Naked Steam Engines at Golden Spike


Worker marks out inspection squares on 119’s steel housing.

PROMONTORY — The two steam engines at Golden Spike National Historic Site are naked. Buck nacked. Nude. Undressed. Full Monty. Completely revealed.

Getting a pretty thorough going over, too.

The engines are exact working replicas of “Jupiter” and “119,” which met cowcatcher-to-cowcatcher in Promontory on May 10, 1869. They were brought to the site in 1978 and have chugged to their meeting point faithfully ever since.

Like all steam engines, they need tender loving daily care, and they get that from an army of staff and volunteers. But like steam engines, even with the most tender loving care, not to mention the astonishingly gentle work they are asked to perform, they need a major look-through every now and then.

This is regardless of how far the engines have run or how hard they’ve worked. Steam engines are powered by steam under pressure. Put pressurized steam in a steel container, you get corrosion that builds up over time and has to be dealt with or the engine dies.

Dead steam engines are no fun, so there is a strict schedule of this work.

Every 15 years, to be precise. The first one was 20 years after the engines were brought to the site, which was pushing things, so this time the 15-year-schedule is being followed.

This is huge. They take everything off the engines — all the fancy red and blue and gold and brass. All the valves and levers, bells and whistles, lights and levers, widgets whatnot.

119, naked like you’ve never seen her before

Inside each engine is 166 two-inch tubes that run from the firebox, through the main engine body to the front where the smokestack is. Those tubes are the heat exchanger, allowing the heat from the wood (Jupiter) and coal (119) fires in the engines to heat the water that makes the steam that drives the wheels.

Every one of those tubes had to be removed. The steel face plates they were mounted on must be carefully inspected for cracks, and new tubes installed.

In addition, the bodies of the engines, the giant tubes containing the fire and steam, must be carefully inspected for corrosion, wear, cracks and any other weakness. When we were there workers were carefully marking out 1,472 neat square inspection areas on each engine and grinding a spot in the center of that square down to bare metal.

Front of 119 shows where tubes were removed

They’ll then use ultrasonic inspection tools to test each spot, making sure the steel hasn’t worn thin. Eventually the entire body of the engines will need to be replaced, but we hope not this time.

This takes a lot of work, but volunteers have been showing up, uninvited, asking to help out.

While a team from Union Station’s Archive was there photographing the work Dec. 4 we met Rodney Lee, Seattle. Lee took three weeks off from his job to come to Utah, totally at his own cost, to help out. When I talked to him he was doing the glamorous work of preparing the smokestack of the Jupiter for repainting.

Rodney Lee, Seattle, takes a break.

He just loves the craftsmanship that went into the engines, he said. He’s a bug on old mechanical stuff anyway. “The guys in the past years, they didn’t have computers or computer milling machines, they were incredibly sharp.”

Someone needs to make all that craftsmanship look its best. All the valves and other gear are cleaned, overhauled and polished or painted.

Jupiter’s firebox and controls laid bare

All this work means the engines will not be available for the annual steam festival on New Year’s Eve this year, which is a shame but a necessary one. Richard Carrol, the supervisor of the engine shop, said they expect the testing to be done by February, and then workers will have to scramble to have the engines back together, spick and span, up and running by May 1.

They need them dressed in their finest and out for their opening act May 10, after all.

119 with her cab removed and sitting on her tender.
119, getting a good going over. Her cab is removed and sitting on her tender.
The 119 as she stands today.
The 119 during 2010’s steam festival
How she normally looks