Farm Collector

Southern Engine & Boiler Works Steam Engines

The hard-fought Civil War was nearing its horrible end in 1865.
Both sides, but especially the South, had lost much, and Jackson,
Tenn., was among the razed communities. A year before, Union
Colonel Fielding Hurst’s army had laid waste to the town’s
business district, burning much of the industry.

But just a few years after the war, the first signs of
rebuilding began. In 1871, the Citizen’s Gas Light Co. was
formed, making available manufactured gas to the area. The time was
now ripe for people to return and plant the seeds of a blossoming
industrial age in the deep South.

Among those pioneers were a Mr. Sherman and Mr. Cole who began
the Sherman Manufacturing Co. in 1874, repairing steam engines. The
firm changed its name to the Southern Engine & Boiler Works in
1884. Business prospered, and then in 1896 stock was sold to local
shareholders to raise capital for a large state-of-the-art factory
on Royal Street.

Jackson was a great location for a manufacturing company since
it’s midpoint position between Memphis, Tenn., and Nashville,
Tenn., gave it close proximity to both the Pearl and Mississippi
rivers, and the nearest industrial hub was located a state away in
Corinth, Miss. Demand for steam power was growing in the mid-South
as well since the region was rife with cotton gins and sawmills
requiring steam power.

10 to 25 Horse Power.


Southern Engine & Boiler Works built steam engines and
boilers of various types and sizes including center-and side-crank
slide-valve engines, rocking valve engines, automatic engines and
Corliss engines. The firm also sold portable engines mounted on
wheels and skids, and steam-powered components such as sawmills,
woodworking machinery and milling supplies were advertised in the
firm’s catalogs. In later years, Southern Engine & Boiler
Works built gasoline and kerosene engines, and even birthed an
automobile company, the Marathon Motor Works.

Early steam engines were simple slide-valve types, but by the
early 1900s Southern offered an increasingly diverse line. Among
these new lines was a slide-valve engine built with balanced
valves, which offered more bearing surfaces than an unbalanced

Typical side valves operate by steam pressure, forcing the valve
against the valve seat. But at higher pressures, this valve tends
to scuff and wear out. Southern’s balanced valve design had
springs that forced the wearing surface on the opposite side of the
valve to mate either to a machined surface on the inside of the
valve chest cover or to a large machined cage. This design reduced
wear on the slide valve by distributing steam pressure to both
sides of the valve across the steam chest, allowing for engineers
to run their rigs at a higher steam pressure with less engine

Few and Far Between

Operational Southern Engine & Boiler Works steam engines are
few and far between, but one is known to operate at the Wommack
Mill, a historic gristmill in Fair Grove, Mo.

The stationary steam engine was manufactured about 1900 and once
powered an Oklahoma sawmill. But 20 years ago, it was sent to Fair
Grove in poor condition. The engine’s new owners, however, knew
that with a little care, the rare engine could be restored to
working condition, and over the next two decades a group of
dedicated individuals restored the engine, storing it in temporary
locations until they found a permanent location for it at a
century-old gristmill located at the Wommack Mill.

Today, antique iron lovers get a good look at the steam-powered
gristmill every year at the annual Fair Grove Heritage Reunion held
each September. Nearly 50,000 people participated in the festival
last year, and visitors to the mill could observe working
demonstrations of the old operation in motion, among other
farm-related attractions.

For more information about the rare Southern engine at
Wommack Mill, pick up the January 2004 Farm Collector, or contact
Dan Manning at P.O. Box 115, Fair Grove, MO 65648.


Southern also produced a Corliss-style steam engine, which used
rotary valves that opened by eccentrics mounted on the crankshaft.
These rotary valves had levers that connected to vacuum chambers
called ‘dashpots’ built into castings under the cylinder.
When the eccentric opened the valves to allow steam to fill the
cylinder, the valves automatically tripped and released, forcing
the dashpots closed to conserve steam. These Corliss engines used
four valves per cylinder, comprised of two intake valves and two
exhaust valves. Accordingly, they were expensive to build and to
purchase. Owners complained they were hard to maintain and suited
only the largest of operations where fuel savings over time would
offset the initial engine price tag. For the average sawmill and
other timber operations in the South, it was cheaper to burn excess
wood for fuel than it was to buy an expensive but efficient Corliss

Corliss engines were widely popular for their efficiency and
were built under a patent from George Corliss by many firms around
the world. What separated Southern’s Corliss engine from other
firms was its patented inertial governor, built into a small
housing and powered by a belt extending from the crankshaft. This
unique governor made Southern Corliss engines look different from
others, which typically used a Watt-style governor. Sold only
through Southern, the firm released a special catalog each year
featuring only its Corliss engines.


