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86th GM Presentation Wolf


The 86th General Meeting Speaker Presentation

"A Triad Relationship to Making a Hobby Safer"

Jon Wolf

The following presentation was delivered at the 86th General Meeting Monday morning session, May 8, 2017. It has been edited for content and phrasing.

INTRODUCTION: Jon Wolf has 32 years of experience in machinery boiler risks. He is currently senior risk engineer consultant for Zurich Services Corporation. Among his responsibilities are performing risk evaluations of various equipment. John is also involved in required jurisdictional inspections and working with underwriters and agents to reduce risk exposure. He earned his bachelor of science in industrial relations from the University of Wisconsin-Stout. He holds National Board IS and AI commissions, and B and R endorsements. 

Mr. Wolf's slide presentation can be accessed here.


I have a passion for these traction engines. I was involved with them for many years when I worked with the State of Wisconsin. I helped with inspecting repairs. I went to Rollag University in Minnesota, and I also went to a Wisconsin steam school twice. I have operated these things, and I love them. These traction engines are living museums. When you see them run and watch them work a sawmill or a piledriver hammering a log into the ground or making sorghum, it's just our heritage. And that is why I am speaking today.  I want to thank Zurich for letting me do this, because they have no vested interest in traction engines. And I'd particularly like to thank Daniel Hagy, the Midwest Regional Manager, for supporting all this so I could share it with you.

My goal here today is to help make sure exhibitions are safe to attend so nobody gets hurt and our grandchildren and their children can see this equipment while it's operating.

Last January I was in San Diego, and the sole purpose was to attend the National Board committee meetings, and I wanted to see the subgroup that Joel Amato chairs for traction engines. By the way, he does run a great group, and they do some really outstanding things. And he is very sincere when he said he invites anybody to come and sit in on it. And I did, and it was great.

In the 1960s there was a movement going on, a silent movement, where individuals started purchasing or salvaging traction engines all around the country. Nobody was really paying attention to this. And people were restoring them, finding other individuals to show them how to operate them, and they would invite their friends over. And the next thing you know, the people from the TV station were coming, and everybody was quite entertained by them. There were thousands of people coming to watch. And from there, they all became nonprofit organizations, bought hundreds of acres of land, and they have grown now to where some of these events have twenty thousand people attending. And that's why it's really important that this be a safe hobby.

The relationships I'm proposing that will make this hobby safe is a triad relationship involving the National Board with its historical boiler rules and subgroup; the jurisdictions, who are the key people in the field to assist preservationist clubs and share their gold knowledge and perform inspections; and then, of course, the preservation clubs themselves. If everybody gets involved and works together, exhibitions can be safe events for people to attend.

We are going to talk about the history, the preservation clubs, the jurisdictions, and the National Board. We will start out with the history. This is a traction engine shop in 1910. [Slide 4]  As you can see, it is full. People were standing in line waiting to get their traction engines, and you can see by the picture, there are steamrollers, traction engines, all sorts of equipment. This changed everything. Our whole lives changed because of traction engines. But before we can look at the traction engine, I want to take one step back just before the traction engines started.

Here is a gentleman plowing a field with a two-horse plow with a twelve-inch edge. [Slide 5]  Now, when you see movies, the gentleman sets out and he tells his wife he's going to the back 40 to plow. And I just want to put this in perspective for you. To plow a 40-acre field with a horse and a one-edge plow, you would walk behind that horse 330 miles to plow that 40-acre field, and it would take you almost a month of ten-hour days to do it. Now, think about that. To be able to have food, that was a lot of work. And then you had to plant the fields, et cetera.  You had to take care of the horses and everything else that goes with it.

With the advent of the traction engine, things changed overnight. This is another 1910 picture in North Dakota. [Slide 6]  This is a 45-horsepower Minneapolis.  That's a John Deere plow in the back, and that's a 14-edge plow.  He is plowing virgin soil in North Dakota. That 40-acre field took less than two days to plow. So a big change in food production for us.

