75 Moor View Road, Woodseeats, Sheffield 8, England
I am a gunmaker and one day a customer called to collect a repair. He was a steam buff. I have always been a globetrotter and was planning a trip to New Zealand so he told me if I found any cheap engines to go ahead and organize shipping and funding and we would go halves on profits. I gave it little thought until later following a lead of engines seen in the South island, I began an extraordinary career (a somewhat wild career) as an engine hunter. I found scores of engines but none were allowed export if over 60 years old which, of course, covers 99 percent of the iron monsters. I should explain that I write of steam traction engines.
The long and short of it being I found and settled the price on a 3-speed single crank compound Burrel no. 2686 of 1904 and was baulked by the ruling. So I went to Australia and I gained the impression that engines litter the bush. It isn't quite that way, but a large number of traction engines worked late and survived in numbers and portables were very common. However, they all have owner seven if the claims are tenacious ones at times.
But cheerfully confident of finding a 3-speed Road Loco for 30/- or abouts, I hiked a lot of back country miles. However, things weren't that simple...typically you'd get a lead. If from a casual source, it would probably turn out to be years old or the engine in question would belong to a collector buff or else a farmer or 'cocky' as they're called down under, who would concede he had no need for it but 'it didn't eat much grass.'
Alternatively, the lead might come from a buff and while he may have let slip a GEM of a lead, he may just as likely or more so, simply passed on a lost cause lead he already knows isn't worth following up upon. Choose from whatever source, I will look in like Sherlock Holmes and follow any possibility...after all sometime or later, you must catch an owner in a selling mood and you at least know the position and the engine concerned as almost invariably the owner would be happy to let you look over it.
My at-first extraordinarily ignorant, but progressively more educated eyeballs, would scan boiler thickness, completeness, restoration needed and/or if warranted or feasible at all and so I came to know engines and began to get an affection for them. But most rewarding would be the contacts and people I met, for steam and black gunpowder are from an old world with old values and attitudes and I rarely met an owner that (if he had any regard for steam at all), wasn't what I would assess as 'one of nature's gentlemen'.
This is not always true of young buffs or those who never worked in steam other than a hobby; however, these hobbyist ranks hold some mighty men indeed, but rural ex-owners or users were so very 'down home'. Old Paddy Griffiths of Greta West, Geoff Corry and Jack Hazleman of Echuca District, Lyall Marfull from Mt. Gambler Way...the list is endless! I suppose I'm a 'lay back down home' sort of gentleman myself. I live close to the earth.
In three years of engine hunting, I've never driven a mile. I've carried my swag (backsack) and relied on chance lifts or Shanks pony and I've laid down to camp by the handiest creek or billabong at the dictates of the setting sun. This is partly because in the weeds, there isn't much in the hotel line handy, but mostly it's because I'm just built that way. I enjoy the campfire, hang on fate and chance lifestyle.
Anyway, having outlined the means of my hunting and discounting for now the other prizes I managed to acquire, I'll recount the Buffalo Hunt! I was heading to Melbourne from Ecnuca with the renowned Tod Watson, 'The Moama Fox'. He told me of a steam saw mill nearby so I HAD to 'check it out'. Interesting but blind alley of course. Then I backtracked to Tamagulla another futile trip, but I wasn't too far from Karong Vale and a gentleman I had tried before Jim McNichol. So why not call and see it's only 100 miles out of my way. I did call and Jim said if the Buffalo was not pushed into the river. I could have it. We came to a price and I set off to find if I had an engine or a navigation obstacle. The sun had set when I reached Cal Lal, a backwater on the N.S.W. side of the Murray River.
I headed for the bank to make camp. A prospector in a caravan greeted me with evident caution. I made camp downstream and saw the ploughing evidence of wild boars all about me in the firelight. Come dawn, I located and surveyed the engines a 22 horse special Buffalo Pitts of 1910-20 vintage and close by the steep bank a 10 horse Maclaren (Leeds) no. 1332 of 1912. This last was a three-speed with coal drums like 'Bodaciea'. Both, however, were very sick having been dynamited by scrapmen and robbed of all brass, babbitt, etc. The landowner also claimed them and it took a week or so for him to decide to sell them. I bought the two and Jim's twice. There wasn't a fortune involved and no one but me knew where they were going.
It's been my findings that if faced with a wreck, look about in the ground where it is, where it was, etc. and find some parts. Making the engines small as I could I shipped them to England. Fortunately I found spare cylinder blocks and most all needed parts for the Buffalo taken off a stripped down engine of many years ago. The Mclaren too got a new old chest and is in steam today.
Many of our readers will know all about entirely rebuilding engines. It's a lot of fun and nearly as much expense but with the ingenuity of my mechanic brother, Clifford, it transformed into a new engine. The tube plate was renewed and large plates replaced wasted areas under the stub axles. It has carried 150 pounds of steam. Though some may argue I looted an engine, I would say had I not gone to the lengths I have, the shining magnificence it is now would probably have been a snag for unwary riverboats.
Today the engine game (the shipping of engines, that is) is hardly worth the proverbial candle. Prices have risen in Australia and US demand is so very slow (or I wouldn't be telling you would I) that even on so modest a travel budget as I had, you couldn't make out. But it was an interesting period while it lasted!