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Laurence MacDonald 10-05-2016 04:50 AM

Steam Engine question
I am writing a short story set on a sternwheeler in the James River in 1856 and I wonder if you could offer me some technical advice to this question: would it be fairly typical, or at least not uncommon for a Sternwheel Riverboat of that era on that river to have an oscillating engine?

I thank you in advance for any help you can give me!


R. Dale Flick 10-05-2016 08:08 AM

*'Oscillating' or 'Reciprocating?'/James River, 1856.'
Morning, Steamboating colleagues:
Lawrence, good question above and I am sure there are others who frequent this web with far more technical knowledge than I have. You mention "story set on a sternwheeler...James River in 1856." My one technical manual here references your "oscillating" as being "oscillating steam engine: an engine with a vibratory cylinder." No doubt there are other more succinct technical manuals, sites you could reference or GOOGLE for additional information. Perhaps one of our 'steam guys' could chime in here.

I wonder also if you could be referencing "reciprocating engine" which is what most of us know here. 'Reciprocating' merely the means to convert power from a shaft from a steam cylinder high and low pressure horizontal or vertical to a roatating gear transferred to a paddlewheel. This also true of the East Coast and Great Lakes 'steeple' or upright 'walking beams.' I suggest, if possible, you seek a copy of 'The Western Rivers STEAMBOAT CYCLOPOEDIUM,' Alan L. Bates, Hustle Press, Leonia, N.J., 1968 among other basic sources acquainting you with steamboat design, operation, engines. Hit the keys on your computer/internet search engine and see what pops up.

You mention " the James River in 1856" and that made me wonder. Do you mean the James River, Virginia? If so then you would not have found a "sternwheeler" operating there in that era (1856). The James widens much like a large estuary. No doubt you would have seen there then a number of sidewheel walking beam engines from other large and small ports on the Chesapeake Bay system or Norfolk in and out of Richmond, Va. Now and then we have requests here for basic information to flesh out a novel or historical fiction account. Some focusing on steamboat gamblers aboard a cotton packet in the 1850s engaging in a race up the Mississippi. Good luck in your quest and keep us posted. Again, what do I know?

R. Dale Flick
Old Coal Haven Landing, Ohio River, Cincinnati.

Laurence MacDonald 10-05-2016 08:43 AM

Stern-wheelers on the James.
R. Dale Flick

Thanks for that and yes my query was about the James River in Virginia and oscillating (vibrating) cylinders.

I was rather hoping that there were stern-wheelers on the James at that time as that would fit my story best but no matter.

Thanks for your help.

R. Dale Flick 10-05-2016 09:07 AM

*Fact vs. Fiction/Stern vs. Side*
Hi, Lawrence,
WOW! That was a quick response to mine. Again, there are many others here with knowledge, experience beyond me. As in my other earlier posting on 'Stenwheelers vs. Sidewheelers/Insurance' the 'sterns' didn't come until later but on western rivers. 'Sterns' later proliferated on the California, Alaskan rivers, the sounds of the Pacific north coast. Even small so-called tugs on the Chesapeake/James River system and tributaries were sidewheelers. Consult those Civil War photos of the James River for views of the sidewheelers.

In any historical research used in fiction one must have the basics down pat with the imagination for the story line. Any editor or knowing reader will instantly pick up on an error of fact, technology or history. You know, the story about the high-and-mighty conference when the little old lady with a flowered hat from Kokomo jumps up in the back row with, "Not so fast here...the facts are..." sending chills down backs of the speakers. Experts? No, just those 'with varying levels of experience.' I think you get the idea. Keep pluggin' along and keep us posted. What do I know?

R. Dale Flick
Old Coal Haven Landing, Ohio River, Cincinnati.

Jim Reising 10-05-2016 10:07 AM

There were a lot of different steam engine designs, the Swain, ie original JULIA BELLE SWAIN, boats had oscillating engines. They were supposed to revolutionize the steam power plants on the inland rivers, but, although they weren't complete flops, they never became popular.
To say there were no oscillating engines on the James River in the 1850's, I can't do that. If there were, I would say they weren't widespread. Dale's right the vast majority were probably walking beam sidewheelers.

Frank X. Prudent 10-05-2016 12:53 PM

I think between Dale and Jim they pretty much have hit the bullseye with their answers.

I knew about the Swain boats having oscillating engines, but they were sidewheelers. Somewhere in an old "S&D Reflector" Fred Way ran a photo of this sort of get up. I've never heard of an oscillating engine being on a sternwheel boat. Also after a quick check of the index of Louis C. Hunter's "Steamboats on the Western Rivers: An Economic and Technological History" I see no mention of oscillating machinery at all.

Laurence MacDonald 10-05-2016 07:44 PM

Your guidance is much appreciated.

David Dewey 10-05-2016 08:09 PM

The physical characteristics of the stern wheeler would make an oscillating engine difficult to install. The pivot point would have to be very well-secured to the boat's framing, and, unless the pivot were placed in the middle of the cylinder, the weight of the cylinders would tend to cause the wheel to lope. This wouldn't be true of a vertical cylinder.
Those are just some of the problems I can see with such a design--there are much more experienced steam folks here than me that could chime in.
Also thinking about it, today OSHA would have fits around such machinery!!

R. Dale Flick 10-06-2016 09:07 AM

*Life on steamboats/OSHA/Oscillating engines*
Steamboating colleagues:
David, you got that right RE: "OSHA would have fits around such machinery" as today would Department of Labor, Dept. of Human Resources and, especially, the insurance companies. Frank and I have mentioned Louis Hunter's classic book STEAMBOATS ON THE WESTERN RIVERS. This vast in-depth study of steamboat development, technology, economic influences, human dynamics a 'must read' that in short order dissolves the prevailing concept many have of "wonderful, beautiful, romantic, colorful old-time steamboat paddlewheels flashing in the sun etc." From the get go back to the 1820s our U.S. Government began studies of river boats, commerce, conditions of crews from officers to cabin crew, deck officers, deck crew with revelations shocking. Some European immigrants who shipped out here on steamboats considered it harder work than on the ocean ships they knew with a level of 'human brutality, cruelty' soon catching the eyes of our Federal Government. Formation of the Marine Hospital system on our rivers one positive. Not very cheery topic but the truth that needs to be known. I know what I read.

R. Dale Flick
Old Coal Haven Landing, Ohio River, Cincinnati

Carl Jones 10-23-2016 02:39 AM

I stongly recomend that you find a copy of shipwrecks on the Chesapeake by Donald G Shomette, 1982 Tidewater Press. In durnig the early proportion of the Civil war and the James river was controlled by the Confederates in 1864 the Union sent a boat up the James Rive the USS Tulip this boat had two boilers and was a screw propelled boat. Her machinery hads seen hard use for over a year and one boiler had been condemned but the captain had it fired up and it blow up killing 50 member of it 57 member crew on 11 Nov 1864. I doubt if she has associating engines, most likely an engine with two to four vertical cylinders, a crank shaft and a propeller shaft back to the screw. She was built in New York city in 1862 for use in china as a lighthouse tender. The person who order the boat died before the boat was deliverd and the builders sold her for $30,000 to the Union Navy.
Carl Jones river historian and genealogist

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