UNION CITY, INDIAN
The quiet, pulsating rhythm of a heavy fly-wheel, the ever-restless crosshead prancing back and forth between its guides, but like a tiger in its cage going nowhere, the rod and valve gear flashing circular patterns from the dim bulb overhead, the smell of hot cylinder oil and the muffled surge of steam billowing pillars of black coal smoke from the tall brick smokestack in the high blue yonder all sights and sounds and smells I hadn't thrilled to since a wee lad.
Oh yes, I had driven past the quaint old arched-window, brick structure a thousand times. And a thousand times mine eye had gloried in the contoured beauty of the early American brick smokestack, reflecting its imposing majesty in the tranquil waters of the great Miami River, while, crossing the bridge in the northern environs of Troy, Ohio. But never had it dawned upon me that herein was a steam-operated power plant still functioning to the civic need in a modern-day American community. What more perfect haunt than this for flushing out ye Iron Man of the Month!
'I'm a stationary fireman in the old Troy Power Plant,' said Harold Baker of 327 Wood St., Piqua, Ohio, who'd dropped in one evening to place an order for steam engine recordings. 'Some-time when you're driving past, stop by and I'll show you around. It's one of the few operating steam plants for miles around.'
When I did pay a visit to the Troy Power Plant, some weeks later, mine host, fireman Baker, greeted me, saying, 'Chief Engineer, Harold Miller left early. He said I could answer all your questions about the plant anyway.'
But just as I had completed my story and was already folding it up to slip into an envelope, for Anna Mae a well-penned epistle was discovered in my mail box, giving more historical answers and facts to my queries signed, Chief Engineer, Harold A. Miller, 3525 String town Rd., Troy, Ohio.
If ever a writer experiences a feeling of relief, it's when his story is finally finished and ready to package for the editor. But the blessed feeling of relief in this case was rather short-lived. For the impact from the Chief Engineer's postal lent facts and figures sufficient for a re-write, a situation which left a pit somewhere below the mid-section. (Hole in the tummy.)
'The Troy Power Plant was erected in the early 1885 the same year the Miami County Courthouse was built, directly across the street,' informed my informer, the chief engineer, in his neatly-penned, but belated, script.
'This plant provided power for the city of Troy for many years,' mine host, Iron Man Harold Baker, had told me earlier.' Later the city acquired its own power plant, situated across the river. But this one, being owned by Miami County, kept providing power for various county institutions, the jail and the courthouse.'
It was two years ago that the old plant ceased providing heat to some outlying institutions, but still furnishes the heal to the county courthouse, and more recently to the old Troy Library, situated in the lovely Hayner mansion once occupied in the heyday of the village saloon by the prominent and wealthy family of Hayners, owners of the local distillery.
It was in an atmosphere of reassuring calm, quite impervious to the noise of a mad, mad world, that 1 observed the daily routine of Iron Man Harold Baker, just arrived for his afternoon shift from noon till 10 p.m. The air was sultry that spring day in April with storms brewing elsewhere throughout the Midwest. The surging horsepower lay seething in the mighty twin Brownell boilers overhead, where Iron Man Baker was checking the water level should emergency suddenly strike, downing local power lines and calling for additional reserves from the big steam cylinder of the mighty Ball Engine, ready at all times to set in motion the 715 kilowatt, 2300 volt Western Electric alternator.
Harold A. Miller, chief engineer, had left his shift early that morning, and so a complete check-up was in order for fireman, Iron Man Baker. The gaping firebox doors flung open long enough to gobble up a few more black diamonds, sufficient to keep the embers aglow and steam at a minimum readiness in the seventy four-inch tubes of the two 150 H.P. Brownell Horizontal Return Tubular boilers, ready to spring into action, should the storm strike or the temperature drop.
Down the ancient winding wood staircase we trekked, my host leading me past the sturdy flying buttresses that support the huge brick chimney a monument of strength in memory of the art of master brick masonry, capable of erecting so tall a smokestack with angles and flares to such geometric perfection. Sturdy as an oak, the eighty-foot tall structure had defied the winds and gales of Nature's blasts for nigh onto eighty-three years. For she had 'learned to swing 'n sway like Sammy Kaye', through summer breeze and winter freeze as well as Equinoctial storm.
