In Search of Steam

6118 Portland Avenue Minneapolis, Minn. 55417

Ever since Steam Boats magazine ceased publication,
those strange fellows who take steam engines to sea have had to be
content with only occasional reference to their hobby in the
magazines catering to the steam traction engine and the steam car
enthusiast. However, steamboating is not dead by any means and to
all appearances, seems to be growing.

The Puget Sound Live Steamers, who seem to be drawn together by
the very looseness of the group, report that almost every year, a
new boat appears on the scene. For those people who have never
heard of the Puget Sound Live Steamers, they encompass that area
between Olympia and Vancouver, B. C. and the Pacific Ocean and the
Cascade Mountains. They have no president and no dues, the only
concession to parliamentary procedure being their unsung herothe
secretary who mails notices and arranges meetings. The membership
is a conglomerate of enthusiasts who like traction engines,
miniature locomotives, full size locomotives, stationary engines
and of course, steam ships and launches.

Down through the years, steamboat activity seemed to be pretty
much centered in the New England area. A reader of Motor Boating or
Rudder will remember the occasional stories on steam yachts and
launches. Most of them seem to have been written by Dick Mitchell
of Hinsdale, N. H., who has been able to ride on, or at least keep
track of, all of the marine steam left in New England.

The Great Lakes had their share of small marine steam. We know
that Chas. P. Willard and Thomas Kane of Chicago were just a few of
the companies that built engines, boilers, and even hulls for the
Mid-West. However, not much has ever been written about these
vessels and more surprisingly, not too much of the machinery has
made its way into the hands of the collectors. We can only hope
that someday, someone will be able to chronicle marine steam of the
Mid West and Great Lakes area.

While the Vanderbilts and the Carnegies were watching the
America Cup races from the decks of their steam yachts, the loggers
of California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia were putting
the steam engine to use in a different fashion. Steam donkies
skidded trees from the forest and loaded them onto railroad cars
that were pulled by the oddest assortment of locomotives
imaginable. Whether the logs were taken to the mills, cut and
loaded aboard a steam schooner for shipment or whether they were
dumped into the water, rafted up and towed to the mills, there was
always a steamboat in the picture. Water was the best roadway, be
it the salt water of the Pacific or the clear fresh water of Lake
Couer de Lane.

Back in the 1940’s Rudder carried articles on large and
small steam launches but one never found mention of Puget Sound
boats such as the Dodo, launched in 1934 by Harold Lanning of Gig
Harbor, Wash. Up in the San Juan Islands, a young college student
by the name of Tommy Thompson was burning up a lot of driftwood in
a 26′ double ender called the Fire Canoe. And gradually, more
and more boats made the scene until, in the late 1950’s, Bill
Durham of Seattle, Wash., took note of the increasing interest in
small marine steam and after publishing several stories on Puget
Sound marine steam, started a magazine called S. L. O. W. Bell. The
initials stand for Steam Launch Owners of the World. As a one man
effort, S. L. O. W. Bell was an outstanding but a time consuming
effort so in 1961, Morgan North, himself a launch owner, took over
publication of the magazine changing the name to Steamboats and
Modern Steam Launches.
With the full facilities of
Howell-North publications behind it, the magazine was a joy to
behold. The hobby had ‘arrived.’

However, it was apparent right from the start that the steamboat
people suffered from the same problem that the small scale railroad
people had. This was, basically, lack of support. In England,
Light Steam Power and The Model Engineer were
able to find enough subscribers and contributors to ensure these
commercial publications continued existence. In the U.S.A., the
picture was not so rosey.

Maybe it was because 95% of the steam traction engines were
owned by farmers who wanted something to read during the winter or
bad weather or maybe it was because of the large number of traction
engines compared to the other sides of the steam hobbiest. Whatever
the reason, The Rev. Elmer Ritzman and Tom Smith were able to keep
two very fine steam traction engine magazines going. Several
attempts on the West Coast were not so successful. The live steam
railroad people had a couple of very good publications which folded
for lack of support. Bill Fitt is trying again with the Live
Steam magazine.
We hope that he has better luck than his
predecessors. The steam car has always been able to find full
representation in the antique car magazines.

Morgan North knew that he wasn’t going to make any money
from Steamboats and Modern Steam Launches but his hope was
that he would at least break even. Steamboaters are the most
scattered and individualistic of the steam hobbiest. Some of them
never even know that there was a magazine catering to them. In the
last issue Morgan had a quote that every boat owner will
understand. ‘A boat is a hole in the water, lined with wood,
into which you put money.’ 1200 paid subscribers was not enough
according to the business manager so Volume 3, Number 6,
November-December 1963 was the last. Steamboats were gone
but far from forgotten. All three bound volumes are still available
from the publisher and they have assumed the status of being the
only ‘how to do it book’ for the steamboater. If you go
into the home of a steamboat enthusiast, you will note that his
copies of Steamboats are well thumbed through and not dust
covered.

Synonymous with Steamboats was the name of Fred Semple.
If you wanted to build a steamboat, you could dig up an old Navy
whaleboat hull, a Coast Guard motor surfboat hull, renovate a metal
lifeboat, haunt the waterfronts for a traditional fan-tailed hull
or build one from scratch using drawings by John Skinner, David
Beach or design your own. The big problem was not in the hull but
in the power plant and if you couldn’t beg, borrow, buy, or
steal a traditional type plant and did not have the facilities or
ability to make your own, you had only one recourse.

