Hamilton’s historic waterworks steam engines
now restored to mint condition
By Bill Hjelholt, Senior Project Manager,
UMA Engineering Ltd.
In the 1850s in Hamilton, Ontario, cholera was reaching epidemic proportions. In 1854 alone, 552 of the City’s 14,000 inhabitants perished from cholera. Like most North American cities, Hamilton lacked both sewer and water systems, and suffered from contaminated drinking water.
The vision of the City led to a remarkable feat of engineering. The new waterworks were designed not only to save lives, but to proclaim that Hamilton was a forward thinking city. Housed in a spectacular Italianate stone edifice, the huge pair of walking-beam steam engines was completed in 1859. Each delivered 60,000 gallons of fresh water per hour to a reservoir over two miles up the escarpment, a rise of some 190 feet. These steam waterworks are the last intact in North America and among the finest in the world.
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Now a National Historic Site, the City of Hamilton and Public Works Canada turned to UMA Engineering Ltd. to conserve and restore the engines and pumping facility.
The challenge was staggering. For example, the south engine had been seized since 1938 60 years! The lowest levels of the pumphouse flooded continuously and corrosion was rampant. As the site operates as the Hamilton Museum of Steam and Technology (HMST), it would continue to take visitors throughout construction. The waterworks were designated artefacts; every bolt and gasket were to be treated as museum pieces. The budget: $300,000 total for consulting and construction.
Over 140 years earlier, the city held a design competition for the original waterworks. Prominent Canadian engineer Thomas Keefer was engaged to judge submissions. Although an American engineer won the competition, Keefer convinced the City to award him the contract. Construction proceeded in 1857 with a budget of $600,000.
The design utilized state-of-the-art compound steam engines, boosting two cylinders to make efficient use of higher steam pressures. At one end, the steam cylinders, clad in oak and brass, lifted 14 ton walking beams 30 feet long. At the opposite end, 22 ton flywheels helped drive the main water pumps. No steel was used; machinery was either cast or forged iron. The daring design featured a complex series of auxiliary pumps, cam shafts and valve gears, and an impressive network of air vessels, water, steam, and condensate pipes.
Before proceeding, a comprehensive investigation of conditions was conducted. Under the direction of marine engineer and steam expert Alex Barbour, over 55 non-destructive access points were opened, by removing accessories such as gauges, relief valves and lubrication ports. Fibre optic video inspection took advantage of holes as small as 1/2″ to peer into machinery that had been sealed for 140 years. Over 16 hours of video tape recorded the entire interior of the machinery.
Armed with new knowledge, UMA developed the plan of action and refurbishing began.
“The biggest day in the pump’s history,” according to curator Ian Kerr-Wilson, was celebrated by barring the engine for the first time in 60 years. Barring is manually turning the entire works by applying a large pry-bar to special sockets in the flywheel.
In its operating days, barring the engine was part of its painstaking start-up routine. The operators fed steam and barred the engine through repeated false starts. Once in motion, the engine peaked at 15 RPM. This may seem slow, but the engine stroke was eight feet! Rods and linkages hurtled up and down, the enormous flywheel turned and the walking beam pivoted to and fro in a symphony of motion, attended by gasps and hisses of expanding steam.
UMA’s next task restored motion to the engine. The intricate restoration process included forging a new brass flywheel bearing. Alex Barbour reviewed the work and pronounced the engine fit. A one of a kind electric drive system using state-of-the-art DC motor technology was designed, fabricated and installed.
This article has been abridged.