Funter Bay History – Steam Power & Internal Combustion

Most of the industry in Funter Bay required power of some kind, steam was the major power source prior to cheap and reliable internal combustion engines, but early gas and diesel engines began arriving around the turn of the century.

You would think that in the middle of a forest, the best fuel for steam engines would be locally-cut wood, but coal seems to have been used instead (you can still find chunks of coal on the beach in a few places). Whether this was due to the design of the boilers, the thermal properties of spruce, or due to lumber harvesting restrictions, I’m not sure. Oil was also an option for fueling boilers (there was a whale oil plant at Tyee, and early petroleum wells in Southcentral Alaska). One document from the 1920s mentions that Killisnoo coal was preferable to oil as a fuel for steam boilers at Funter Bay. Coal was mined at Harkrader on southern Admiralty Island, near the fish processing plant at Killisnoo (now part of the village of Angoon). Discovered by Russian explorers, used by early Russian and American steam vessels, and mined intermittently until 1929 , this deposit was planned to supply Inside Passage steamships, but seems mostly to have been sold in local communities.

Edit: The main engines at the cannery appear to be gasoline, rather than steam, see below.

Large operations like the Funter Bay cannery had a large central boiler which provided steam for cooking and sterilizing, as well as heat and hot water for the sites.

Cannery power house in the 1980s:

Cannery 4

Some close-ups of the two horizontal stationary gas engines at the cannery. The name plates have wandered away, so I don’t know much about these (Update: Local resident Gordon Harrison has informed me these were Fairbanks-Morse gasoline engines, an early type of low-horsepower (5-10hp) internal combustion engine. These seem to resemble the 1898 designs, so it’s likely that they were original equipment for the cannery when it started in 1902. Some diagrams of similar engines can be seen here):




The two engines would have been located in the machine shop, with the boiler located in the power house.


Two large tanks such as this held water for the boiler. On the map above, you can see the tanks located behind the power house. Update: The tank below is in fact the one located behind the pump house on the above map, and was used for oil. The two tanks behind the power house were nearly identical in design.


Mechanical power from the Fairbanks-Morse engines would be transferred via belts from the engine flywheels to overhead pulleys and shafts (rods), which distributed the power out to various machines (run from other pulleys and belts with a clutch system). Below is a surviving example of some of this overhead equipment in the carpentry shop attic, as viewed from above:


And below is some of the equipment which would have been operated by this arrangement (I’m not sure specifically what the devices below were, they’re rusted pretty badly and missing a lot of parts):




Away from the main site, there would be smaller gas, diesel, or steam engines with “portable” boilers set up to operate things like winches, hoists, and tools. In this case, “Portable” means something like “You can drag it to a new location in about a week with 20 men and a team of mules”. (I’ll try to come back to the mules in a later post). The following shows a boiler for one of these smaller steam plants:


And a winch with small steam piston:


A more packaged power unit was the “Steam Donkey“, a somewhat standardized portable boiler, steam engine, and winch on skids. These could be moved by clearing a road or trail, hauling a cable to a tree or other anchor, and then letting the unit winch itself towards the anchor. Here is a steam donkey that ran a mine tramway:


Note that there seem to be two piston units associated with this donkey, the heavily-geared one at front, and another unit with a large cable winding drum at the rear. Below is a closeup of the rear unit, which had a steam piston on each side of the central drum:


Update: after looking closely at my photos, I can make out what appears to be “Vulcan Iron Works” of Seattle. Here are some photos of a very similar Vulcan steam donkey, built in 1901.

Here is an early low-horsepower gas engine in the woods near the cannery:


A smaller and slightly newer (3hp?) gas engine, similar to the ones shown here.


Thanks to Gordon Harrison for providing some additional details!

9 Responses to Funter Bay History – Steam Power & Internal Combustion

  1. […] a little far fetched, the cannery mostly used mechanical power take-offs from large low-horsepower gas engines, so why would they have a steam engine mounted on their dock? The main dock-end equipment would […]

    • John Taubeneck says:

      The steam donkey looks a little like a Lidgerwood but many details do not match. Do you have photos of any markings on it?

    • John Taubeneck says:

      In looking closer at the steam donkey it looks to have a name cast into the frame behind the crank. The last line looks to read: SEAT (Seattle?). This may be a rare surviver from one of the small, short lived builders.

      • After looking closely at my steam donkey photos, I can make out what appears to be “Vulcan Iron Works” of Seattle. There are some photos of a very similar Vulcan steam donkey, built in 1901, at

      • John Taubeneck says:

        The Funter Bay donkey is a rare one! I only know of three other Vulcan donkeys in existence.

        Buckley, WA-Foot Hills Historical Society
        Vulcan Mfg. Co. 9X13½ 3 drum+gypsy CGY 1922

        Marysville, WA-Jennings Park-Marysville Historical Society
        Vulcan Iron Works C/N 45 8X10 2 drum Yarder 04-10-01

        Port Angeles, WA-Jim Gertz
        Vulcan C/N 211 9X10 2 drum Halfbreed Yarder

        Bellow is a short history of the company.

        Vulcan Iron Works Seattle, WA
        Originally known as the Allmond & Phillips Foundry the company was started in 1885 at 2nd and Washington. The firm was incorporated in 1889. This firm became the Vulcan Iron Works in 1892 and was located between Union and University streets on Seattle’s waterfront. (56) Donkey production started in 1898 or 1899 with C/N 1, a 10X12 two-drum roader. In 1898 the plant was moved to 5th Ave. and Seattle Blvd., a site latter occupied by the yards for the Union Pacific depot. The bulk of the business was marine and general metal work of all kinds with donkeys as a small part of their production. Seven donkeys were under construction in August 1900. As of April 1901 only 45 donkeys had been built.

        By June 1909 construction was under way on a new plant located at the SE corner of 4th Ave and Connecticut St. (Royal Brougham Way), now occupied by a Metro bus base. (57) At about this time Vulcan produced their only known locomotive. This odd machine took the gypsy idea to an extreme; instead of a locomotive with a winch attached this was a donkey with a small locomotive attached. (58) The name of the company was changed to the Vulcan Manufacturing Co. in March 1912. During World War I donkey production was halted and the entire plant was dedicated to marine work for the wartime fleet build up.

        Donkeys were again being produced by April 1919. (59) This didn’t last long as the logging engine line as well as all parts were sold to the Union Machinery & Supply Co. of Seattle in 1921. (60) Vulcan built a few more donkeys under contract to Union until it’s bankruptcy in 1923 or 24. There are only three Vulcan donkeys known to exist, two of which are on public display as follows:

        8X10 2 drum roader in Jennings Park Marysville, Washington

        9X13½ compound geared yarder at the Foothills Historical Society Buckley, Washington

        The most distinctive feature of the Vulcan donkeys is the company name cast into the crossheads. The machine at Buckley has a space for the engine number cast into the right valve chest but this is blank.

  2. […] power began replacing direct mechanical drives in Alaskan industry in the early 1900s. The first adopters were larger companies who could afford […]

  3. […] previously mentioned a Vulcan Iron Works steam donkey at Funter Bay in one of my earlier posts on steam power and internal combustion. Recently I acquired a photo which shows a very similar device at Funter, perhaps the same one. […]

  4. […] development, or vandalism. So for example, I’d like to see things like Funter’s big gas engines remain cool lawn ornaments, but the various steam locomotives upside down in creeks and ditches […]

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