The American
Little Engines 4-4-0

Despite having been involved in steam most of my 63 years, mostly traction engines and  mostly full-size, my initial love of steam began with the steam locomotives of the railway. As a child, the Grand Trunk (then CN) ran steam freight regularly on the line past my parent's backyard and I delighted in scampering across the field to the tracks, climbing the fence, and waving at  the engineer. Under the careful supervision of my  father, we often visited the railway station whenever there was a locomotive stopped to take on coal and water and I found the railroad people to be so very friendly that an indelible impression was made.

When I moved to
Manitoba in 1977, I joined the Manitoba Live steamers, a group of live steam locomotive modelers and although I had the chance to  operate other people's locomotives, I never had one of my own. It is a very expensive hobby, requires a good machine shop and machining skills, and most people take YEARS to produce a beautiful scale model locomotive.

The winter after retiring June 2012 I noticed that the price of second-hand locomotives was quite reasonable (possibly due to the down-turn in the American economy?) so I entertained the thought of purchasing a locomotive. I had always liked the lines of the American 4-4-0, a design dating from the early 1800s, and before long I had a deal with a live steamer in California who was overhauling a 4-4-0. We carried on a regular correspondence during the rebuild and Bob furnished me with regular pictures of the progress.


In May (2013) the locomotive was ready to ship and began its journey from California to Manitoba. I was quite delighted with my pretty little steamer!


One of the first tasks was to get it ready for a day at the track. I needed to fabricate foot pegs, albeit temporary until I know exactly what will be comfortable for me. Then of course there needs to be a seat! A shovel and a poker would also be required. And I wanted an easier way to fill a cold boiler than by removing the safety valve to pour water in.


When I contacted my former supplier of anthracite coal supplier I found he no longer uses coal. Experiments with coal from other sources were very unsatisfactory so the decision was made to switch to propane. Burning propane would require a car to carry a propane cylinder.

Building a Densmore Tank Car

Making the first Propane Burner

From the beginning something wasn't right with my locomotive - it  was severely lacking in power and VERY steam-hungry! I suspected a timing issue and tried many different things without success before I finally decided I would have to go through the whole thing, from beginning to end, check everything and put everything in good condition along the way. I pulled the engine apart, inspected everything, honed the cylinders, and began putting it back together one step at a time. EVERYTHING was checked and adjusted!


When I got to the valve gear I found the eccentric straps were worn so each was reworked and hand fitted to its matching eccentric - I even made a wrench to aid in adjusting the eccentrics later. I also discovered one eccentric to be loose on the axle. When done, the play in the valve motion was totally gone!

After the overhaul, the Stephenson Link valve gear timing was set and double checked.

Subsequent track testing showed significant blow-by was still a problem. Investigation revealed 4 leaks in the main steam line in the smokebox so the plumbing was re-done.

Blow-by continued to be a problem so it was decided to make new pistons and install O-rings for piston rings (since everything else imaginable had been tried!)

The new pistons and rings turned out to be the solution to all the blow-by problems! The engine finally performed as it should but the first propane burner did not seem to be up to the task so a different style of burner was tried.

Propane Burner #2

On one of the early  runs, I made a video which may be viewed HERE on youtube.

I decided to replace the "automatic cylinder drains" (which trapped water in the cylinders and gave the operator a shower on each start-up!) with steam-operated drains.


With fall coming and the chance to do some night running, I decided to complete the lighting and electrical.
Three LEDS were added to illuminate the cab and water glass and a LED flashlight lens was added to the headlamp housing.

Wire was fished into copper tubing  (to act as conduit) to the headlamp ....

.... and across the back of the cab.

With continued blow-by problems, I tried switching to Vito O-rings on new pistons and rods.

The O-rings resulted in an immediate improvement in performance but didn't last more than 5 or 6 rounds of the track (1100 feet each) before the O-rings tightened up in the cylinder.
New cast iron rings arrived so I decided to switch back but found the new cast iron rings were too large for the cylinder bore until modified.

After a couple of hours running on air, the cast iron rings had not seated and with our club's annual meeting coming up, I switched back to Viton O-rings. Within 3 rounds of the track at the meet, the O-rings were tightening up again and I  noticed the oiler was also intermittent so after the meet I decided to add a commercially made check valve in the oil line and move the drive link from the valve gear where the motion depends on the Johnson bar position to the crosshead where the motion is constant.

When I installed the check valve and cranked the pump to prime the oil line, I found the pump was 3/4 full of water! Steam had been leaking into the oiler and condensing which in turn floated the oil out of the tank and explained why the left side of the engine was always covered in steam cylinder oil and why the O-rings were not lasting!

Having no faith in the reliability of the existing oiler and the fact that a separate pump should feed each cylinder, it was decided to replace the original oiler with a new 2-pump oiler that I had on hand. Installing the new, larger oiler would require cutting the left running board and despite the fact that I am loathe to make permanent significant changes, I decided that the increased reliability was worth the 'damage'.

The aluminum running board was cut with a jigsaw (as far as possible) and finished with a saw blade in a Foredom motor tool (doing significant damage to my hand when the mandrel bent!).

The bracket on the new oiler was cut in half and the oiler tank was drilled and tapped to mount each half on opposite sides of the tank. A drain port was also drilled and tapped into the bottom of the tank to allow draining any condensation.

The oiler was mounted spanning the gap in the running board, an extension was made for the ratchet arm, and the plumbing was completed with a secondary commercially-made check valve in each oil line and the lines were primed.

Hopefully the new 2-piston oiler and secondary check valves will ensure proper lubrication to each cylinder, extend O-ring life, and ensure proper running.

Track testing with the new oiler arrangement were totally satisfactory. Well over 1 mile (REAL mile!) was run with no difficulty.

After a number of weekends of successful running, a minor mishap occurred - a connecting rod strap failed. A temporary repair was made by doubling-up the broke strap with another piece of brass strap.


On the same day, the brake linkage came apart damaging the brake cylinder push rod.
The rod was replaced, a spring-return added and the braking was switched from vacuum to steam. An adaptor had to be fabricated to adapt  1/4-28 to 3/16" flex tube.
(Brakes will later be added to the tender trucks as well.)


To be continued

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