Big Bore: 1907 1,100 hp Snow

The Northwest Michigan Engine and Threshers Club rescues a titan of an engine.

Big Bore

1907 1,100 hp Snow

Photo by Tony Suykerbuyk

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Manufacturer: Snow Steam Pump Works Buffalo, NY
Serial no.: C123
Horsepower:  1,100 hp at 95 rpm
Bore & stroke: 23 in x 48 in
Flywheel diameter:  18 ft
Ignition: Originally igniter, converted to spark plugs in 1944 with point tripper system consisting of 16 sets of points, dual spark plugs and dual coils per cylinder.
Governing: Ferguson horizontal spring fuel governor

One hundred years ago, huge engines like this 1,100 hp twin tandem double-acting Snow dotted the country. Many of them, like this one, were set up in remote stations, powering massive compressors to deliver natural gas to municipalities large and small. With reliability paramount, engines like this Snow were built to last; as recently as 2013, Columbia Gas in West Virginia was still using 1914 and 1917 C & G Cooper twin tandem double-acting engines to pump natural gas, almost 100 years after they were built.

The Snow

Most of those engines are long gone, cut up and recycled in favor of more efficient natural gas turbines, but a few remain, every now and then coming to light. But discovery doesn’t mean preservation. Despite significant attempts to save them, the Bessie 7, the seven 1927 Cooper-Bessemer 1,000 hp engines discovered here in Kansas back in 2002, wound up being cut up and harvested for their precious metals. Yet over the years, a lucky few have been saved, thanks only to the undying passion of gas engine enthusiasts across the country.

This 1,100 hp twin tandem double-acting Snow is one such engine, saved from the scrap yard by the Northwest Michigan Engine and Threshers Club in Buckley, Michigan. Weighing an estimated 225 tons – yes, tons, or 450,000 pounds – it is the only known surviving twin tandem double-acting Snow engine.

Bearing serial number C123, it was built in 1907 to pump natural gas from West Virginia to Pennsylvania and New York. Originally installed in a Natural Gas Co. pumping station in Hunter, West Virginia, it worked there until around 1944, when it was dismantled and moved some 90 miles south to the Gulf Pumping Station in Ritchie County. In 1967 the station was retired, and this engine along with a twin, serial number C124, was sold to local oil and gas producers H H Elder & Son. According to club member Tony Suykerbuyk, the new owners were only interested in the building housing the engines, which they wanted to use as a storage facility for their business.

According to Tony, the Elders spent a summer busting up engine number C124 for scrap, but spared C123 as a grandfather wanted to see it restored. The engine was left alone, but nothing more was ever done with it. In 2007, members of the Elder family, hopeful someone might preserve the Snow, started looking for a club or organization that might restore C123.

In their search for a suitable home for the Snow, the Elders looked through the Farm Collector Show Directory for large clubs that might be able to accommodate the Snow. “That’s when the engine found me,” Tony says. “They wanted to donate it to somebody who would get it running and they contacted our club. We’re sitting on about 400 acres that we own and we have our own full-gauge steam train.”

A retired farmer, farm manager, machine shop operator and engine builder – and a member of the club’s oil field display committee – Tony was immediately drawn to the idea of saving the Snow. Even so, Tony harbored some doubts as to whether the club would really want to secure it, knowing it would be a monumental effort to disassemble, move and install the Snow.

A few months later, Tony and club member Steve Scott went to see the engine. “We went early in the morning. We figured we wouldn’t want it and leave early, but it was dark before we left,” Tony recalls. The engine, they decided, needed to be saved.

Saving the Snow

That first visit set off a chain of events that led to the engine being disassembled and moved to the club’s Buckley Old Engine Show grounds. Disassembly started in 2008, and by mid-2009, after multiple trips with a lowboy and numerous club members’ pickup trucks and trailers, the engine and its components were safely delivered to the Buckley show grounds. Working off a 1907 blueprint for identical engines C95 and C150, club volunteers laid the foundation for the engine beds, a process that involved 10 tons of rebar and 250 yards of concrete to support the two 35-ton, 25-foot long bedplates. “It took 44 anchor bolts ranging in size from 1-1/2 inch to 2-1/2 inch,” Tony says. “The blueprint was for C95 and C150, and there was a little change in the compressor mounts, but that was highlighted on C150 – everything else fit like a glove.”

With the engine beds in place, a new building, donated by The Wayne Webber Foundation, a philanthropic organization established by successful Michigan highway construction and concrete businessman Wayne Webber and his wife, Joan, was constructed around the Snow. The engine’s a long way from running yet, but Tony says the club hopes to have it spinning on compressed air for the show’s 50th anniversary in 2017. “The older guys keep bugging me to get this done,” says Tony, who has now been given the nickname “The Snow Man” – along with a plaque to honor his help rescuing and restoring the engine – “but I just tell them they have to live longer to see it!”

The engine will be on display during the 49th Annual Buckley Old Engine Show, Aug. 18-21, 2016, and while not running attendees will get an idea of its size. The rear cylinders have been set and the middle crossheads are scheduled to be installed in June, followed by the front cylinders and crossheads. Following that, the massive 9-ton crankshaft will be installed in the bed plates, along with the unit’s two-piece, 22-ton, 18-foot diameter flywheel.

An historic engine of epic proportions, the Snow is a unique reminder of an almost forgotten era in our industrial past. Look for a follow-up report on the finished engine in 2017.

The Buckley Old Engine Show grounds are located 1 mile west of State Route 37 between Cadillac and Traverse City, Michigan. For more information, call Jim Luper at (231) 570-2506