When the steamboats come to town, it’s not a secret for long. Firing up their boilers and blowing their loud whistles they leave no doubt that external combustion is alive and well. Such was the scene last August when the Northwest Steam Society (NWSS) descended on Blaine, Washington, where I-5 crosses into Canada, to celebrate its 50th anniversary since evolving from the Puget Sound Live Steamers.
The Northwest Steam Society upholds the region’s proud tradition of steam power going back to the Mosquito Fleet, which handled most waterborne transportation on and around Puget Sound from the early 19th century until the 1930s, when roads, freeways, trucks, and cars rendered steam power obsolete. The club’s annual meets are open to the public, who can see the vessels up close, ask questions, and experience the technology that powered the Industrial Revolution. While some boats still burn wood or coal (for a modern coal-powered steam engine, see “Coal-Fired,” Professional BoatBuilder No. 134, page 6), most of them blow oil or diesel into the furnace, a compromise dictated by the lack of storage space for solid fuels on trailerable launches. Notably, most boats also have yachty fantail sterns with large propellers optimized for the torque produced by steam power.
“People are shocked that we are still surrounded by steamboats,” said John Hope, 82, a past president of the NWSS, who grew up in the United Kingdom in the 1940s and ’50s and rode steam trains to school. He came to the U.S. in 1967, worked at Boeing as a chief engineer for flight simulation and as director of flight operations engineering. He was pointing out that “U.S. Navy aircraft carriers are propelled by steam that is heated by nuclear power.”
Steam hobbyists’ reciprocal steam engines run on an external boiler that transfers expanding steam to the engine through an insulated line; the steam moves the pistons that turn the crankshaft and the large propellers with hefty pitch. Used steam is condensed into water and recirculated into the boiler through pipes, pumps, valves, and a hot well.
Witnessing Paul Hylton, 54, introduce steam from a wood-fired boiler to the 1918 U.S. Navy Type K Engine (No. 1567) of his traditional 37‘ (11.3m) Puget Sound tugboat Dodo (so named for the anticipated extinction of steam vessels) was a lesson in mechanics and thermodynamics. As the largest boat at the meet, Dodo carries up to a cord of firewood such as seasoned Douglas-fir, which weighs about 3,000 lbs (1,361 kg). Cutting, seasoning, and stacking it below deck is serious work that gives Dodo a runtime of 50 hours at a burn rate of about 1 lb (0.45 kg) of wood per minute at cruising speed.
“[Running steamboats] keeps you engaged,” observed Michael Cross, the NWSS safety chair, a retired mechanical engineer, who was a cruising sailor before he got into steam. He owns the 28‘ (8.5m) steam launch Amity, which has a Semple 354 compound engine and once graced San Diego Bay under her previous owner. “I have to control the fire, manage steam, and plan for what will happen in 15 minutes.” By that he means tending the boiler to generate the right steam pressure for anticipated maneuvers such as docking.
Back in Dodo’s boiler room: Hylton turned valves, pulled lev-ers, and checked gauges accompanied by a symphony of burbles, creaks, moans, and hisses. It takes about 45 minutes to make steam from a cold boiler, a little less when the boiler is warm from a previous journey. On the steam gauge, the magic number for Dodo is 120, the steam pressure measured in lbs per sq in (psi) for getting under way, with the safety valve set at 200 psi. Safety is a key concern at the Northwest Steam Society, but neither the State of Washington’s Department of Labor and Industries, which performs inspections and issues operating permits for steam-powered equipment, nor the U.S. Coast Guard deal with small steam craft. The safety protocol relies on peer-monitored tests such as the hydrotest—checking the integrity of the pressure vessel of Dodo’s boiler—that Hylton conducted with fellow NWSS members Jerry Ross and Tom Apps.
While flames roared in the firebox and the steam gauge on the boiler inched higher, Hylton grabbed an oilcan to lubricate eccentrics, bearings, and reversing linkage. The mechanics of steam engines are in plain sight, so it’s easy to watch and listen to the parts perform and to work on them. Some of that oil went into two oil boxes on the port side of the engine, one each for high and low pressure, that meters oil to the running engine through worsted wool wicks on a wire. Hylton swears by Chevron 220X, an emulsifying oil with nearly mythical qualities. “It hasn’t been manufactured in many years,” Hylton explained. “It’s favored by some in the steam hobby due to its ability to effectively wick at engine temperatures…not too much, not too little. Additionally, it has a nostalgic aroma that works in a steam engine room, similar to how the nostalgic aroma of Stockholm tar works on traditional sailing boats—it’s how it is supposed to smell.” And when the engine finally starts turning, the cacophonous soundtrack changes to music, a rhythmic pattern of precision-machined steel parts pushing, pulling, and spinning, not unlike a giant sewing machine.
