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Pumping History

Fall 1986 | Volume 2 |  Issue 2

The big Allis-Chalmers triple-expansion engine is dead, but not to Walter Wilson and Daniel Hoffman. These men are, respectively, division foreman and manager of pumping and maintenance for New Jersey’s Hackensack Water Company; but back in the 1940s they were just starting there as two young engineers fresh out of the Navy, and the engine was very much alive. In fact, it seemed like home to them: “When you were up at the top there,” Hoffman says, gesturing to a lofty catwalk close under the high roof of the pumping station, “and she was going, it was just like being on a ship at sea.”

If the engine no longer earns its keep in the New Milford Pump Station, it is still a majestic presence, and a gorgeous one in its carefully maintained black and maroon paint. It is massive. “A machine like that,” says Hoffman, “we measure in stories. That one is about six stories high.”

Built in 1911, it is all but identical to triple-expansion engines forged a generation earlier. Its three cylinders are successively larger; as the high-pressure steam moved from one to the next, expanding in volume as it ebbed in potency, it needed increasingly bigger surfaces to do the same amount of work. The two flywheels that hang between them are twenty feet in diameter. “You figure about a ton for each foot of diameter,” Hoffman explains. “I had one of them shift on the shaft once, and it had to be moved back with house jacks.” All adjustments to the monolith were on that scale. Along the wall at its foot hang the wrenches that came with the engine. No man could lift the bigger ones: when it was time to tighten a nut, the overhead crane rolled into position and the wrench was hoisted into place and slammed with sledgehammers. Hoffman laughs: “We dropped a wrench once—just dropped a wrench—and people thought the building had blown up.”

That scale helped doom the machine, of course. The great, slow-breathing engine—it turned at a shade under twenty-nine rpm when it was delivering full power—could pump twenty million gallons in twenty-four hours. Next to it is a steam turbine, installed in 1930. A fraction the size, it can pump thirty million gallons. And next to it is the inheritor: an electric engine, not much bigger than a panel truck, that can put out the same thirty million gallons. Marshaled in that one room is virtually the whole of industrial history for the last hundred years.

Bill Gemza—with ten years behind him a relative newcomer to the company works—is in charge of the electric engine. “They don’t let me touch the steam stuff, and I don’t try to. But during the last strike I polished the Allis-Chalmers.”

The triple-expansion engine stopped forever eighteen years ago, but back in the oldest part of the building, a 1915 steam engine is still healthy. It is a cross-compound engine, based on the same principle as the triple expansion, but with two cylinders. Steam punches into its small high-pressure one at 180 pounds per square inch, and then, weakened to 15 pounds, goes on to give a final push to the second, far bigger cylinder. Should there be a power failure, this engine can come on line to deliver forty-five million gallons on top of the turbine’s thirty; Hackensack always keeps a boiler hot just in case.

Walter Wilson scowls at the gleaming new piping that leads into the engine. “They just put that in. The old pipe was full of asbestos. It used to be,” he says without much horror, “that on a sunny day, you’d just see those specks of asbestos dancing in front of the window. So now that’s fine, but I don’t like the new pipe at all. It looks like the Tin Woodsman in The Wizard of Oz.”

Bill Gemza glances at the valves that regulate the steam flow into the 1915 engine. They were born in the shops of George Henry Corliss, the great nineteenth-century inventor and engineer whose name on an engine was equivalent to the mark of Tiffany on sterling. “You don’t get fond of electric engines in the same way,” says Gemza.

Nevertheless, steam has its drawbacks. “You had to oil the triple-expansion engine quickly on hot days, or it would burn through your trouser legs,” Huffman says. “People would quit after a week. In the summer when the windows were open, you could hear the triple-expansion engines going from half a mile away. I’d be coming to work hoping we’d be using the turbine, because it’s cooler. But then I’d hear the noise, and I’d think, ‘Hell, it’s going to be another hot night.'” He shrugs. “Then again, you love them too.” The huge engine, cold now for nearly two decades, towers over its successors, looking as eternal as the Mesabi Range.

“There were five of these when I got here,” Hoffman says. “People said to me that someday they’d take them away, and I couldn’t imagine it would happen. But it did.”

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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