Grooming the Great Iron Beast

Rescuing a 20,000-pound Buckeye engine from Louisiana gators.


Butch welding the base to the trailer while Ernest lends a helping hand.

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My brother, Ernest, was telling me about the big Buckeye engine across Bayou Teche from Verdunville, La. It seems some of the members of the Bayou Antique Engine and Power Assn. had been looking at it for a couple of years, but the logistics of recovering the machine were quite formidable.

For starters, about five miles of dirt road leading to the location had to be traversed, so good, dry weather was a must. Then, after reaching the scene, a 30-foot canal on the southern edge of the vast Atchafalaya Basin stood between the engine and the dirt road. And yes, there were alligators in the canal. Additionally, the engine was on a concrete foundation on the far end of a shed where it had powered a 20-inch centrifugal pump used to drain the sugar cane fields. The plantation owner, Shadyside Co. Ltd., had given us permission to remove and restore it, and Ernest and I decided it was a doable project and we would give it a try.

First, the two of us, with the help of my son, Danny, began the task of cleaning out a huge swamp rat nest in the engine base that had apparently been started many years ago, and added to each year since. Next, we began freeing the engine from all service lines, the 10-inch exhaust, the big sailing clutch and the eight 1-1/4-inch foundation bolts. We jacked, blocked and wedged it up in preparation for rolling and sliding it closer to the canal.

In mid-May 2003, we hired a crane service from Broussard, La., to provide equipment to lift and haul the engine and pump to our shop in Patterson, La. The move date was set for June 3. It had not rained in two months, but guess what happened? Yep, before daylight it came down in buckets. The big crane arrived along with an 18-wheeler, only to find the dirt road impassable. We paid the $3,000 mobilization/demobilization fee, licked our wounds and renewed our determination to get that big sucker out of the swamp one way or another.

Moving Day

It continued to rain enough to render the dirt road impassable throughout the summer. Then our break came on Oct. 8, 2003 - General Crane Service provided equipment to accomplish our task. Danny worked with us again and provided invaluable assistance due to his experience with heavy lifting. The engine weighs 20,200 pounds and we had to reach out about 80 feet to get it. My other sons, Lee and Jody, along with Ernest's son, Michael, pitched in to get the job done.

Removal of the back wall and part of the roof of the old pump building was the first order of business. This old structure had been standing for many years, dating back to the Civil War when steam was the power source for the drainage pump. It was with a tinge of sadness that we watched it being wrenched apart.

Recovery of the machinery went fairly smoothly. We laid down an aluminum walkway across the canal to facilitate the many foot crossings required. Watchful was the word for the gators, but they kept their distance. The crane operator was able to half-lift and half-drag the engine close enough to the canal to pick it up. Lifting the pump, air and cooling tanks, 20 inches of riveted pipe, the big sailing clutch and other related equipment went more quickly. By mid-afternoon, we were back in Patterson, unloading at our facility. The work had just begun.

The Disassembly Begins

A team of Bayou Old Time Engine and Power Assn. members led by Dick Gibbens, Ernest Felterman and myself, began the task of restoration. Others who provided invaluable assistance with time, skill and ideas were Bob Legnon, J.B. Castagnos, John Smietana, Audie Taquino, Ted Mire and Ralph Olmstead. From time to time, there were a few walk-ons. Some of the guys would drive up to 60 miles just to get greasy, in anticipation the day smoke rings would fly.

Our goal was to have the Buckeye on display and running at the Cypress Sawmill Festival in April 2004. Workdays were called on an irregular basis when it wasn't too cold or rainy. Lunch breaks were enjoyable and productive as we ate "Buttercups" take-out food, sitting around the welding table discussing strategies for the work ahead and telling good engine and boat stories.

The engine was stuck after not running for over 60 years, but with the help of a 20-ton jack, a couple of 4-foot-long bars in the flywheel perimeter holes, and liberal doses of Gibbs penetrant, we got some movement. Disassembly and cleaning were a major part of the work. Dick's gin pole and sliding I-beam on his 30-year-old Chevy truck, as well as our John Deere front end loader, did the heavy lifting. After quite a few weeks, the 3-piece head, piston, piston rod, crosshead, connecting rod, bearing caps, fuel pump and governor had been removed. With the exception of the piston rod (which had to be replaced due to pitting, thus preventing a seal in its packing gland), all major parts were found to be usable. Fortunately, the cylinder bore was in good shape, as were the main and connecting rod bearings. Dick did soldered the bearings where needed and reshimmed all of them.

