Farm Collector

James Watt Steam Engine

Old engine and steam engine buffs can
appreciate a really old steam engine. So it was that when Mike
Shanks, a member of the Cedar Valley Engine Club, received a phone
call asking if the club might be interested in an old stationary
steam engine, his questions were: how old and how big?

The Do All Co. in Des Plaines, Ill., a manufacturer of
industrial sawing equipment, was in the process of moving from
their original plant. An engine collected by the founder of the
company, Leighton Wilkie, wasn’t slated to be moved to their new
location. Yes, the club was interested, but how much would it cost
to move it to Charles City, Iowa, and would the acquisition be
worth the time, because at this point we had no idea what we were
dealing with.

A few weeks later on an early spring day in 2005, six members of
the club drove to Des Plaines to see what had been offered to the
club. What they found was a 1799 Watt steam engine with an 18-foot
flywheel that appeared to be complete – even to the metal railing
that had been around it in the textile mill. It was in a large
central room of the plant, and was, for its age, in excellent
condition. It was mounted on concrete piers with a large overhead
wood frame that supported the cast iron beam connecting the piston
to the crank. In the plant it had been “run” with an electric motor
hidden behind a block wall.

Hmm, now I think we were getting interested.

The engine had been built in 1799 at the Boulten & Watt
factory in Birmingham, England, in what is now the Royal Mint. One
of the valves is stamped 1797, leading to some question as to the
exact date of construction. It was purchased in Frome, England, and
taken to Chard, England, in 1827, where it operated the Gifford,
Fox & Co. Ltd. textile mill. The magnificent brass governor was
added in 1857. The engine was still working in the plant in 1948.
Wilkie purchased the engine and had it transported from the plant
to Des Plaines in 1958.

According to some of the information we found, this engine is a
60 HP engine initially run on around 5 pounds of steam


Could the engine be moved again at a cost the club could afford?
The four club members first determined that the flywheel could be
disassembled into eight sections so it could be transported on the
highway. They spent several hours measuring and estimating the
weight of various pieces. They were able to report back to the club
that the engine could be moved, but it would be prohibitively
expensive to hire professional movers. However, it appeared that
club members could disassemble and transport it on flatbed trailers
of the type they used to move their antique tractors.

A few weeks later after a unanimous vote by the club, 10 club
members with four pickups and trailers loaded with tools and cargo
straps set out before daylight for Des Plaines. The groups spent
three long days and nights dismantling the engine. Parts were
loaded onto the four trailers for the trip home. There was clearly
a need for a second trip as the remaining pile of parts included
the condensers and much of the valving.

Both the trailers and the trucks were heavily loaded. As the
convoy came down the long hill to the Mississippi River Bridge, the
brakes were smoking, requiring a stop to cool them down. This
wasn’t the only interesting trip mishap. Arriving late at night at
the club’s show grounds, the engine parts were unloaded into
various buildings for storage until reassembly could begin.

Some weeks later we returned with two of the trucks and trailers
to Des Plaines in anticipation of completing the move. The trailers
and trucks were loaded, and we headed back to Charles City the same
day, but there were still engine parts in Des Plaines.

In addition to the engine the club also obtained a large boring
mill used to bore the Watt engine cylinders. It had been powered by
a large water wheel.

In 1765 Watt started to develop a method to bore the large
cylinders he needed for his steam engine. In 1775 he became
acquainted with John Wilkinson, who was known for developing boring
mills for cannons. Wilkinson was able to design a mill that would
handle the very large cylinder castings. This mill is considered
the world’s first true machine tool.

Mike and his brother, Howard, returned to Des Plaines for the
last load to complete the move of the engine, though the boring
machine remained. Late in the evening, with the heavy load on the
trailer, a tire blew out about 40 miles from Charles City. Changing
it in the dark on a busy road was not an easy task because of the
trailer’s heavy load. However, a stranger from Arkansas stopped and
used his pickup lights to illuminate the wheel, so the job was soon
finished and the remainder of the trip was uneventful.


The heavy boring mill, which had been stored outside on the
ground, had to wait until late summer when dry weather allowed the
use of a large crane to load it on a trailer. With its arrival at
the Cedar Valley show grounds near Charles City the move was
completed. It’s really interesting what can get accomplished when a
group of old iron collectors start to put their minds together.

The club already had a large Norberg Corliss compound steam air
compressor that came out of the Allis-Chalmers plant in La Porte,
Ind., set up in one of the buildings on the club show grounds. It
was decided that the building could be expanded so the Watt engine
also could be set up. Careful measurements of the concrete piers
used in Des Plaines were used as the basis for the new
installation, but the height of the piers was raised to better
display the engine. Since engine detail drawings do not exist, many
photos and notes were taken in Des Plaines as the engine was
dismantled as guidance for the reassembly.

The list of members who helped in the relocation of the Watt
engine were as follows: Mike Shanks, Howard Shanks, Kelly Barnett,
Jason Skillen, Harold Swartzrock, Steve Montag, Steve Smolik,
Roland Endelman, Wayne Popp and Larry Bissen.

The opportunity to see the engine for the first time and take it
apart to transport it is a time in our lives that won’t be
forgotten. To see the engine up close is like taking a leap back in
time, looking at mechanical ingenuity in its early stages and truly
appreciating the effort and thought processes of some great
inventors that came before us.

Contact steam enthusiasts Kelly Barnett at: Box 748,
Nashua, IA 50658;

Howard Shanks at: 1429 Clark Ave., Ames, IA 50010;

  • Published on Jul 1, 2006
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