. I don’t
aim to mention any names as some of the descendants of the men
involved might read this.

They pulled No. 50 onto a siding between the R.R. shops and our
mill, and the I.C.C. inspectors took over. The water glass was
still about one-third full of water and they used considerable
pressure to blow the obstruction out. They measured the water in
the tender and found that they had only used about one-third as
much water as would have been needed to pull the train that
distance. All the evidence showed that the engine crew had driven
that engine with a dead water-glass right under their noses and
melted the crown-sheet. For nine inches down from the top of what
was left of the fire-box, the soot was all burned off of the steel
until it looked like a rusty heating stove. The inspectors said
that when a locomotive blew its crown-sheet, it usually
somersaulted in the air; but in this case, the sheet pulling loose
at the front, caused the steam and hot water to go forward, and the
soft crownsheet closing off the fire door, saved the engineer and
fireman, while the reaction held the rear end of the boiler on the
frame. If the sheet had pulled loose at the back, the engineer and
firemen would have been vaporized.

After the inspectors left, I crawled in through the opening
where the grates had been, and looked the wreck over. The crown
stays were still hanging to the wagon-top, tight and sound at the
top end, but practically melted off at the bottom end.

However, the trouble had just started; the road men against the
shop men. Of course the boiler foreman had violated the law when he
let the engine leave the round-house after the inspection was due,
and the road men were trying to put the blame on him. The poor man
was so worried that he blew his brains out with a six-shooter,
right by the side of the round-house. He was a fine man, a very
competent boiler maker, and a very good friend of mine.

This disaster points out one of the most important duties of the
operator of a steam boiler: always be sure that the connections to
the water glass are open and water shows in the glass before
starting a fire. The lower drain should be opened and the glass
blown out at least once a day, and much oftener if the water is
dirty.

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