THE STEAM SHOVEL

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Courtesy of Lt. Col. John E. Merriken, 122 Hunting Lane, Simpsonville, Maryland 21150 (An Erie Advertisement, self-explanatory)
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Courtesy of Lt. Col. John E. Merriken, 122 Hunting Lane, Simpsonville, Maryland 21150 During the summer of 1926, the old Marion was grading Eastern Avenue, which was to divide Washington D. C. from Maryland. The author is shown in foreground.
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Courtesy of Lt. Col. John E. Merriken, 122 Hunting Lane, Simpsonville, Md. 21150 Distinguishing features of the Bucyrus Steam Shovel were the controls with running board on the right hand side; and the widely-spaced shipper shafts mounted astride the boom

122 Hunting Lane, Simpsonville, Md. 21150

The pleasures which occupied a small boy of forty years ago
would pale by comparison with the more sophisticated pastimes that
engage the youth of today. Though, apart from
organized-supervised-subsidized play, the curiosity of any
boy’s mechanical propensities in those days ‘came to
grips’ with reality in a more tangible sense than Junior’s
present-day observation of an airplane of the quaint gadgetry
employed by his spy hero on television. How many boys currently
fascinated by the intricacies of a jet aircraft have ever examined
its inner workings? Or what aspiring young rail-fan has actually
seen what makes the roar beneath the hood of a GP-35? With good
reason, of course, rules of security and safety have ordained
certain totems and taboos which inhibit the inquisitive. But in a
former less formal era of simpler machines, the young bystander, if
he watched closely and listened well, was often rewarded with
permission to ask, to touch, even to participate.

It has been said that of all man’s many inventions, perhaps
the Steam Engine was the most nearly ‘human’ of all
machines. From the feathered opening of a steam valve, as the first
motion stirred almost imperceptibly to the thundering fury of The
Capitol Limited doing 80-plus, the iron horse was capable of a
response not unlike the ones of real flesh and blood. A steam
engine was either alive or dead; it could purr or bark; it might
drool or spit; but when it did begin, the elemental forces of cause
and effect were completely exposed for the more zetetic to see and
understand.

In the age of the coal-fired boiler, there was of course the
glamorous locomotive, the romantic steam boat, or the
highly-polished stationary engine which drove some large generating
plant, and the all-purpose farm tractor. But another impressive
adaptation of this power was the common Steam Shovel.

‘They’re fascinating things – – these hybrid brutes.
Their throat less mouths ever opened wide, Deliberate – – they
gorge on clay and roots, Swinging their great blind heads from side
to side’ (Frederick W. Branch)

To be sure, those magnificent behemoths that dug the Panama
Canal or worked the large open-pit strip mines were also steam
shovels; but the more frequent neighborhood variety was a smaller
machine, which usually arrived overnight to begin some large
foundation or start ripping up the asphalt along Main Street. By
some coincidence, all but one of the steam shovel names reflected
the industries of Ohio. There was the BUCYRUS, the MASSILLON, the
VULCAN, the OSGOOD and the The equipped with horizontal pistons; or
the MARION and the ERIE with their vertical cylinders.

In addition to the main hoisting engine, there were on each
shovel, two auxiliary mountings known as the swinging engine (for
rotating the whole body) and, on the boom, a crowding engine which
controlled the thrust of the dipper. Each engine had its own
exhaust, but it was the crowding engine’s vent pipe at the tip
of the boom, which whistled an invitation for blocks around.
Whenever there was a pause for any length of time, the unused
pressure would be released via long piercing blasts from the safety
valve. And as work resumed, condensation in the cylinders was
cleared briefly by several spouts of scalding water from the boom;
and a gush of hot mist from the stack.

With the main engine operating, the hoisting friction was
engaged automatically by a steam ram mounted on the side of the
winch; and when taking a bite at a particularly obstinate tree
stump or boulder, the fulcrum action of the boom might lift the
whole rear end right off the ground. The controls on the OSGOOD
differed, in that an overhead throttle;, in addition to a
manually-operated friction ram, required a fourth lever to be
constantly re-set with each reversal of the hoisting drum. The
dipper was lowered and relatched through the action of a foot
brake. By a synchronous wielding of four levers, a foot pedal and a
rope, a skillful operator could coordinate the
Bite-Swing-Reach-Load-and-Return in one rhythmic spiral, which was
an art all its own.

