Farm Collector

Iron Man Of The Month

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.

  • Published on Jul 1, 1968
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