Full steam ahead: all about steam power

Once upon a time, it seemed that steam powered machines were the technological apex for transport and manufacture.

From its humble beginnings as a means to vertically pump water, steam became a driving force in industry and the economy, with the dark consequence of aiding European and American imperialism. Aotearoa embraced steam, particularly the agriculture sector with steam engines being imported in the 1860s to power threshing mills and winnowing machines.

The first public railway opened in 1863, and was built between Christchurch and Ferrymead using 5’3” broad gauge track (which was later reduced during Julius Vogel’s railway project.) By 1870, 74 kilometres of railway had been laid across the South Island, and a decade later a project devised by Treasurer Julius Vogel led to the completion of the Christchurch-Invercargill line.

Steam spread fast across New Zealand, and aside from having many benefits, the arrival of new machines and vehicles was always a spectacle for the broadsheets.

Gaining traction

Famed Longbeach agriculturalist John Grigg was at the forefront when it came to embracing steam technology in the Ashburton County.

The Ashburton Guardian made a great deal of Grigg purchasing a ‘road steamer’, which he procured on the 31st of January 1879. Grigg’s engine was a Fowler type, which he brought in to haul grain from his estate and to power his machinery. A private trial was held, “and the engine made a very satisfactory essay at a journey along the road. It is a novel sight indeed for the people of this Colony to see a locomotive engine drawing a train of waggons along a common country road, but such a sight will now be a frequent spectacle in the Longbeach district.”

John Grigg’s traction engine with wagons of wool from Alford Station in tow. The engine is being driven by H W Rainey.

His engine was eight horsepower, two-speed, and consumed one hundredweight of coal per hour (approximately 50.8kg) with the ability to carry an eight hours’ supply in its bunker. One drawback for traction engines is the fact that you needed to stop where you could for water – Grigg’s Fowler had to stop every four miles to refill. During its trial run, Grigg’s traction engine hauled a load of ten tons excluding itself at roughly six and a half to seven kilometres per hour.

Steam safety

Traction engines are big, bulky, and as many would discover, dangerous.

Even today, accidents involving traction engines still happen. In March 2019, the UK Daily Mail reported that a family car had collided with a vintage traction engine in Suffolk, somehow leaving the car at an angle perpendicular to the engine. Thankfully, little damage was done to the older of the two vehicles, while the front of the VW was crumpled right up to above the front wheels – I wonder which one was built to last!

Clayton & Shuttleworth six horsepower steam engine, which was last used to power a small sawmill by Dick Burgess and James Carney, pictured.

In New York City, there are steam pipes under the streets that are still in use dating back to the 1880s – sometimes they rupture or even on occasion explode, causing injuries every now and then.

Back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, road boards and local authorities published by-laws regulating traction engine traffic which sought to make the roads safer for both engines and equestrians alike. The ‘1913 By-Laws Regulating Traction Engine Traffic Within Wakanui Road District’ were set out and approved by Chairman George William Leadley and Clerk John Kilgour, for the purpose mentioned above. Common regulations included the need to display your name and address on your engine, spreading out discarded ashes as opposed to leaving them in a heap, and load limitations.

Traction engine accidents could be catastrophic – one Fowler accident that occurred on the isle of Portland in the English Channel in 1921 is of particular note. It was found following the accident that a pin that should have held the gear change lever in place had not been inserted, which led to the traction engine Sphinx running out of control through Fortuneswell. The engine sped down the road with the trailer swinging from side to side, flinging large blocks of stone all about the place, as crowds of pedestrians panicked and watched in horror. The steersman was tragically killed when the front trailer overran the engine after smashing into a wall.

Stationary engines and associated equipment were just as dangerous – the Ashburton Guardian reported on a sawmill accident that occurred in Clova Bay in 1878 which left the workers at the mill shocked and horrified. A youth working at the mill was ordered to stop the circular saw, which was propelled by a shaft from the main engine. Instead of carefully slipping the belt off the drum to halt the machine, he gave it a kick and his foot was caught by the belt.

The worker was carried around the mechanism at high speed, “striking one of the flooring boards – a stout plank, an inch and a half in thickness – with such violence as to break it in two places.” The other workers rushed to stop the machine, but by the time they managed to switch it off it was too late for the young sawmill worker.

D A Symes’ cowshed. The funnel rising above the structure was that of a steam engine which powered the milking machines.

By 1919, there were over 1200 traction engines or portable steam engines in New Zealand, and over 700 stationary engines on farms.

By Connor Lysaght

This post was modified for this blog and was originally published in the Ashburton Guardian, 21 February 2021.

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