All of the sudden, bonanza farms started, and people with big money on the East Coast were investing, and everybody was making lots of money on this. One thing I would like to point out here, they are plowing virgin soil. It's light, but if you look at the grass in the back, well, that was special grass out in the plains that held the soil down, and it was drought-resistant grass. When they plowed all that up, the traction engine also was one of the major contributors to the dust bowl. Nobody knew at the time what they were creating with that.

It took three people to operate a traction engine. You had one guy operate the plow, one to drive it, and you had to have a fireman. So it was still a lot of work. Now we have tractors with satellites so the farmer doesn't even have to drive the tractor, and the tractor can actually pick out the corner of the wheat that's already ripe and leave the other stuff there. But still this was the biggest change and made the biggest difference in all our lives. They were also used for tools of leisure.

This is a show locomotive.[Slide 7]  Show locomotives would pull fair rides in the country. On the front of the locomotive there was an electric dynamo that would power the rides. You can see some light bulbs in that locomotive. A lot of the farmers saw the first electric lights with these locomotives. This equipment had a huge effect in a lot of ways.

The preservationist club members are the caretakers of the living museum. They have a passion for this. They will be out there on Labor Day weekend in 90-something degree heat with their coveralls on firing that hot traction engine up and running all sorts of sawmills and things so the public can see it, and they volunteer to do it. They just love this. And if you have never been to one of these events, I highly recommend you go to one. Being from Wisconsin, I want to show a little bit about the Rock River Thresheree, one of the clubs I took care of. They had 23 traction engines always on site. They had a number of people bring their traction engines in every year. I inspected them every year, and it was quite an interesting thing for me. To show you how popular this is, one of the gentlemen on the board of directors told me that in a 100-mile radius of Edgerton, Wisconsin, where this event is held on Labor Day, there were 40 other shows within a hundred miles that summer. I want to stress to all the chief inspectors to have a good relationship with these clubs and pay attention to what's going on, because you would be surprised with what's going on.

Next is an aerial view of the Badger Steam & Gas Engine Club in Baraboo, Wisconsin. [Slide 10]  That event takes in about 12,000 people on a weekend. And the reason I added that slide is because I wanted to show you the acreage these clubs have and the number of people that are there. So if there is an incident with one of these traction engines, it's going to affect a lot of people. And that's only a midsize event.

Here is a traction engine powering a sawmill. [Slide 11]  And you can see that 75-foot belt hooked up to the blade. It's an art for that gentleman to drive the traction engine, to line it up, and to have that belt so it doesn't fly off to power the saw blades.

Before the traction engines powered sawmills, you would have water-powered mills, and the farmer would cut his trees down, and they would have to drag the logs to the water mill to have them cut. With the traction engine, they could set up in their backyard, cut the wood, and when you add the locomotive to this, they passed all this wood around the country. Like Joel Amato said earlier, the state of Minnesota had enough pine trees that could build six hundred thousand houses. Well, traction engines helped do that.

This is a 1905 piledriver. [Slide 12] It was decommissioned in 1945. It has a vertical tube boiler on it, and it was used to help build the Saint Lawrence Seaway. That was one of its last jobs. It was on a barge and it drove pilings into the ground for the locks and dam system. You can see all those logs hammered in there. Well, this is an active display. Every year they hammer some more logs into the ground.  These logs are maybe twenty feet long. They have about an 8,000-pound hammer. It's really quite interesting to witness this.

Another important contribution of the preservationist clubs, that Joel also mentioned, is the steam schools. In my research, right now there are nine steam schools in the country, and Rollag in Minnesota is one. It's a good one. Wisconsin has a real nice one. I believe there is one in Iowa and in a few other places. Steam schools are real important now, because the old-timers who people that the equipment are long gone. And I can tell you having attended three schools, I still wouldn't feel comfortable operating one of these by myself. I have always had somebody by me when I’ve operated them.  They are quite complicated. And when you think about that, that you have somebody in a group of thousands of people on one of these boilers on wheels, you want to make sure this person knows what they’re doing.  And, again, for all you chiefs out there, it's really important that you are on top of this. If you were fortunate enough to buy a traction engine, you would have an OEM person come out to your farm and show you how to operate this equipment. But the big bonanza farmers and steam shovel operators need people to operate these. So there were a lot of correspondence schools that started.

