Some background on homemade steam engines


We spent the past several articles reviewing many of the engine makes from various places in the U.S. and Canada. At shows you will often see an engine put together by a mechanic or engineer following his own ideas or saving some money over the current collectible prices.

The Blumentritt engine, built in 1878 in Spring Valley, Minn., and now residing in Iowa, could fit this category, as it has almost no resemblance to any of the “standard” types of engines.

As I mentioned before, it is a return flue boiler and has no cab at all, but is driven from a man stand on the side about halfway along the boiler.

I presume Blumentritt had not seen many traction engines, if any at all, and just did what he thought would work. And apparently it did.

Test runs

Rumor has it he built a portable or two first and we are not sure how many tractions — one neighbor says 22.

Many homemade engines one might encounter at shows resemble locomotives of various sizes. That may well be because the steam power most of us remember was on the railroads.

It lasted well up into the 1950s and the sound of a locomotive pulling a load is like nothing else we have ever heard.

One of the ones I was rather familiar with was called the ‘Cannonball” and often showed up at the NW Pennsylvania Pioneer Power Shows at Meadville, Pa. It was built by a fellow named Fred Hart in eastern Ohio.

As with many, it was on a bus or truck chassis and looked like a locomotive. Fred used a Port Huron longfellow boiler, one of the best steam producers available, and a Garr-Scott double simple steam engine mounted beneath the boiler and driving into the differential on the rear axle by means of a chain and auxiliary gear box.

It had been run on the highway a time or two and reportedly had exceeded 50-miles-per-hour. A driver opened it up a bit on the back straight-away of the fairgrounds track and got a reprimand from Leonard Stephens on the microphone saying “There goes an engine moving too fast.”

I know I saw a locomotive style engine in Canada, maybe two of them, and another one in the U.S. Probably four or five altogether, and all a bit different.

Fred Hart didn’t dress the Cannonball up to look like a locomotive particularly but some others have done so with headlights and paint work and emblems.

Variety of sizes

Other home built machines run the size gamut from one inch scale or less to nearly full size. Many of these are built of castings made from patterns made over the years.

The Case company has allowed their drawings to be published and miniaturized in various scales to allow machinists to have the sizes and tolerances to machine the castings.

Another man did a set of patterns and I suppose drawings for Baker tractions that came out about five-eighths scale or just over half size.

Other so called “freelance” engines are made from parts of cars, trucks, washing machines, farm equipment and so on. If one is familiar with industrial supply houses and their catalogs, gears and a great number of other small parts can be purchased there.

I may have mentioned in earlier writing, when the late Mac Halterman built the freelance half scale we now own, he scavenged up parts from a mowing machine, Ford Anglia car, manure spreader (wheels) and so on.

He still needed a cylinder and thinking cast iron was the proper material, bought a Ford V-8 block and hand-hacksawed one cylinder off and had a machine shop make the heads he needed.

I have seen other engines made of stationary vertical steam engines laid on their side and built into the other structure. Usually in those cases, names or numbers or other shapes and details can tell us their origin.

If a model of a double undermounted engine is in view, a double cylinder winch engine or similar is often used.

A company in Mississippi built a sawmill carriage return engine called a ‘Spee-dee Twin” which had a built in quick reverse mechanism that would make a nice unit for the purpose, but I have never seen one used.


The event which tripped my mind to this line of thinking was three half hour presentations on a series called Vintage Country Ways about a steam road run in England by the East Anglian Traction Engine Society. They gathered and started out from the home of the Thursford Collection which has some 46 pieces.

George Cushing was a roller driver for a rural district council and bought the machine he drove when they decided to sell it. Then they needed it again and hired him back on contract to do the same job.

The son, John Cushing says his dad bought many engines and rollers for 25 or 50 pounds sterling, depending on whether they had a dynamo on the front and was considered a “crank” in those days before collecting such became popular.

The road run involved five pieces, namely a 1919 Clayton and Shuttleworth traction engine towing a living van lettered Plumbly & Craze, a Ruston & Hornsby roller towing a van and a tender.

Next came a 1920 Fowler Road Locomotive with solid rubber tires and carrying the name Sir Douglas. English engines are often named, especially the showmans engines which often are named for kings and such.

The lettering said it could go seven miles-per-hour. The Fowler was towing a pickup truck with a tarp over the cab, presumably to keep soot and such off the windshield.

Item four was a Burrell showmans engine lettered with the name of Henry Thurston Amusements. Number five was an item not seen in the U.S., namely a Foden Timber Tractor. Foden’s built traction engines showman’s engines, and steam wagons or lorries (trucks).

The timber tractor design had a large winch on the back used to pull out the logs and a hitch to pull a loaded wagon. It was a solid rubber-tired machine too and was lettered that it could go 12 mph and the operator said 14. It was lettered with the name of Astell Bros, timber merchants, and was built in 1932.


For me the star of the parade was a home-built steam car driven by a lady named Rosemary. In an interview she says it is based on an

“Austin Seven” of about 1936, which means little or nothing to me.

Apparently she and her husband bought it from a man named David King, who took the Anstin chassis, sans motor, and installed a steam engine and appropriately-sized boiler and made a steam car.

It seemed to run quite well and shows up two or three times in the film. She says they have driven it 67 miles since January and will do another 20 or so this week.

It has yellow wheels and reminds me for all the world of a model A Ford pickup except for the smokestack and boiler and no radiator or shell at the front.

In one shot we see the lady opening a fire door on top of the boiler section and shoveling some lumps of coal into the fire.

It is one of those items we see on occasion which just oozes “cute.” It had a steam whistle and a bulb horn on the edge of the roof in easy reach of the driver.

The actual run covered three days and they stopped for lunch at a pub called the Hunney Bell for lunch and at a couple museums overnight.

Railroad stops

They also visited two different railroads on their tour. One as called the Bure Valley Railroad and was narrow gauge, maybe as narrow as 15-inch gauge.

The narrator said they had four locomotives. The other was the North Norfolk railroad with a locomotive numbered 65462. The visit was at their Holt Station for overnight. Both railroads were in steam and hauling some passengers. And of course lots of great rural scenery.

The whole entourage stopped for water near a “well-known country house” (castle) called Cleckley Hall, which was in the background. There was apparently a hydrant there and a tanker truck was in evidence too.

The English have rules and regulations which allow steam to have rights on the common roads that don’t apply here.

The final destination was at the Strumpshaw collection, somewhat similar to the Thursford starting point.

They, like Thursford, included several fairground organs and also a large ornate theater organ that looked like an enormous jukebox to me, but had a seat and keyboards.

A man was on the bench playing it and some of the music accompanied the road traveling when steam exhaust and whistles were not involved.

A lot more fun than tractor runs in our country, at least for us steam nuts.


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