Low Water-Look Out

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Courtesy of Mr. E. A. Smith, Sr., 219 Hubbard St., North Fort Myers, Florida Frog Smith and #3 in park at Gulf Hammock, Florida. Vulcan 2-8-0, 1913. Beside Route 19 in Florida.
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Courtesy of Lauren D. Christy, 804 Gillette Avenue, Gillette, Wyoming 82716 C. W. Morse, Carpenter Wyoming and his 20-60 Minneapolis Number 7559.

219 Hubbard Street, North Fort Myers, Florida

On page 30 of Iron Men Album for Nov.-Dec., Mr. Ralph Thyng
tells a hair-raising tale (and I’m Bald), about low water in a
steam boiler. Well Brother, low water is no laughing matter until
you see it in the glass. I feel I ought to know because I once
burned two rows of flues in one end of a boiler while I had a full
bottom gauge in the other.

The way it happened, I was boiler fireman for the Babois Lbr.
Co., of Bonifay, Fla. in 1918, when keeping steam was something to
crow about. We had three 150 H.P. Casey-Hedges return tubular
boilers set in brick, with hardly thirty feet of stack on them.
With the low stacks, we had to run big steam blowers in each stack.
With a 150 H.P. Adams engine, an 80 H.P. Atlas antique driving the
main saw, a worn out 14 x 20 Filer & Stowell twin with every
port blowing a big Star unloader, several jump saws and a big dry
kiln, the boilers were badly overloaded. One day, when due to a
shut down, the steam was low, the foreman came into the boiler room
to lend me a hand.

‘You watch your fires,’ said the boss, ‘and I’ll
watch the water. Because of the emergency, he let the water drop to
one gauge in all three glasses, and one Penberthy injector quit. I
ran behind the furnaces to start a duplex pump and just as I turned
water into No. 1, on which the injector had quit, I saw the bricks
flying off the back arch bars of No. 3. I ran back into the
firehold yelling that No. 3 was burned.

‘Naw she ain’t,’ answered Reeves Brown, the foreman.
‘I’ve had water all along and got a gauge now.’

‘I don’t give a Dwhat you’ve got,’ I shouted.
‘The arch bars are blowing off the back end.’ And they
were. What the boss had in the gauge was only foam. And anyone who
has had experience with foaming water knows to hold his hat when
the water runs low. That day at Bonifay, a big rain had fallen,
cascaded through the slab burning pit and loaded with ashes, poured
into the two ten foot square, thirty foot deep open wells. A made
to order steam bomb if you ask me. But somehow not a boiler ever
blew up. However, once when the maintence crew let enough bricks
fall from the inside furnace walls of No. 2, the middle boiler,
burned her side supports off and fell in, one day while the mill
was running, tearing down all the steam pipes. That was the first
integration on record in Bonifay. Every man in the mill, both black
and white, went out together.

Another time I had a low water scrape in 1952 when I was not the
fireman. Doing maintence work at a big pine tar retort at
Lacoochee, Fla., I worked in day-time. But as I was 150 miles from
home and liked my own cooking, I was batching it in a shack on the
yard. One night at 1:00 A.M. there was a violent pounding on my
shack and the night fireman yelled that he had lost his water.
Jumping into my britches I followed him back to the retort where he
began frantically trying to pull his fire of cord wool from the
furnace of the 125 H.P. boiler. As I neared the retorts, I saw the
oil fires were still burning. The fireman had forgotten to shut the
fuel oil pump down. I shut down the pumps as I ran past, but the
damage was already done. He had most of the wood fire from the
furnace, but with fifty cords of pitch pine stumps cooking in the
retorts, there was a full supply of gas, filling the furnace with
enough purple flame to keep a full head of steam.

Almost speechless with fear, the fifty year old fireman admitted
he did not know how low the water was. I yelled ‘start the fire
pump, and turned the gas off at the scrubber.’ With that the
gas poured out of the retorts around the doors and four stacks
until the flames enveloped the forty foot stacks. I turned the
firehose into the boiler furnace until I killed all the red on the
walls and with the pool of boiling water behind the bridge wall to
create a cloud of damp steam, I gave him the hose and told him to
save the retort stacks. As the injector had jumped off and was too
hot to work, I started a duplex pump and cut the two inch line of
cold water into the boiler. At the time, there was eighty pounds of
steam but you could see the gauge falling with every stroke of the
pump. Soon there was water in the bottom gauge and I told him to
fire up quick, so that I could open the scrubber discharge into the
furnace and stop the fires that already had the stacks leaning. As
I released the gas into the firebox, and water from the firehose
struck the bare wall, there was a report like a gunshot and a 12 x
12 x 12 inch three cornered slap popped off the corner of the
reinforced concrete retort. It was a hair-raising occurrence but by
killing the red heat in the furnace and pouring enough water behind
the bridge wall to keep the tubes cool, there was no danger. We ran
the boiler leaking until the next Sunday and when we opened up the
back, found that the water had been halfway down the flue

In case of low water, remember that bare tubes will become red
hot. Putting water into a boiler when the tubes are red hot blows a
boiler up because the water turns to steam instantaneously, rising
as it expands, giving the boiler shell a hammer blow that sheets
nor rivets cannot stand. And another thing to remember, the old
boiler that you are afraid of, probably cannot be blown up.

Back yonder a half a century ago at Bridgeboro, Ga. a man who
knew nothing of mechanics owned a saw-mill with an end clip shingle
maching that ran at odd times. The boiler was an old forty Horse
power Lombard, made in Agusts, Ga. somewhere back in the other
century. A return tubular in a brick furnace, at one time or
another scale in the shell had burned blisters on the bottom big
enough to hang your hat on. With the smoke box half rusted away and
the piece of stack full of holes and leaning in all directions, the
whole mill crew was afraid of it. One Saturday when only the
fireman, Robert Smith, and the shingle cutter, whose name I do not
know, were there, they hatched a plot to get rid of the old
Lombard. At twelve noon they left the old pot with three gauges of
water, the pop weighed down and a heavy fire of yellow pine
saw-dust to boost the 140 already on the steam gauge, and went to
town. No one knows how high the steam went, possibly 300, but it
was still there on Monday morning. It was dry but on being bailed
it was fired up and they went on sawing lumber. No one was afraid
of the old Lombard anymore, and when Chapman sold the Mill to
Whidden, it was moved to Florida where it steamed the same mill for

Remember, when the water runs low, keep you head, else
you’re pretty durned apt to lose it.

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