Best Bet Yet

Rescued From a River, a Rare 6 HP 1891 Union Runs Again After a Friendly Bet

Union's Timing Gears

This is what the Union's timing gears looked like when Larry first got the engine.

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Among the engines at last year's EDGE & TA Southwest Regional Show in Grass Valley, Calif., was an interesting piece displayed by Larry Snow, Red Bluff, Calif. In a crowded field of engines ranging from the perfectly preserved to the perfectly restored, Larry's 6 HP Union was a standout. Neither perfectly preserved (a debatable statement, perhaps) nor perfectly restored, Larry's engine was, actually, perfectly odd.

Background to a Bet

Quietly and smoothly running along at last year's Grass Valley show, Larry's engine looked in some measure as if it shouldn't be running at all. With its cylinder and base pockmarked from the ravages of time and abuse, the Union obviously had a story to tell, and what a story it is.

Larry's engine rolled out of the Union Gas Engine Co.'s San Francisco, Calif., factory about 1891. For the next 25 years it worked at an unknown location along the San Diego River northwest of San Diego, Calif., until the devastating flood of 1916 washed it down the river. The engine remained entombed until 1974, when a sand and gravel company dredging the river dug it up.

Jim Gibson, San Diego, got wind of the engine, and eventually secured it and took it home. Greg Johnson, a mutual friend of Larry and Jim, took Larry to see the engine, almost as a joke. Larry has a particular interest in Union and other engines made in California, and Greg figured Larry would get a kick seeing a Union that had, over the years, taken on the appearance of little more than a large hunk of oxidized iron. Intrigued, Larry bought the Union and took it home.

It didn't take much inspection to see the engine was hurting. At some juncture its flywheel had broken up, and a crudely made metal plate had been fastened to the flywheel's surviving spokes to make up for the missing mass. The mixer was gone, parts of the exhaust valve rocker mechanism were either missing or broken and the plate for the piston-tripped igniter was missing from the front of the cylinder. It was, to be kind, a sorry looking engine with an uncertain fate - until fellow California engine collector Buzz Stetler, Stockton, Calif., entered the picture.

The Bet

Over the years, Buzz has amassed an impressive collection of engines made on the West Coast. Among those was a 4 HP Joshua Hendy made in San Francisco in the very early 1900s, and it was an engine Larry wanted to buy but that Buzz wouldn't sell. The Joshua was far from complete, and among major items missing were the flywheels, the crank and the crank guard. Even so, Larry kept at Buzz to sell him the engine, and eventually Buzz made Larry a bet; if Larry could get three of his most challenging engines running (including the Onion and a rare Palmer & Rey in as poor shape as the Union) before Buzz finished the Joshua, Larry could have the Joshua.

That was about 1980, and as the years ticked by Larry slowly worked on the Union and the Palmer & Rey. In addition to the Union's obvious defects there was the simple question of taking apart an engine that, at least in appearance, looked fused together. Remarkably, Larry says it came apart fairly easily. 'Most of the nuts and bolts were put on with white lead to protect the threads, and they came apart with little trouble,' Larry says. The piston came out with the help of a friend's 50-ton press, and Larry ended up boring the cylinder 0.50 inches oversize and sleeving the original piston. He also had new rings made.

Regardless of its appearance, Larry says the engine 'was eaten up by abrasion, not rust. The brass held up fine, the steel held up fine, I didn't even grind the crank.' Incredibly, when Larry got the engine apart he found the crank fit for service after little more than a thorough cleaning. In fact, he even reused the original bearings. He did have to make anew flyweight for the governor, plus a new head plate for the piston-tripped igniter. The head and the exhaust chamber were both cracked, but spay nickel, a process Larry hadn't used before but had heard worked well, took care of both problems. Working from patent drawings and an old advertisement, Larry made a new mixer, all the missing igniter components, a new intake chest and the missing components for the exhaust rocker. He also made a new cam gear, but remarkably the original brass crank gear was still useable.

First Running

In 1995, 15 years after Buzz and Larry made their bet, a group of California engine collectors held the 'Union Reunion,' a gathering and exhibition of surviving Onion engines. Larry didn't have the Palmer & Rey running, but he did show up with the Union. 'I knew that would make Buzz nervous,' Larry says, and even though it was equipped with a spark plug and a Model T coil (Larry hadn't worked out the igniter yet), it was running. Larry was still gunning for the Joshua, so after the Union Reunion he went home and applied himself to finishing the Palmer & Rey. Within a relatively short time he had the Palmer & Rey running, and once finished he sent a video of the running engine to Buzz. A year later, Buzz gave in and Larry got the Joshua. Since then, Larry has made significant progress on the Joshua. He made a pattern to get new flywheels cast (which should be done by the time this article appears), the crankshaft is done and most of the major parts are in place. It took almost 20 years to get the engine he wanted, but Larry doesn't seem phased. He obviously had fun with the Onion, and his rich collection of running engines made in California is set to be that much richer.

Richard Backus is editor of Gas Engine Magazine. Contact engine enthusiast Larry Snow at: 20770 Minch Road, Red Bluff, CA 96080, or e-mail: