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!