Best Bet Yet

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

| September/October 2003

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.