Fred Semple of St. Louis, Mo., has been making boilers and
engines for as long as I’ve known him. Wheresoever one finds a
steamboat, the odds are that there will be something in it from
Fred be it engine, boiler or accessory. Down in Michigan, Ralph
Rasmusson has come out with a complete line of engines and drawings
that are a real help to the enthusiast and Fred has gotten pretty
much out of the engine business now selling only castings. However,
he is going on to bigger and better things.

Because of labor costs, steam excursion vessels are on their way
out. At least this is what everyone thought until 30 July, 1969
when the 102′ stern wheel steamer Minne Ha-Ha was put into
service on Lake George, New York. This vessel is brand new with an
all steel welded construction by the Lake George Steamboat Co. Inc.
The engines, of course, were built by the Semple Engine Co. and are
8′ X 48′ two cylinder simple rated at 150 hp. at 200 PSI.
The paddlewheel is 12′ in diameter, 11′ long and turns over
at 26 RPM. The auxiliaries consist of a 40 hp. Troy electric plant,
25 kva, 110/220v, 3 phase; capstan driven by a 15 hp. two cylinder
Soule Steam Feed engine; and two Worthington duplex steam pumps for
feed water, bilge and fire. Who says that steam is dead?

As always there is the good and the bad. While the Minne Ha-Ha
will make many new friends, back in Vancouver, B.C., a lot of old
friends are deserting a very fine steamer, the steam tug Master.
Not too many people know about the Master. Her transfer out of the
working class was overshadowed by the transfer of another Vancouver
steam tug, the coal-fired Moonlight, to the U.S.A. Well, due to age
and various other factors, Moonlight’s engine is now in a
museum and the hull is being converted into a houseboat. But what
about the Master? This 71′ tug, built in 1922 and powered by a
triple expansion engine and an oil-fired boiler, was given a
complete renovation thanks to the work of several dedicated men and
untold thousands of dollars of support from marine industries in
the Vancouver area. Ever wonder what the cost is to pull a 71′
boat, let alone the cost of labor for hull repairs? Anyway,
protective and stop gap measures taken in 1962 and preventive
maintenance since that time have not been enough to keep the Master
in good operating condition and unless some proper support comes
through soon, the Master will end up on the block and very likely,
this will be the start of the slide into oblivion.

These people who have enjoyed rides on her during her unfailing
appearance yearly at the Puget Sound Live Steam Meet will say that
it can never happen. These people in Vancouver who have enjoyed the
sight and sound of her during their seafare will say that it can
never happen. Marine historians who would like to preserve that
last little bit of an era will say that it can never happen. No!
Ask the people of New England, ‘What happened to the
Brinkerhoff?’ The last surviving example of low pressure,
sidewheel steam ferry was discarded by the Mystic Seaport Museum as
not fitting of the era that the museum was trying to reconstruct.
All well and good but what happened to the Brinkerhoff? She was
sold to an individual who ran her aground on a river bank and under
pressure from authorities to remove her, ended up burning her,
engines and all and now nothing is left of the Brinkerhoff. If the
Master is able to make an appearance this year at the Puget Sound
Meet, you’d better go and take your pictures because it is very
likely she will not be there again.

This information was obtained during the Winter Workshop meeting
of the Puget Sound Live Steamers. This meeting was held at the home
of Russ Gibbens in Mt. Vernon, Wash. Russ has a large boiler in his
shop that is capable of steaming any engine that can be transported
there. Prize among the displays was the windlass engine off of the
steamer Roche Harbor. This 4′-8′-5′ compound launch
engine had just been completely rebuilt by Elmer Brooks and ran as
smooth as silk. Ted Middleton had come up all the way from Aberdeen
and added a small compound of unknown make to the collection of
engines under steam. Vance Colyear of Olympia had several pieces of
a model Shay on display. Vance does things with a lathe and milling
machine that turn the average hobbiest green with envy. Russ Hibler
kept ducking Gordy Sullivan who made a rare appearance at the meet.
It seems that several years ago, Gordy had ‘loaned’ a small
steam pump to Russ to try out on the San Juan Queen. It worked fine
and still does. However, the Queen’s hull (steel lifeboat) has
reached its end and Russ is building a new engine for his next
boat. Gordy has hopes of getting his pump back and evidently he
will have a use for it. The original American owner of the
‘Moonlight,’ Gordy has acquired a fine example of a fan
tail launch and plans on converting her to steam.

Don Thompson headed up the Canadian contingent and it was from
him that we received word of the possible demise of the
‘Master!’ After a general bull session and an excellent
dinner served by the women, several movies and slides were shown. A
wonderful time was had by all and as it was determined that the
only time Russ Gibbens cleans up his shop is for the meet, it was
decided to hold next year’s Winter Workshop there again.

Those people who love the old stationary engines will bemean the
passing of yet another engine. In St. Paul, Minn., the city water
works had a fine example of a large cross compound Corliss pumping
engine. The original three were reduced to one and in December, the
lone surviver was taken out into the snow and replaced by
electricity. The original water plant boasted a triple expansion,
vertical pump engine. One of these engines is still in existence in
Providence, Rhode Island, but it has not turned a wheel in many a
year.

And speaking of stationary engines, many thanks to the clubs who
are going to all the effort and expense of finding, buying, moving,
erecting and restoring some of the old engines. Up in Rolag, Minn.,
there is a fine example of a tandem compound 100 hp. Corliss
engine, with rope drive yet! It takes a lot of dedication and
effort on the part of a few to accomplish a fine job like this. As
more and more interest is shown in the summer reunions, we hope
more of the clubs will try restoration work of this kind.

Keep water in the glass, coal in the bunker and support your
local steam club!

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