The big stuff was tough to handle and time consuming, but the seemingly insignificant items used up a lot of hours, too. For instance, it took two men over three days to remove five rings from the piston, then scrape, chisel and wire brush the heavy buildup of carbon from the ring grooves. Keep in mind, the distance for one trip around a 16-inch piston ring groove is over 4 feet - and there were five of them. Even for an oil burner, you would not expect to find so much carbon. The scavenging chamber was almost completely clogged. At various times, Dick took parts to his well-equipped home workshop in Schriever, La., for repair, as did Bob in his very interesting Jeanerette shop. J.B.'s Steam Cleaner and Automotive shop in Donaldsonville, La., was a continuing source of support, also. Their skills working with lubricators, fuel pumps, governors and other more complicated components gave a tremendous boost to our work.

Ernest and I looked for a trailer on which to mount this 14-foot-long hunk of iron, one stout enough to handle the shock of a single 16-inch piston cranking two 3,000-pound flywheels at 100 RPM. After scouring the region, we struck gold right here at home. Earl King donated an old King Trucking 30-foot dual axle Nabors trailer with two 14-inch I-beams running down the middle and spaced just right to weld the channel-iron base to, which supports our treasure.

We replaced the old, rotten decking with solid 2-inch pine, and after varnishing, it contrasted nicely with the iron, which we painted black, and the Buckeye decked out in green with a wisp of silver here and there.

I repaired one of the old sugarhouse tanks to mount on the trailer for use as a cooling tank. The Buckeye starts by direct injection of compressed air into the cylinder, so Ernest and I took an old, almost forgotten Quincy compressor we owned and mated it to an equally old Fairbanks-Morse engine. The original air receiver from the pump station measured 23 inches in diameter by 9 feet long, and was heavy as lead. Dick hydrostatic tested it for us, and once more, the old stuff showed quality. With the Buckeye and supporting components in place, our trailer was now about filled to capacity with antiques, particularly when the Felterman brothers were included.


March 26, 2004, turned out to be our big day. Dick liked to describe our work as "Grooming the Great Iron Beast," and the grooming was now complete. The ignition cup in the cylinder head must be heated to start the engine. Propane heat was insufficient, so we applied acetylene rosebud torch heat, and after various piston positions and air valve manipulations, she began running after all those years in hibernation. She seemed to celebrate by blowing smoke rings 50 feet in the air. With little fuel in the tank (purposely), it soon stopped.

Our second attempt didn't go as well. As a matter of fact, that's putting it rather mildly. That big sucker kicked back and started running backwards! We didn't even know it could do that! We turned the fuel tank valve off, but to no avail - she was still gaining RPM. The entire trailer was shaking two feet in all directions. It was like Hopalong Cassidy chasing the bad guys on top of a freight train. Smoke rings began topping out at 75 feet or more. The neighbors were converging. When things are not going well in our group, we look to Dick. He was at the front of the engine hanging on to an air line, with all eyes on him. Dick made his way around to the fuel pump and governor area like a sailor walking a storm-tossed deck. He manually opened the fuel pump bypass valve, applied extra pressure to the fuel shutoff valve, and probably prayed. She began to slow and finally stopped. Thank God! That was it for the day, so we rolled her back in the building.

One week later, I hired a heavy duty truck to move our trailer to the Cypress Sawmill Festival, which is held near Patterson the first weekend in April each year. After Ernest overcame problems with our antique air compressor, we were able to start the engine, to the delight of many festival attendees - there's just something about those smoke rings! Repeat performances were staged morning and afternoon on both Saturday and Sunday. It was fun, we achieved our objective, and we reached our goal on time.

The project was a real challenge, and I thank God that we were able to overcome the obstacles with no accidents or injuries. To me, a number of things made the effort worthwhile. First, we rescued a piece of history that was on its way to oblivion. Next, our group of restorers enjoyed a level of fellowship that would be hard to equal anywhere. And finally, it was a source of enjoyment for countless people of all ages who often ask, "When will the Buckeye run again?"

Contact gas engine enthusiast F.C. "Butch" Felterman Jr. at: P.O. Box 189, Patterson, LA 70392; (985) 395-3538.