Bill Lamb Remembers
735 Riddle Road, Cincinnati, Ohio 45220
'I don't know anybody who knows everything about an engine,' said William M. Lamb of Nicholasville, Kentucky. 'I don't care who it is even if it's a man who knows a lot there will always be something come up he won't know. I've seen it happen too many times. Nobody knows everything about engines. The only person I knew who did know all about them was Harry Woodmansee.'
To emphasize the point he had just made, Bill slapped his hand on the oak dining table in his daughter's Lexington mansion. Tall windows which extended to within a few inches of the floor let the sunlight stream onto a Christmas tree ornamented with gold angels. Bill continued, 'Harry was six years older than me. I knew him at least thirty years. All I can say about Harry is that he was always willing to help you, and he was always right. I never saw anybody who didn't like him. He never sat around and bragged, but he knew all about engines.' Bill's mustache curved up in a smile, he nodded his head once, and he winked.
'I was up north of Fort Wayne, Indiana, at the reunion on the farm of Jim Whitbey there on Carroll and Johnson Roads. Whitbey was a retired engineer off the Pennsylvania Railroad and a good man everybody liked. That's where I first met Harry Woodmansee. Harry had a small Case, and he did the hill climbing. And he was good at it! He'd go around the hill and build the suspense. He'd take the engine up halfway and stop and then take off againall so smooth! That's what made him good. I've seen him line up to a thresher while he was blindfolded. First, he'd be standing on the ground and looking the situation over. Then they'd put the blindfold on him. He'd pull himself up on the platform of the engine and proceed to line up perfectly with the thresher. He'd hit it every time! Harry had a sixth sense nobody else had.'
Sipping hot mulled cider, Bill commented, 'John Schrock did a good job in his tribute to Harry Woodmansee (in the January/February 1995 issue of IMA.' Bill seemed to peer beyond the cherry-red walls of the dining room to relive a past scene, 'If I wasn't running an engine at a show, I was where Harry was. I figured I could learn something. He could listen to an engine, and, if there was a knock, he didn't have to guess about it. He could tell you what was wrong with the engine. One time, he asked me, 'What do you think is causing that knock?' I said, 'I don't know, but I know darn well that, if anybody knows, it's you!' Harry let the owner and his buddies search and look for a while. Finally, he told them, 'Take that piston apart, and you'll find that piston is loose on the rod!' And he was right! Another time, he told a man, 'One of those stuffing boxes is loose on the valve stem,' and, by God, that's what it was!'
Bill glanced out from under dark eyebrows. 'One thing some people didn't know Harry Woodmansee was just as good on a sawmill as on an engine. He could saw anything you wanted out of a log!'
Leaning back, Bill grinned. 'You can watch and watch and watch and watch it happen, and your mind just doesn't catch it. Now, Harry seldom let his engine pop off when he was running it. At Whitbey's, he was giving a plowing demonstration, and he'd go like a storm! You see, Harry would start out with low water just a little bit showing in the glass. When he began to plow, he'd turn his water on. The engine would use the steam as fast as it made it while he'd sail across that field with six plows pulling. It would pop off at the end of the field maybe. It took me a long time to figure out Harry's strategy, even though I watched him do it again and again. Later on, a fellow had a 23-90 Baker ready to plow. I told him, 'You'd better let about two-thirds of the water out of your glass, or you'll stop halfway across that field.' Well, he got about fifty yards, and his engine popped off. He was stuck. Percy Sherman had his big Russell there, and he hooked onto that plow and took off with it. Sherman would plow with his engine, but he wouldn't take his Russell on the teeter-totter because he knew he could break that cast-iron smoke box or pedestal if the teeter-totter would drop down hard.
'A former fireman himself, Bill mentioned, 'Harry told me he'd fired on the Grand Trunk Railroad. Schrock said something about that. In those days, firemen knew to warm a locomotive boiler slowly. If a locomotive had been sitting two or three weeks may be they'd rebuilt it, you see they'd run hot water in it first to warm it up gradually. They took several hours, beginning with warm water then moving on to fire the firebox. They understood that sudden changes in temperature put more stress on a boiler than just about anything else. By the way, when they'd cut the tubes out of a locomotive, those tubes could be used again in a shorter boiler. First, though, they'd put the tubes in a rattler, actually made out of old tubes or flues itself. It would rotate and knock the scale off the inside of the flues. After about thirty minutes in the rattler, the scale would all be gone.'
