After seven years of owning a steam tractor, I’ve come to
realize the amount of work that goes into restoring and maintaining
these machines. I’ve also come to appreciate the appetite for
water and fuel these things have, even in their retirement.
My 1912 15 HP Buffalo-Pitts, until recently the lone steam
tractor attending the annual Riverbend Steam and Gas Association
Show in Allendale, Mich., has taught me a lot about running a steam
tractor. One thing that quickly became apparent is the amount of
water the engine goes through when hard at work. Access to this
simple element, however, has sometimes made life a little difficult
at the show.
Our water source for steamers and our dust-controlling water
wagon has historically been a ditch/creek (not sure which it really
is) running through our grounds. In the past few years, this
ditch/creek has been less than cooperative in supplying enough
water for making steam, and I had wondered about the quality of the
water, running as it does through a lot of farms in the area. Not
being sure about what pollutants could be detracting from the
quality of the water up stream, I started looking for another
source of water after our summer show in 2001.
Our show grounds has a well, where a simple reciprocating piston
pump driven by a one-lung engine draws water from the ground,
supplying a drinking fountain system for attendees at the show.
When the owner of the pump decided it wasn’t performing
properly, he tore it down, replaced the worn out u-cups, ground the
check valves, repacked the packing gland and gave it a new coat of
badly needed paint. After the overhaul, the pump seemed able to put
out more water than we could use, and with this in mind, I decided
I had found my water source.
My Buffalo-Pitts has a forward mounted make-up water tank, the
top of which is about eight feet off the ground. Not wanting to
have to pump water up to it, I decided to target gravity to fill my
tank. Plus, any other engine’s tank would be easy to fill from
a high mounted storage tank.
Discussions within the club centered on using a large plastic
holding tank like you’d find at the local farm supply store. It
would make a nice ‘sanitary’ vessel, but it would look very
contemporary something would have to be done to camouflage it.
Another idea was a real wood holding tank, but the complexity of
construction, the need for clear wood and issues of getting it and
keeping it watertight each year presented major drawbacks to the
One of our members, Lee Scholma, came forward with a heavy steel
gasoline tank that had been out of the ground for the past decade
or so. Measuring 5 feet in diameter and 6 feet long, which
calculates out to around 750 gallons, the tank was inspected and
deemed worthy of holding water for many years to come. As summer
rolled around we moved the tank to a place where we could wire
brush it, weld in a few new ports, plug up a few old ports, and
prime and paint it.
In the meantime, we needed to construct a platform for the tank,
and since it would be holding several tons of water it needed to be
very stout. I designed a platform to sit 11 feet in the air, and we
secured four used poles from a local power company (used poles are
often given away by many power companies) for the supporting
foundation. We dug holes, poured concrete footings and then set the
poles during a work bee one night. From there, over a period of two
long evenings, Dale Sonke and two of my sons squared and braced the
poles, and they built the heavy duty platform for the tank to rest
on. Finally completed, it was rock solid, and with creosoted poles
and pressure-treated wood, it should last a long time out in the
On another work bee we hauled the tank to the grounds, lifted it
with a fork truck and, with the aid of a tow strap and a pickup
truck, slid it into place. I welded some ‘ears’ to the tank
before the move, and once it was in place we secured it to the
platform with four lag bolts.
A single 3/4-inch pipe fills and drains water from the
tank’s bottom through a fitting welded on earlier. This line
runs down the inside of one of the legs of the platform to operator
level. A fitting higher up on the tank does duty as a
vent/overfill. This port is plumbed so overfilled water doesn’t
run down the side of the tank or get the wood wet. A check valve,
drain valve and a fitting for a standard garden hose are attached
to this line.
We use one of the original ports on the side of the tank for
drawing water to fill the steam engine water tanks. The hose for
filling the engines is a 1-inch diameter rubber hose fed from a
1-inch gate valve. The valve is mounted up high on the tank, but we
made an extension rod so it can be operated from the ground. The
hose also has a place to hang it so it doesn’t lie on the
ground and get damaged or dirty.
With the water tower in place, a portion of the water drawn from
the well goes to the drinking fountain system, while the other
portion, through its own valve, is directed to the tower through a
standard garden hose. The pump runs all day long, and a continuous
trickle fills the tank. At some point another garden hose will be
hooked up to capture overfill and channel it back so the dust
control water wagon can take advantage of this ‘waste’
water. Plus, we won’t have to worry about a muddy mess around
the base of the tower. It takes about four hours to fill the tank,
but that’s more than enough water for several steamers.
Just before our 2002 show, I engaged in some free hand stencil
making, and with the aid of a small paint roller I stenciled the
name ‘Riverbend, established 1868’ on the face of the tank
– it was a nice finishing touch. The new water system worked very
well, and it’s a great addition to the atmosphere of the
grounds. At the end of the show we disconnected and stored the
garden hose feed line, opened the drain valve, and we were done.
All-inclusive, we have about $450 invested in the water tank, and
most of that went to the treated lumber. The rest went to paint,
plumbing and hoses.
This was very fun project to take on, and with the help of
several other club members and their equipment, not as difficult as
one might think. If you would like to build a water tank like this
on your grounds and would like more information on this one, feel
free to contact me. I’d be happy to share my experience.
Contact steam enthusiast Pete LaBelle at: 802
Shadybrook, Holland, Ml 49424, (616) 786-3605, or e-mail: