Neighbors of Ross Bendixen in the town of Sammamish, Wash., are becoming accustomed to the shrill sound of a Buckeye brass steam whistle blasting on the weekends. Ross acquired a rare and well-preserved 6 HP Birdsall portable steam engine last summer, and the neighborhood hasn't been the same since.
The Birdsall Company of Auburn, N.Y., manufactured this portable steam engine in 1890. Founded in Penn Yan, N.Y., by Hiram and Edgar M. Birdsall in 1860, the company originally manufactured threshing machinery and horse-powered implements. In 1874 Birdsall began manufacturing portable steam engines, and in 1881 the company moved to Auburn, N.Y. At this time Birdsall also introduced a steam traction engine. Birdsall reorganized under new management in 1886, but the company closed shop in 1893. There are indications the company operated at some point in Newark, N.Y., a small town roughly 50 miles northwest of Auburn.
In 1929 Henry Ford purchased this portable steam engine for the Edison Institute, and displayed the engine in the Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Mich., until 1985. At that time, it was sold at auction. Records from the museum say it was sold due to the museum's possession of a second Birdsall, making this engine "redundant."
Originally drawn by horses, these engines were used to power saw mills, shingle mills, threshing machines, dynamos, pumps and even overhead line shafting. Ross bought the Birdsall from Charles Chiarchiaro of Waldoboro, Maine. Kiwi Carriers transported the Birdsall from Maine to Sammamish, arriving on Aug. 14, 2001.
Since then, Ross has spent many hours cleaning, sanding and painting the Birdsall. Broken bolts needed replacing, so he machined original style "high crown" bolts on his South Bend lathe. Disassembly of the cylinder jacket on the engine revealed hand-carved wooden insulation parts, complete with greasy fingerprints and pencil markings from the workman who made them 111 years ago.
Despite searching on the Internet and browsing through past issues of Iron-Men Album (back to 1966), Ross has had little luck finding information on the Birdsall Company or the Birdsall portable steam engine. Jack Norbeck's Encyclopedia of American Steam Traction Engines does include a photo and caption of a similar Birdsall portable steam engine on page 31. Any additional resources on the Birdsall or Birdsall Company would be of great interest.
Ross has run the engine six or seven times, but as yet it has not been displayed publicly. Hoping to display and operate the portable steam engine at public events, Ross is seeking certification of the boiler through the state of Washington. He would like to use it to run a saw mill. If certification is granted, soon an even larger community could be hearing the old fashioned sound of the Birdsall's Buckeye steam whistle.
This is a truly fine example of a circa 1890 6 HP American portable steam engine. The engine appears to be in very close to new condition, with no sign of use other than for display purposes. When acquired from the Ford Museum there was no sign that the engine had been fired, and it was possibly acquired by Ford in such condition. It came complete with the original maple wheel chocks used while on display in the Ford Museum.
The Birdsall portable is a horizontal slide-valve steam engine side-mounted on the boiler. Engine speed is regulated by a Waters' steam governor originally patented in 1871. The boiler has been hydrostatically tested at 150 psi and has been recently run on 75-100 psi steam. The maker, Birdsall of Auburn, N.Y., incorporated the finest of appointments, and details include:
Contact steam enthusiasts Ross and Cindy Bendixen at: 1611 E. Lk. Sammamish Pkwy. NE, Sammamish, WA 98074