Funter Bay History: Steam Donkey Part II

March 3, 2015

I 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. This photo is likely from the summer of 1919.

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The photo was taken at the corner of the main Thlinket Packing Co warehouse, seen below:

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The steam donkey seen in 1919 and the one in my modern photos look nearly identical to me. The layout of pipes, the piston parts, and the boiler door all appear to match. The donkey in 1919 is mounted on large logs. My modern-day photos do not show any logs under the engine, but loose spikes are visible (the logs likely rotted away or were removed). John Taubeneck provided some details on the Vulcan Iron Works in a comment on my earlier post, noting that there are only a few of these donkeys remaining. He believes the unit pictured above is slightly smaller than the one in the woods, but it is hard to tell.

Neither photo shows the conical top or smokestack seen on other Vulcan donkeys, in the 1919 image they may have been removed for shipping, and by the time of my photos the stack seems to have rusted off and fallen to the ground (a few decades ago it was still mostly upright and covered with a washtub).

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The remaining donkey is across the bay at the base of the mountain where it powered an aerial mine tram. If these are the same unit, it may have originally been owned by the cannery and later sold to the mine. As the cannery used mainly low-horsepower gas engines on-site, a steam engine would likely have been used somewhere off the property. It could have served as a pile driver engine, or been used for logging in Kelp Bay or elsewhere.

The men posing on the donkey in the 1919 photo seem to have been a group of Seattle high school students. They will probably be discussed in an upcoming post.


Funter Bay History – Steam Power & Internal Combustion

April 23, 2013

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:

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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):

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

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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.

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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:

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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):

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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:

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And a winch with small steam piston:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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

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Thanks to Gordon Harrison for providing some additional details!