Next, he demonstrated shifting from forward to reverse without stopping for neutral using a big reversing lever, aka Johnson Bar. Dodo’s engine produces approximately 20 hp (15 kW), good for a top speed of 7.5 knots at 325 rpm, turning a three-blade Michigan Dyna-Jet bronze prop with a 30“ (76cm) diameter and a 38“ (96.5cm) pitch.
That engine was in the boat when Harold Lanning Sr., her designer and builder, launched the vessel in 1934 in Potlatch, Washington, on the Hood Canal. During the Depression she was used to fish, crab, shrimp, and tow logs, fired with seasoned driftwood, a cheap source of fuel during those lean years. A later owner repowered the boat with a Perkins 6.354 diesel engine and sold the steam unit to the U.K. for another steam project that never materialized.
Hylton had known and admired Dodo since his youth, when she still was a steamer, and bought her in 2008 with the intention of converting her back to steam. In a stroke of luck and serendipity, the U.S. Navy Type K engine No. 1567 came up for sale on eBay and now is back in the boat on her old beds, effectively reuniting Dodo with her old power plant before her 90th launching anniversary in 2024.
Now she has a new boiler that Hylton designed with engineering help from his father, David, who had learned about steam technology from friends at Washington State University and introduced his entire family to this hobby. That new boiler is a marvel of steel welding and fabrication, built in 2013 by Andrew Van Luenen of Arlington, Washington, a fellow steam enthusiast who was assisted by welder Bob Heinz and fabricator Mike Bowman. It has crisscrossing seamless steel pipes that were extruded with a die. “That’s a safety feature, but Dad was used to pipes in refinery applications, which have to deal with pressures of more than 1,000 psi,” Hylton explained.
The boiler has 130 sq ft (12.1m2) of heating surface on the tubes, yet it is more compact than the previous one. It has one steam and two mud drums and holds 50 gal (189 l) of water. Recirculated water from a condenser is pumped back into the boiler from a 5-gal (18.9-l) hot well. There’s also a separate 80-gal (302.8-l) water tank to replenish supply as needed.
Hylton contracted with Andrew Stewart of Emerald Marine in Anacortes, Washington, to remove the old Perkins diesel and the fuel tanks, and the pilot house flooring and framing, thus practically gutting Dodo aft of the V-berth to strengthen her with 25 steam-bent sister frames. The pilothouse framing was rebuilt, and a new oak-and-fir bulkhead made it possible to store and access firewood under the updated wheelhouse. Dodo went under steam again in late 2015 and made her first voyage in 2016 to a steam meet on McConnell Island, Washington, eight years after Hylton acquired her.
Emerald Marine also did some planking work on Uno, an elegant 22‘ (6.7m) black-hulled wooden steam launch with a plumb stem and a fantail stern, which has been owned and operated by Hylton’s aunt Stephanie on Lopez Island, Washington, for 50 years. Stewart installed a new garboard of western red cedar, requiring “an extra-tricky 90° twist and turn up into the stem,” he wrote on his blog. “Normally this plank would be the first…. Fitting this complex shape without removing adjacent planks was a real challenge.”
Uno was built as a rowing and sailing craft on Lopez by Norwegian immigrant Michael Norman in 1894 for a family on neighboring Decatur Island—“the equivalent of a pickup truck,” as Stephanie explained. Naturally, Norman used indigenous woods like red cedar, fir, juniper, and oak with a natural crook for the stem and the massive shaftlog. Much had to be renewed and upgraded over nearly 130 years, including propulsion. Oar and sail lasted until 1906, when it was replaced by an Acadia gas engine and later with a stronger powerplant that made the boat fast enough to be a rumrunner. After getting busted by the Feds, she switched sides and chased the smugglers. A private owner in the 1960s converted her to steam before Stephanie Hylton had a Stuart Turner compound 2-cylinder installed in 2002, which is currently pushing Uno to a maximum speed of 6.3 knots at 350 rpm. “It’s only 5 hp [3.75 kW], but those are strong draft horses,” she joked.
Like the other smaller launches, Uno burns wood to make steam and switches to diesel when pressure is sufficient. “My steam-atomizing diesel burner works like a spritz bottle,” Stephanie said. “The nozzle is from a paint sprayer and uses steam instead of air pressure. Steam and diesel mix and exit through a tiny hole to form a mist that burns clean because there’s plenty of oxygen surrounding each droplet.”
With their long histories, Dodo and Uno encapsulate the spirit of the Northwest Steam Society and its mission of preserving tradition while introducing it to new members who didn’t grow up riding steam-powered ships and trains. Dave Hogan, 78, a lifelong steam enthusiast and volunteer at the Northwest Steam Society, looks back on nearly seven decades of his own steamboat history, including various vessels of different sizes and work on the famous Virginia V steam ferry. In a note he posted at the 50th anniversary meeting, Hogan expressed hope “that this hobby will continue into the future and that the history of steam power will not be lost to the next generation.”
To learn more about the Northwest Steam Society and its projects, visit the club’s website.