Bill paused to reflect. 'I know that Harry worked for Case in Fargo, North Dakota. I don't know whether he had the agency or whether he worked for somebody who had it. Anyway, he gave me a list of Case serial numbers arranged year by year. On one occasion, Harry and a couple of other fellows were going to do some work for George Hedtke on his 110-horsepower Case there at Davis Junction. All three agreed to meet at Davis Junction on such-and-such a day, which was a long time off. Nobody called anybody, but, on that day, they all showed up there to work.
'Woodmansee used to go to a show in LaMotte, Iowa,' Bill continued. 'Justin Hingtgen had a big show there called the Mississippi Valley Steam Power Show! He owned about thirty engines, all in working order; there was no hauling in or hauling out. Harry rebuilt Hingtgen's forty-horsepower Avery for him. That engine of Hingtgen's weighed twenty-four tons! Harry had experience with big Avery engines because he had helped Louie David rebuild one just like it. Of course, no two engines are ever just alike. You can take any two 'identical' engines, and you can't fire them alike. You can't run them alike, either. Each engine has its own peculiarities. Woodman-see understood that fact and respected every engine as unique. He did tend to like Case engines generally. He and I agreed that a Case looked more like what we thought an engine should look like than some others. He told me that a Case was an 'assembled engine' and would not wear out as fast as engines of the bracket type.'
Bill laughed, 'To Harry, really any make or model of engine was a good engine, so long as it was well proportioned and well maintained. Still, I believe he felt a special fondness for old Case number 9, which was a twelve-horsepower engine he ran at Whitbey's Old Time Threshers and Sawmillers Reunion.' The look of exuberance on Bill's face showed he was picturing Woodmansee's death defying hill-climbthe same stunt which the J. I. Case Threshing Machine Company of Racine, Wisconsin, had perfected for publicity in the steam era. 'You know,' added Bill, 'I was up there in Ohio someplace, and this great big engine was parked there with a lot of men standing around it. I drove past and said to myself, There was something wrong with the engine; it didn't look right.' So I turned around and went back to give it a closer inspection. It was the first time I ever saw a turbine engine! It took extra steam pressure and had thundering big gears! Well, I talked to the engineer some. Years later, I went to Jim Whitbey's show, and we recognized each other. He was the test engineer on that turbine engine!
'Whitbey once told,' Bill related, 'that, during Roosevelt's campaign one winter, they were stuck in Chicago without an engine with a superheater to heat the cars. The railroad called Whitbey. He was the only one close enough. They told him they would have an engine all fired up and waiting for him in Indiana. He scurried down to the station. Chicago told him, 'Bring the engine on to Chicago. You'll have a clear track. All the crossings will be open. Just let it go. Bring it on up here!' Whitbey saw over a hundred miles per hour on some stretches of that track! Woodmansee always wanted to be an engineer on a railroad, but fate kept him from being on the right side of the cab. He would have made an outstanding railroad engineer!
'J. D. Roberts was a retired engineer off the Alton Road,' Bill went on, 'and a native of Kentucky. He and I got to be friends. He told me he was pulling this crack train of theirs the Abraham Lincolnbut it suddenly locked up when the pressure was stepped up to over three-hundred pounds per square inch. They'd put the wrong oil in it! The steam going through the superheater in the firebox burned up that oil. Roberts scooted down the track about half a mile before coming to a stop!' Bill chuckled. 'Anybody can make a mistake, although Woodmansee seldom did.'
With his index finger tapping each syllable on the table, Bill said, 'I learned a lot from Woodmansee! He showed me how to use a piece of old buggy axle with a stop-block to drive out old flues. He was a working demonstration of how to listen to an engine. I knew a fine engineer who had a sixty-five Case with a little bit of a pecking sound in it peck, peck, peck. I said, 'Jamb nut's a little bit loose on the valve.' He said, 'No, I think it's in the wooden block of the reverse.' Sure enough, it was the jamb nut.'