For emptying the pay-load from the dipper, a latch was released
by means of a rope to the cab. As the dipper extended or retracted,
this rope was played out or retrieved by a small drum on the side
of the crowding engine; though some of the older shovels, without
this refinement, required the operator to gather in an armful of
rope before he could trip the latch. If a load of earth was sticky
or stubborn, the crowding engine could be agitated in such a way
that the dipper tongue applauded repeatedly in a loud clapping
noise.

One of the older shovel manufacturers was named for Richard
Thew, the skipper of a Great Lakes ore freighter. In an effort to
expedite the loading of iron ore, Captain Thew had conceived the
idea of a revolving turntable which first enabled a full-circle
swing mounting for a power shovel. And unlike most other machines
that used an independent crowding engine on the boom, the THEW
employed a horizontal beam which guided a chain-driven shipper
action. But the thrust, being thus restricted to a horizontal
plane, imposed limitations on its ability to reach out. By
contrast, the more flexible crowding action of a long dipper
handle, fully extended, could load a wagon or truck atop a 16-ft.
bank. The advantages of a high reach from deep cellar excavations
were thus reserved to the more conventional type of shovel
design.

The improved models crawled about ponderously on continuous-belt
caterpillar treads; though many of the older shovels were mounted
on massive cast iron wheels which required heavy timber mats to be
dragged forward with each move to afford solid footing on the soft
earth. With the propelling clutch in gear, the shovel steered
itself by means of a tiller which could be coupled to the
turntable.

Among those remembered best, was on old red MARION which stayed
for more than six months, as she cut through all the new streets,
east-west, north-south, leaving our houses high and dry amid a sea
of mud. The encampment included tons of soft coal, loads of 2-inch
water pipe to be assembled to the nearest fire hydrant, and bales
of hay for the horses corralled each evening under a small circus
tent. As a persistent spectator, I had soon completed several
pencil sketches of this daily scene which, before long,
concentrated more on drawings and wooden models of the old MARION.
My keen observations were soon acknowledged by the steam shovel
crew; and eventually earned for me an unofficial status as sort of
juvenile apprentice mechanic. I ran errands to the store, raked the
ashes from the pan, carried wood for the morning fire, and coiled
the hose. But my real badge of authority was a large brass oil can
and wad of waste which entitled me to climb all over the shovel
during the waits between wagons. To this day, I have never seen the
builder’s diagram of a steam shovel, though can safely say that
old MARION never lacked for proper lubrication.

At intervals, we observed a ritual known as ‘taking the
grade’ A spirit level would be attached to a cord drawn taut
from the surveyor’s stake at the head of the cut. Then a
surveyor’s mast was held vertically against the cord to
determine that the cut was so many inches too high or two low.
Through a somewhat more complicated process, we could also verify
the degree of ascent. Guts were always made up hill – never down
grade.

The noon hour, pay call or quitting time were always announced
by a long blast of old MARION’S mournful whistle. During the
lunch hour, one of the wagons was backed up to her boiler to
replenish the coal bunker. On the opposite side, the fireman had
rigged up a home-made steam chest that could launder the greasiest
overalls which came out remarkably clean. At the end of the day, we
occasionally reversed the large teeth on the dipper and turned them
to equalize wear. From constant digging, those teeth were burnished
to a high polish that fairly glistened. On rainy days when the
earth became too muddy to work, the wagon drivers were out of work;
though the crew of the shovel were always kept busy cleaning the
flues, repacking the steam couplings, or relining the clutch.

After months of bustling activity, it was a bleak day in January
when old MARION finally completed her mission. They banked the
fire, lowered her boom, and towed by two large dump trucks,, she
started back to the city, clattering down the street on those big
cast iron wheels. I followed her to the new job, but the distance
involved, and school obligations, soon prevented my daily duty with
the Steam Shovel and her crew who, meanwhile, had become my good
friends. In time, she moved even farther away.

Thereafter, I would travel by bicycle to watch and draw any
steam shovel working within a radius of five miles. Eventually, the
BUCYRUS builders were merged with ERIE; the THEW shovel became a
LORAIN; and the MASSILLON disappeared entirely. Newer models were
introduced as a one-man operation with gasoline-compressed air
power; but they somehow lacked the fury of fire and smoke, or the
enchantment of steam with that deafening blast of a safety
valve.

As with sights and sounds, there is also a formula of smells
which carries us,, vicariously, to the pleasant scenes of long ago.
Indeed, if fragrance is a matter of personal preference, one of
mine would include the ingredients of soft coal smoke and steam
mingled with that sweet freshness of the good earth.

Farm Collector Magazine
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