This is an ad I took out of a Madison, Wisconsin, magazine in The American Thresherman from 1915. [Slide 14]  And I just want to read a couple paragraphs for you because it's too small for you to see. But it says: The big increase in winter wheat acreage was made possible only by the use of the traction engine. Hundreds of outfits were busy day and night with largely-increased acreage this spring, and the demand for traction engines is going to be very heavy. This will be a tractor year from plowing seed to time to harvest. The demand for the traction engine has increased the demand for competent engineers. Can you fill the bill? If you measure up to the requirements … And the copy goes on.

They were looking for people to learn how to operate these, so training is important. And that's why these clubs are important. And this is, again, the Wisconsin club where I get all my photo ops. Their steam school is really interesting. It's a whole weekend. Attendees come on a Friday night and go through a lot of theory, talk about the pressures, steam collapsing condensate, and collapse of cans. They will show the Venturi deal, and they talk about the National Board Inspection Code and the ASME code. They talk about piping, the type of fittings, and Schedule 40, Schedule 80, and steel and forge fittings. Many operators wouldn't know any of this information if it weren’t for the schools and from information they start get from the jurisdictions, and from the chiefs sharing their NBIC with them to show where this information is coming from. So these schools are just hugely important for the safety of this hobby.

Then, of course, the next day is hands-on. They have a number of operators. They show you how to fire it up, and it's very interesting. And then you get to fire it up and operate it. Like in the picture of Rob Troutt and Joel Amato at Rollag.

There is something about a traction engine – maybe the catch is the tons of torque. This is a little famous saying from one of the clubs: “You may own the engine, but after you strike the match, it owns you.”  And, of course, then they always talk about three things you should always know about your traction engine: Water. Where is your water, where is your water, and where is your water? So these schools are very important.

This is a picture of a 110 steam traction engine, a similar one that exploded in Medina, Ohio, in 2001. [Slide 19]  It was a sad story. Five people were killed and 48 people were injured with steam and flying debris, and there were dozens of lawsuits that amounted to 32 million dollars. And with the horror, the death, and the people hurt, you had to ask yourself is it worth having these engines operating, and the jurisdictions had to ask if this was something they wanted to continue. I want to read one article from the Associated Press. They wrote this a year after this accident, just to give you a feeling about what happens with these engines.

The death of Jane Kovicic’s husband, son, and three friends, all killed in an antique steam traction explosion at the Medina County Fairgrounds, is fresh in her memory. The explosion happened about 6:30 p.m. on July 29, 2001, as Ms. Kovicic's husband, Cliff, 48; her son, Billy, 27; and three others moved the hulking tractor into place for the start of the county fair the next day. The force of the blast tossed the nearly thirty-three thousand pound tractor fifteen feet into the air, creating a one-foot crater. The Kovicics and Alan Kimble, 46, were killed instantly. Dennis Jungbluth, 58, died that night. Bryan Hammond, 18, died six days later. Flying debris and scalding hot water injured nearly fifty others, including Jane Kovicic and her daughter. When she woke up, she didn't even know what had happened.  She didn't know her husband and son had been killed.

So this is what can happen when the jurisdiction isn't involved, and Ohio at that time was not involved. There were no rules for inspecting engines. They had no rules for an operating license. And, of course, the governor gets involved really quickly when something of this magnitude happens. Within a year's time, Ohio added historical boilers to the administrative rules.  There were a few things that Ohio put together I thought were interesting. First of all, they require a license to operate. You have to be sixteen years old, have to complete an historical boiler operator's course, pass a written test, and have at least 100 hours of actual operating experience or training.  Montana requires 480 hours. So they went from allowing anybody to operate these engines, to having all these rules on how to operate them, and it made things a lot safer.

