Best Bet Yet

By Staff
1 / 7
The 6 HP 1891 Union, serial no. 459, as it looked at the 2002 Grass Valley show.
2 / 7
This is what the Union's timing gears looked like when Larry first got the engine.
3 / 7
The engine as bought, complete with cobbled flywheel.
4 / 7
A close view of the flywheel. It's amazing to think the engine was run this way at some juncture.
5 / 7
The Union's cylinder and piston before boring and sleeving.
6 / 7
The same cylinder after repair as seen at the 2002 Grass Valley show.
7 / 7
Close-up of the piston-tripped igniter. Larry fabricated new igniter components.

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

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

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

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

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