Bill shook his head. 'You can't tell some people. Now, a governor valve only screws on; it doesn't have a set key or other arrangement to hold it fast. In the expansion and contraction from changes in temperature, it falls off, after a time and the engine stops right then and there. Half the people to whom this happens don't know what's wrong. I heard an engine at a show stop from that very cause. I let the thing sit there, while the owner and the previous owner tried to figure out what had happened. I finally told them, 'Take that governor off there, and there's a valve in there which has dropped off that stem' 'Couldn't be!' they said. 'All right, that's not it, then,' I said. Eventually, they asked me to take off the governor for them. I used some brake fluid to loosen up that dirty governor, got that governor off, and there it was a loose valve!
The illustration above was sent in by Pierre Bos, 'La Cerisaie,' 15 BD Die, F-13012, Marseille, France, and depicts a 1900 French' locomobile.'
'At another show,' continued Bill, 'I saw how the water coming from the cylinder cocks on a locked-up engine was clear. That fact meant that it wasn't getting oil. I volunteered to fix the problem, and the engineer said, 'I don't know you.' I assured him I wasn't going to charge him anything. 'But I don't know you,' he said. 'Whether or not you know me doesn't matter, if I can fix your engine,' I said. So he let me try. I poured the tallow cup full of cylinder oil, and I got him to open the throttle. It blew the stuffing out from around the piston rod. That packing had been in there since the engine was built! I had to refill that tallow cup three times before the engine let loose.'
Inspired to laughter by the antics of some engineers, Bill remembered, 'There was an engine which wanted to run off at a terrific clip all the time. 'Say,' said the man trying to run the engine, 'do you know what's causing that?' 'Where'd you get that engine?' I asked. 'Off a sawmill.' That's all I needed to know.' I said. 'Right there's your problem your engine has no valve in the governor. The sawyer ran that engine from the sawmill and didn't want the governor to interfere.' At another reunion, an engineer was trying to line up his engine with a thresher. He'd line up and line up and just couldn't hit it. He motioned me to come over. 'Can you line this up?' he asked. 'I can, but I'm going to tell you how to do it. then you can do it for yourself.' I showed him how to sight along the inside edge of the flywheel to the inside edge of the pulley on the separator. Still, I don't know how Woodmansee could do that blindfolded!
'I learned a lot from Harry Woodmansee, ' Bill reiterated. 'For instance, how to control the draft! I was at a show in Maryland where the engineer had the front draft door hooked wide open while he was running the engine hard. I knew cold air was hitting the tube sheet and would start half a dozen flues to leaking in no time. I thought, 'I'm going to say something to him, but I know he's going to tell me a lie.' So I said, 'These engines sure seem easy to run.' 'Yeah,' he replied, 'nothing to them!' By the next morning, he was rolling flues while an old-timer explained to him what he had done wrong.
'As far as being wrong goes,' Bill admitted, 'people today don't have a corner on that market. Mistakes were made 'back when,' too. I once saw a Kitten which had the rivets ground down on the steam dome so the reverse lever could slide past and not rub against them. I was standing there looking at it when a man nearby shouted, 'By God, I finally found it!' 'What do you mean?' I asked. 'I finally found this engine! See that dome? My daddy helped put that dome on, and they got it on backwards! When my daddy came home that night, he said, 'I might have a job tomorrow, or I might not. We put a dome on an engine backwards today.' I've been looking for this engine for years!' Even factory employees could be wrong!
'Many things about an engine,' said Bill, 'can fool you, if you're not careful. I knew a fellow in Kentucky who had just washed out his boiler, and two rivet-heads had come out with the water. He thought they'd rusted off and his boiler was no good. He showed the heads to me. They had been cut off! When the factory was making that boiler, the boilermakers saw that those two rivets were bad, cut them off, and started over. Lessons like how to know the difference between a rusted rivet and a cut rivet were what Harry Woodmansse could teach.'
Patricia Ellis, Bill's daughter, switched on the brass chandelier. Outside, shadows were lengthening. 'He visited me once here in Kentucky,' Bill remarked. 'Harry had been down in Tennessee looking for a sawmill. He, 'Big John' Limmer, and I were planning to get together to go to Fargo to a show, but, in the meantime, 'Big John' passed away. Now, Harry's gone. As Schrock said, they did right by him, bringing him to the cemetery with a steam engine and blowing the whistle for him. Along with him, a great deal of knowledge passed out of the world. He'll be remembered as an engineer who did his work quietly and well. You couldn't help but like and admire him!'