Then Ohio required inspection.  And if there would have been a National Board commissioned inspector there to look at that engine prior, he would have seen the illegal welding that was around the stay bolts and the crown sheet.  He would have noticed that the crown sheet was thin, that somebody altered the fusible plug, and they would not have allowed it to operate. Because nobody had operated it -- this gentleman painted up his traction engine, made it look really pretty and stopped the leaks, but he had no clue as to any of the actual case qualifications. And one of them was the stay bolt. It had at least a four-and-a-half-inch thread in the crown sheet. There was only an inch and a half of thread in these crown sheets in a lot of places. So it was really thin. And, of course, he ran out of water. And this is a boiler on wheels, so if you are going down an incline with these boilers, and you are running it low on water, all that water is going to the front of the boiler. When the water does come back to the crown sheet, it causes a collapse due to the variance in thickness.

To give you a little perspective of my experience inspecting traction engines, I've heard from different chiefs that the governor doesn't want to get involved. They say that our inspections are a nuisance.  And, of course, a lot of your traction engine owners don't want us looking at them, at least not at first. After the Medina explosion, Wisconsin and Minnesota added ultrasound thickness tests of the crown sheet.  Owners didn't like that. Nobody wanted to do it. But when you start working with the owners/operators and start inspecting, and they pass with a good grade, all of the sudden there is a different feeling.  They are the first to tell you if somebody else does not have a good operating practice with their boiler or if there’s something wrong with it. These boilers are worth more money once they have a permit to operate and a state ID on them.

Here is a success story for the jurisdiction. This guy's name is Charlie. [Slide 24]  Charlie had a Nichols and Shepard boiler. It wouldn't pass inspection any longer. He had to do a lot of welding repair, and it turned out that the repairs probably exceeded the cost of a new boiler. He had a new boiler built with an S stamp. There are not that many traction engines with an S stamp out there, but he's very proud that he has that S stamp, and he's pointed that out to everyone. Well, right there he's pointing at a rivet, and those rivets aren't real. This was a welded boiler, and those are fake rivets to make it look like the original traction engine. But this is where you as a jurisdiction get involved.  When they keep the inspections going, they will be operating their boilers, and it's important.

The last part to get through is the National Board. The National Board weaves all of this together in NBIC Part 3, Repairs and Alterations, Historical Boilers, Section 6, Supplement 2. I want to show one little item here and get to the end, but this is one thing I found when I went to that subgroup committee with Joel. They were talking about rivets. Rivets are either stressed in tension or shear. And on these tube sheets in the old days, there would be a lot of ash on the boiler. The ash would come out of its stack and would rest on the bottom of the tube sheet. And when you get moisture on it, the moisture makes a mild sulfuric acid, and that starts deteriorating those rivets.

Consequently, when does it come time to ask the owners of that traction engine to replace those rivets? The National Board Inspection Code deals with that. Here they talk about the rivet, and you have to know if that rivet is in shear or tension. [Slide 27]  And  in this case, with the flanged tube sheet, it's in shear.  What it says here is for rivets in pure shear load, the amount of measured head deterioration shall not exceed 80 percent of their total head volume. I was amazed at that, because as an inspector, I would have made them replace those rivets a lot sooner, and it wouldn't have been fair to the owner of that traction engine. And so the National Board has some excellent things for the inspector to inspect the traction engine.

In conclusion, this is the relationship as a jurisdiction you should strive to have. As most of you adopt that code by reference, the jurisdiction needs to be involved with the steam clubs -- and share the National Board code with them, and I think you will have a safe operation, and we can all keep going to these living museums and watching these engines operate.

And this is the last slide. [Slide 29]  It's called the Sparks Show. This traction engine is hooked up to a Baker fan, which is a big fan. You can see the belt on it. They measure horsepower with that. So the guys put this under a major load, and then they take a handful of sawdust and throw it in the firebox, and then it just shoots out a lot of sparks. So this is a little sparks show that all the guys have. They have a lot of fun, and you can see that it is quite entertaining.

Thank you so much for listening.



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