Southern also offered a rocking-valve engine. This engine used
only a single rotary valve that functioned much the same way as a
slide valve, opening and closing the exhaust and intake ports.
Unfortunately, this design permitted cooling of the passages from
exhaust steam. Despite the drawback, Southern rotary-valve was much
more efficient than a typical slide-valve engine and much more
simple in construction than a Corliss engine.


Yet another arrangement the Southern firm sold was a large,
two-cylinder slide-valve engine with a side crank and
center-positioned flywheels. These engines were ideal for large
industrial applications. As many engineers know, when a
single-cylinder steam engine stops on dead center the engine must
be manually rotated off dead center to resume work. Stoppage of
this kind can be particularly troublesome for a large steam engine
that’s belted to multiple machines.

Bill Carroll, chief engineer of the Memphis Hardwood Flooring
Co., recalls that in such a situation his crew was forced to roll
the large flywheel over to start the engine a most troublesome
task. Today, Memphis Hardwood Flooring is one of the last few
remaining two-cylinder, steam-powered mills in existence, located
in Grenada, Miss.

A two-cylinder steam engine, however, doesn’t have a dead
center since the two cranks are offset by a 90-degree angle,
allowing steam to enter at least one cylinder at any given


Southern also attempted to break into the ever-burgeoning
automobile industry, opening the Marathon Motor Works in 1910. The
company never became quite successful, beginning with its first
car. During construction of its first prototype, suitable steel
gears couldn’t be obtained in time for a road test, so head
engineer W. H. Collier had Southern pour and machine some cast iron
gears instead. During the prototype’s maiden voyage, the
brittle cast iron gears disintegrated in the transmission within
the first 20 miles.

Once the prototype difficulties had been reworked, Marathon
built component-assembled cars in Jackson, Tenn., for a few years
before moving operations to Nashville, Tenn., occupying an
1880s-era wool factory. The firm lasted only a few more years,
unfortunately. Marathon did make history, however, as one of the
very first automobile manufacturers to base operations in the
southern United States, and the few remaining Marathon automobiles
command a very high price among auto collectors.


Southern also manufactured portable steam engines, mounted on
either wheels or skids. Timber cutters who constantly moved from
one location to the next often owned portables. When the timber in
a given area ran out, they moved the sawmill, engine and everything
else to another location, and a portable steam engine was the
perfect choice.

The 1898 Southern catalog offered a portable steam engine with
wooden wheels that, curiously enough, mounted the rear axle to the
front of the firebox. Most other portable and steam traction
engines affixed their axles to either the rear or to the sides of
the firebox. Southern catalog a few years later showed a
metal-wheeled portable steam engine with the rear axles mounted to
the sides of the firebox in a more conventional fashion.


Southern began to expand its place in the engine market in the
1910s when it released a new line of internal-combustion engines
and a line of automobiles called Marathon Motor Works.

Beginning with hit-and-miss engines powered by gasoline and
kerosene, the firm’s newfound direction became popular in
industry and agriculture alike. At its height, the firm employed
about 400 workers. But as soon as engine sales blossomed, two of
the company’s key figures, Heath cock and Rush, left the firm
to start a competing engine factory in Jackson. Although still hard
to find, both Southern and Heathcock-Rush gasoline and kerosene
engines are more common than their steam engines and boiler
counterparts, of which only a handful are known to exist.

Unfortunately, the boon of the early 20th century had tapered
off by the end of World War I, as much of the South was
experiencing financial difficulty. Southern Engine & Boiler
Works was sold in 1917 and began to splinter apart under new
management. One group of investors bought the mill supply division,
renaming it Southern Supply. W.H. Collier bought the manufacturing
division in 1922, but by 1926, the writing was on the wall for
Southern, and the firm was forced to close after almost half a
century of proud engine production in Jackson.

I’d like to thank Robert T. Rhode for his assistance in
preparing this article and Jack Wood of the Madison County
(Tennessee) Library for his help in researching Southern Engine
& Boiler Works. Thanks also to Walter Porter, Robert L. Johnson
and Jesse Livingston for contributing material for this

Contact steam enthusiast Mike McKnight at 1025 McKnight.
Loop, Mason, TN 38049; e-mail:

  • Published on Mar 1, 2004
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