108 Garfield Avenue Madison, New Jersey 07940
Those of you who’ve been reading IMA for many years
may recall the January/February 1978 issue, and a reminiscence
article therein called ‘Sentimental Journey In Search of
Steam.’ There I relived my early childhood alongside the
Virginia Blue Ridge Railway’s tracks and in the shadow of the
two steam powered sawmills that were its reason for existence.
These enterprises deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia are
now but a memory, for hardly a trace remains of their passing.
The line ran from Massies Mill some 15 miles to an interchange
with the Southern Railway at a mainline way station known as Tie
River about 20 miles north of Lynchburg. In 1915 they took delivery
of a 2-8-0 consolidation type locomotive built for them by the H.
K. Porter Company of Pittsburgh. That machine served the railroad
until being scrapped in 1953. A factor in its longevity reportedly
was the source of boiler water from a nearby mountain stream. It is
the search for this elixir and its analysis that brings our story
up to date.
There is probably no set age at which one’s memory begins
and carries on into later life. There will, however, be flashes of
insight from memorable incidents going back to very early years.
There are, for me, two of these mental snapshots that remain deeply
embedded as related to the present story.
The railroad had provided shop facilities for engine maintenance
in Massies Mill where coal, lube oil and sand were stored for use
and a supply of boiler water was available. A clear flowing
mountain brook called, appropriately enough, Rocky Run gurgled its
way past the shop and pump house. Steam for the reciprocating steam
engine belted to a centrifugal water pump had been provided by a
vertical fire tube boiler until its demise. As an alternate source,
a steam hose connection was inserted in the locomotive’s draft
blower line as a measure born of frugal operations and a nearness
to corporate bankruptcy.
The night that the watchman was to try out the new scheme
arrived, and my father was in attendance to see that all went well.
As usual and whenever possible I was glued to his coat-tails as a
sort of supernumerary. I can, in fact, remember quite a few
tag-a-long incidents such as inspection trips with his Buda track
car and our lunches of Uneeda biscuits, sardines and cream soda
purchased at any convenient country store.
This particular night fate came close to ending both our
careers. It was a hot summer night and a window was open in the
pump house and it made the difference. The line was pressurized to
start pumping water to the engine’s tender from Rocky Run when
there was a deafening explosion as a section of pipe split asunder
filling the house with scalding steam.
In one fell swoop my father scooped me up with his strong arms
and literally tossed me out the open window. He was right behind me
as we landed in a heap.
The incident has remained in my memory and perhaps that is the
reason that a remark that he had made about the quality of that
brook’s water for boiler use too has stuck with me. Hard water
or soft water are terms of little meaning to a small boy. I can
hear him remarking on the sterling qualities of that water. No
treatment, internal or external, was necessary. The flow was from
brook to boiler untouched. As required both by prudent operation
and federal regulations, the fire was dropped once a week and the
boiler given a thorough washing.
Engine No. 1 in this typical rods down builder’s photograph
was delivered by J. K. Porter in March 1915 as B/N 5630.
Since I have an interest in boiler feed water analysis (see
IMA, January/February 1988, ‘Boiler Water Treatment
Primer’), running tests on this water has long been a latent
project. As luck would have it, my activities would put me in the
vicinity on what was to be an industrial archaeology venture at
Fort Valley just across the mountains. Wasn’t this too an
industrial archaeology project?
Thus it was that I arrived at what had been the site of the pump
house one Saturday morning. Visualize, if you will, my precariously
leaning out over that stream filling a one liter sample bottle when
the owner of the property drove up in his pickup. I looked up with
my most engaging smile, saying, ‘I suppose that you are
wondering what I am doing.’ He accepted my explanation, and so,
after the exchange of a few pleasantries, I was on my way clutching
my water sample for later analysis and some unexpected results.
Engine No. 1 rests at Massies Mill near the end of her active
career. Time and a hard life have taken their toll yet she stands
proudly as if this was her rods down builder’s photograph.
(Photo by the late William E. Warden.)
My father had always made such a point of this being
‘soft’ water here in these magnificent mountains. My simple
preliminary total hardness test had indicated the sample to be less
than 20 ppm or less than one grain per gallon. In a more refined
test it turns out that total hardness is only between 8 and 9 ppm
or about a half grain per gallon. It is all ‘temporary’ or
calcium hardness. There is no ‘permanent’ or magnesium hard
ness. Truly soft water.
This natural surface water source is at a level often found only
in the effluent from commercial and industrial ion exchange
softeners. Seems that his position has been vindicated. But, there
is more to the story.
A test for pH (hydrogen ion con centration) yielded a worrisome
6.2 when something around 7.3 was expected. This put the electronic
probe pH instrument in doubt; however, calibration showed it to be
accurate. A pH less than neutral 7.0 is acidic and corrosion could
be expected. Operations of fire tube boilers prefer to run with
concentrated boiler water at 9.5 to 10 which is basic or caustic. A
too high pH can lead to priming, so there is a trade off.
It’s time to look at alkalinity, particularly with such a
low pH. The phenol phthalein test showed 0 ppm and the methyl
orange test was only 20 ppm. The alkalinity interpretation table
(Figure 2) shows this all to be bi carbonate ion equivalent as the
source of alkalinity.
The total dissolved solids (TDS) were found to be only 70 ppm
(parts per million) whereas even well water can be 200. Boilers of
this type would generally be run at 3,500 ppm TDS concentration in
the boiler water with the concentration controlled by intermittent
blowdown. Operational control of TDS certainly would not have been
a problem for these early fire men if yesterday’s water was any
where near what I found in the pre sent day. In fact, blowing down
a locomotive’s boiler is quite a spectacular affair. I
can’t remember ever having seen such an event. Do you suppose
that they simply waited until the boiler was cool and simply
The low pH is still somewhat of a mystery. At this point I
decided to run a test for dissolved oxygen which had been
previously omitted since the sample was now quite old and the
numbers might be suspect. It tested quite low; only 4 mg/1. In
taking the sample I had carefully drawn it from the free flowing
part of the stream as there was some algae growth in the backwater
The Rocky Run watershed as shown on contour maps is a small area
about half of which is second growth forest and half cultivated and
orchard land. With today’s emphasis on fertilizing it could be
that there has been a local change in recent years.
However, the more that I studied the situation the more I became
convinced that it was a recent year’s change and one of the
suspects high on the list of probabilities was acid rain. There is
a contour type chart in World Ecology that indicates a very high
level of acid waters in this part of Appalachia. Knowing this now I
might have run samples on Tye River and other streams.
Although this was an exercise in nostalgia and a very pleasant
project, it is typical of the sort of investigation that boiler
operators should conduct. It is essential to the long life of their
boilers. When old No. 1 was towed off to the scrap dealer it was a
final move in a long and useful life.
Figure 1 Rating Boiler Feed Water Source
0 to 150
150 to 250
40 to 70
250 to 350
70 to 90
350 to 500
90 to 125
Figure 2: Alkalinity Interpretation
ppm as CaCO3
ppm as CaCo3
ppm as CaCo3
P = 0
P less 1/2M
P = 1/2M
P more 1/2M
2(M – P)
P = M
Where: P = phenolphthalein alkalinity, M = methyl-orange