The old masterpiece of the bricklayer's art is actually a dual-purpose stack, six feet square on the inside, fifteen feet square on the outside the base walls boasting a strength of thirty inches thickness.
Artistic as well as functional, the picturesque old smokestack is adorned by eight tapered pilasters on its corners, twenty-four inches at the base and extending twenty-five feet up the exterior, blending esthetically with the gentle taper of the stack's exterior. The eight ventilating windows near its crown are directly connected with a complex of underground tunnels designed to ventilate every room in the courthouse across the street.
Rising in the center of the ornate ventilator shaft is a metal smokestack, three feet in diameter and eighty-five feet tall, leading directly from the two boiler furnaces.
In case someone is guilty of saying that only modern architects are capable of knowing the secrets of air-conditioning a heating and construction a comparison of modern home development and its craggy chimneys with what we have here might well dispel the illusion.
Like the lost art in the building of the ancient pyramids, I frankly doubt if there exists in this modern day sufficient skill among brick-laying brethren to duplicate such a structure. But, unlike the skill that built the pyramids, thousands of years ago, and buried over the centuries, the art of building tall and ornate brick chimneys died with our grandfathers, barely half a century ago.
A sign, on the old wooden door, warned, 'High Voltage Do Not Enter'.
'We'll just open it up and go on in.' said Baker, in spite of my fears, as he unlatched the creaking, wood entrance at the base of the smokestack. 'That's sign's only to scare people from using these tunnels.'
'It used lo be that courthouse employees would walk through these subways, especially in winter,' explained Iron Man Baker as the two of us crept under piping and bracing to catch a view of the steam pipes leading beneath Water St. to the county courthouse. Here we were standing in the very midst of a very old system of air-conditioning and heating, conceived by no less than some departed genius. For through this brick-lined passageway measuring eight by eight, passed the cooling air from the big air-conditioning ventilators some eighty feet at the top of the chimney, while through the steam pipes was moving the steam heat drafted from the center of the same stack. This was the subterranean channel which connected to a complex of ventilating tunnels designed to cool every room in the Miami County Courthouse across the street.
Ending our subterranean sojourn, Harold Baker checked the chemical condition of the return water from the boilers, thence led me along the catwalk past the furnaces where we climbed the narrow iron ladder to arrive in the, main office on the ground floor.
''Time to oil up,' said Iron Man Baker, striding toward the big Ball Horizontal Engine, grabbing an ancient tallow-pot and making the rounds. A few deft swipes of oily waste here and there to remove spots of dust and grease from the big seventy-inch fly-wheel and the fourteen by sixteen inch cylinder which develops the necessary one-hundred and fifty-seven horsepower by means of the Lock-ring valve and flywheel governor all were quite routine for fireman Harold Baker. A quick 'eye-check' of the big alternator and adjoining belt-driven exciter assured that everything was in emergency readiness.
'Time out for lunch,' announced our Iron Man, grabbing for his dinner pail and heading for the Boss Engineer's favorite swivel chair, specially secured by a heavy chain to prevent dozing firemen, drowsy from the power plant heat, from leaning back too far and 'busting' their skulls on the concrete.
'I like it here. Something interesting always going on,' said Harold Baker, munching on a peeled banana the perfect picture of a blissful Iron Man enjoying every bit of it. 'Even the heat's good for me I've lost ten pounds this winter.'
'But don't be fooled by what you see here,' pined he, mopping his brow 'The county officials are already talking about doing away with all this to make room for a parking lot.
My father, years ago, had prophesied that someday the automobile would destroy everything that we love in America. Now I believed him. For nothing is too sacred, or beautiful or loved so much but that it must make way for the tire-screeching, fender-bending onslaught of the modern number one highway killers manufactured in Detroit.
The noble age of iron monsters, the art of the brick mason and the men of steel who made them have been all but wiped from the face of the earth by the age of tin and plastic. Will it be our flag and the churches, the libraries and schools that are next?
We thank you, Iron Man Harold Baker, and Chief Engineer, Harold Miller, for keeping the steam up to that final and fateful hour.