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Steamship Virginia V

Fall 2009 | Volume 24 |  Issue 3

On an evening cruise in 1979 aboard the 125-foot steamship Virginia V off Seattle in Puget Sound, a 32-year-old engine fireman heard the roar of steam ripping out of the engine, a noise that sends chills down the backs of steamship engineers. Keith Sternberg raced to shut off the boiler before the water level dropped further. A few minutes longer and the boiler’s pipes and tubes could have been irretrievably scorched, causing them to rupture or even explode.

Tugboats retrieved the partygoers; Sternberg stayed aboard, and like all steam engine mechanics before him, waited patiently for his boiler to cool down before he examined it. In the morning he crawled through the furnace casing above the soot-caked central steam and water drum, which contains the steam generated by the boiler. Even 12 hours later, the eight-by-four-foot space remained oven-hot, and soon he was drenched in sweat. “Sometimes when the steam escapes,” he explains, “it fills up the whole ship for hours, and it’s hard to find the source.” This time he was lucky and quickly discovered that the cap over the last hole in the drum had corroded and blown off. He made the repair, “steamed up” the engine, and the pilot took the Virginia V back to the dock.

The Virginia V is the only operational wood-hulled steamship of the “Mosquito Fleet,” a flotilla of hundreds of independently owned steamboats that hauled freight and carried passengers across the Puget Sound between the 1850s and 1950s. Improved highways and faster car and truck speeds eventually put these craft out of business. The Steamer Virginia V Foundation has kept its charge alive as a historical novelty, using it to take tourists on excursions.

In 1993 the foundation made an urgent plea to Sternberg, who in the meantime had started his own tugboat company. No longer operational, the boat needed a major overhaul. The Coast Guard had revoked its passenger permit, and it lay anchored at the Lake Union docks in Seattle. A busted valve had left the old Babcock & Wilcox Watertube boiler beyond repair, and the engine bearings were badly rounded out.

Sternberg signed on and repaired the engine, following the usual practice of steam engine building by installing new cast-iron piston rings, which seal in the pressure during the engine’s combustion cycle. After steaming up the boiler, he noticed cast-iron slurry dripping down the piston rods and found new scarring on the low-quality cast-iron cylinders. The piston rings banged destructively against them. Researching the problem, he finally discovered the solution in a recent reprint of an 1891 text Modern Locomotive Construction , which discussed the use of brass or bronze piston rings, generally considered too soft. After installing top-quality bronze rings from the C. Lee Cook Company in Louisville, the problems stopped immediately.

Sternberg’s restored engine has been powering the renovated Virginia V for the past seven years, again taking passengers out into Puget Sound. While immensely proud of the completed job, Sternberg misses the old days of steaming across the water, smelling the fragrant scent of machine oil and faced with the constant threat of engine failure. In the early 20th-century, steam engineers lubed the bearings with Chevron Marine Oil 27X, which contained an emulsifying agent such as vegetable or animal fat. Environmental laws prohibit the use of such oil today; the new oil proves less effective, washing away more easily with the dissolving steam. “The old oil smelled like something you would want to eat. It had a certain charm,” remembers Sternberg wistfully.


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