Questions of safety: Will Medina tragedy end steam shows?

Antique steam engine aficionados were waiting last week to hear if the state of Ohio would declare a moratorium on running engines at county fairs and antique power shows.

When that didn’t happen, the decision of whether or not to power up the old engines in the wake of the July 29 explosion at the Medina Fairgrounds was left up to the owners already scheduled for the weekend and the managers of the power shows and festivals.

Past weekend. Zoar Historical Village had a long-scheduled steam demonstration of a shingle mill and a saw planned for its Harvest Festival. They decided to proceed and had Dover steam enthusiast Jeff McClenaghan bring his engine in as scheduled.

The display proved a popular success, Zoar Village officials said, no one was afraid of it, and people asked many questions about steam engine safety features.

At the annual Holmes County Antique Steam and Engine Show in Mount Hope, Ohio, two steam engines were exhibited. They were used to power machines used for stone crushing and threshing, and they were included in the show parade.

The owners, Bill Young of Lakeville, and Mose B. Miller of New Bedford, also did a small clinic to explain the parts of the steam engine and how they operated.

“We had a lot of questions,” said festival organizer Carle Wyler of Akron. “People wanted to know if we thought the engines were safe, how they had been tested, and whether the owners were feeling any doubts about bringing the engines.

“Some watched them from a distance, while others came right up and crowded around.”

Wyler said one engine that had been scheduled for the show did not show up.

Inspections required. McClenaghan emphasized that one tragic accident doesn’t make the use of all steam engines unsafe. Most shows, he said, have a rigorous inspection program that owners must meet before they are allowed to bring their engines into the show.

The Trumbull County Antique Steam and Power Association, which has its own antique power show in Johnston, Ohio, Aug. 11-12, but which also cooperates to regulate the Trumbull County Fair antique power show, shut down an unsafe steam engine during the Trumbull County Fair, after inspection on the fairgrounds uncovered a cracked boiler.

The next big show will be the Dover Antique Power Show at the Tuscarawas County Fairgrounds in Dover, starting Aug. 17.

After consulting with the fair board, the insurance providers, and members of the Tuscarawas Valley Pioneer Power Association, which sponsors the show, organizers decided the show will continue as planned.

Dover show. The Dover show has developed a strong safety inspection program that has been copied by other antique power shows.

“We’re hoping, of course, that what happened in Medina won’t have any effect on our show,” McClenaghan said. “But, of course it will. People are going to be concerned.”

The task he sees for steam enthusiasts now, he said, is one of education, of making people understand how steam power works.

He said the Dover sponsors have already decided to use a cracked engine to create an educational display. They are planning to cut it open to give the public a chance to see the inside of a steam engine, while they try to explain how the whole thing works.

According to Doug Scheetz of Dover, a member of the safety committee, the committee does a preshow inspection of each engine entered into the show.

Engines checked. It is checked for the safety pressure release valve; a functioning water glass that indicates the level of water in the engine; whether or not it has a back-up safety system for reading water level; if it has two fully independent ways to get water into the engine; and for the general upkeep of the engine.

Then the safety committee requires that the engine have a hydrostatic pressure test done, which means that it is filled with cold water to a pressure level that exceeds the pressure that the safety valve is set at. If the engine is not cracked or does not have a weak spot, it should withstand the pressure without leaking.

No steam tractor or steam equipment is allowed on the show grounds unless the owner displays a hydrostatic test certificate.

But Scheetz said he thinks the tractor engine that exploded at Medina would probably have passed the Dover standards, and it would have passed a state boiler inspection.

“Whatever happened,” Scheetz said, “my guess is that it was not a defect that could have been discovered in any inspection.”

Politically charged. The question of state inspections of antique agricultural steam boilers has become politically charged since the tractor exploded at the Medina Fairground killing its owners and those who had accompanied them to the fairgrounds.

The Ohio Department of Commerce’s industrial compliance department is charged with the inspection of boilers. But since 1965, all agricultural-use boilers have been exempt from that requirement. They have not required an inspection certificate to be powered up at antique shows and fairs.

When an inspection was requested, however, the boiler inspector would inspect a tractor or other antique agricultural-use steam boiler being displayed at public gatherings, shows or fairs.

New law set. However, at the instigation of the Commerce Department, a law passed in the last legislature clarified the situation, and gave the department the right to stop these inspections. The law is scheduled to go into effect Sept. 18.

Now that stand may be reversed.

Visiting the Medina County Fair over the weekend, Gov. Bob Taft announced that he has directed the department of agriculture and the department of commerce to look into what county fairs and other states are doing, and to make recommendations on what Ohio should be doing about steam boilers being exhibited.

State Rep. Charles Calvert, R-Medina, has also become interested, and announced that he is drafting legislation that will reverse the move just taken and require state inspection by all steam tractors that are being exhibited.

“We are in the investigation stage right now,” Calvert said, “trying to determine how other states have structured their inspection and permit requirements.”

He said he understands that antique steam tractors that have failed inspection in other states are now being brought into Ohio for sale.

(You can contact Jackie Cummins at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at


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