Steam's Fascination Lasts a Lifetime
I was born in 1937, and I grew up in a small farming community 30 miles outside London, England. Although my parents were not farmers, I started working on farms at a very early age. I was very interested in steam traction engines, as there were still a lot of them around the farms and on the roads. England did not have any oil reserves but did have an abundance of coal, a fact that kept steam engines running regularly in England a lot later than in other countries. Then came World War II, which, unlike in the U.S., pushed many steam engines into further service.
During the war, I vividly remember going outside at night and seeing a glow in the sky and flashes from the bombs that were falling on London. If it was cloudy or the bombers missed their target, they would fall on us. Instead of collecting baseball cards we collected bomb fragments, and the bomb fins and pieces of aircraft were prize possessions. In our area there were many American service men tasked with manning the anti-aircraft guns. We always hung around them for gum and candy, as neither were sold in the stores during the war.
After the war there was a chronic shortage of manpower, so the government lowered the school graduation age to 14. In our town we had a few factories, and one of them was a boiler manufacturing and repair company. I could not wait to start work there, as for years I had watched the men working with torches and rivet guns, and I always thought what a neat job it was. I was hired, and the first job I had was torching up a boiler and a 200 HP steam engine in a large sawmill that were to be replaced with a 200 HP electric motor. Another 14-year-old kid and I had fun on the boiler, but the engine was another story. This was a job for the men. They came in strutting like peacocks and were going to show us kids how to get the job done. They had a large wrecking ball, and for a day they dropped the ball on the engine except for a few faces getting red, nothing happened. I remember them dropping the wrecking ball on top of the flywheel and watching it bounce like a rubber ball. The next day they had us 'kids' back drilling holes for them to dynamite it. It was a lot of fun for a first job.
In the course of time I served a five-year working apprenticeship while attending college at night school, finally finishing up in 1957. For the next 10 years I worked in a mass production boiler shop. About this time I starting thinking about moving on, but I also wanted to fix up a traction engine of my own. Just about every scrap yard had several engines lying about, so this seemed something I could accomplish fairly easily. All this changed, however, when my wife and I had became friends with a couple from the U.S. who were working in England. One thing led to another, and we ended up working and living on this side of the pond. I knew when we moved that I would not be able to find a job boiler making in the Buffalo, N.Y. area, so I went to work for an unfired pressure vessel shop. I had a lot interesting jobs there, but my preference was still boiler making.
Following my desires to have a steam tractor, I started building a half-scale Burrell engine. Working without castings and fabricating every part, I completed the Burrell in 1976. Taking this engine around to shows made me love steam tractors even more, and by 1993 I had bought four engines. They all had bad boilers, so I set up a shop and got ASME certified to build new boilers. Over the next five years, in my spare time and with the help of my son, I made new boilers and restored the engines, and while I was coded I also built a new boiler for the half-scale Burrell. When originally built I equipped it with a model classification boiler with a maximum working pressure of 100 psi. That was not enough to run it properly, and it now has a 175 psi boiler, just like the other engines.
My wife and I have retired, giving me a chance to finally write in about our engines. We bought a farm 12 miles from Niagara Falls, N.Y., and with the help of our son we have stocked it with steam engines and old farm related equipment. Last September we had our first steam-up at the farm, and with the help of our steam friends from around the area we threshed our oats and sawed wood. It was a lot of fun, and we hope to do it again.
Contact steam enthusiast Brian J. Harris at: 3939 Upper Mountain Road, Sanborn, NY 14132-9119, or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org