Giving Old Steam Engines New Life

By Neil Moran 

People take up a lot of different hobbies, like collecting coins or vintage dolls. Dan Laitinen, of Barbeau, collects old steam engines and preserves history in the process. Laitinen, who spent 30 years on tug boats dredging rivers from the Upper Peninsula to Hawaii for Derouchers Marine out of Cheboygan, has never met an old steam engine he didn’t like.

Dan Laitinen and his prize CCC engine he saved from the metal scrap yard.
Dan Laitinen and his prize CCC engine he saved from the metal scrap yard.

“I’ve always been interested in old engines,” says Laitinen, while showing off his collection of antiquated engines in his spacious workshop. Each one has a story and collectively can power everything from huge pumps used to salvage shipwrecks to drawing a kettle of water in the kitchen.

One of his most interesting finds of local interest is a humongous steam engine used to mill lumber as part of the effort during World War II. Leading up to the war, there was a sawmill on Ranger Road near Brimley. During the war, the mill owner contracted with the government to mill lumber for pallets for shipping supplies overseas.

As Laitinen tells it, the mill was originally powered by a steam engine and boiler. A fire later ruined the engine. The Civilian Conservation Corp. (CCC), a voluntary government work relief program tasked with putting young people to work during the Great Depression, donated a steam engine to the mill. As fate would have it, they never used it, relying instead on a large tractor.

The engine was transported, in several pieces, to Ranger Road from Strongs on a rail car – that’s how Laitinen found the old engine, conspicuously branded with “CCC” in gold lettering on the cast iron engine block. Laitinen said the guy he bought it from was picking up scrap metal in the area with a logging truck with a side arm crane; instead of scrapping it, he set it aside.

Dan Laitinen and the old Maytag his mom used to run their washing machine prior to electricity on Neebish Island.
Dan Laitinen and the old Maytag his mom used to run their washing machine prior to electricity on Neebish Island.

“Here is this thing designated for scrap,” recalls Laitinen. “Thank God he knew enough not to sell it for scrap.”

Laitinen said it was a challenge getting it back together. The piston cylinder was a rusty red color, but otherwise, the old engine was in good condition. Laitinen went to work, first on the computer finding out as much information as he could about the engine, and then in his shop reassembling it. It now runs like a top and by the looks of the large flywheel, it could mill lumber like nobody’s business.

When it comes to acquiring and getting the old engines running, Laitenin has to be part mechanic and part Sherlock Holmes. That was the case with an old engine he acquired from Alfred “Alfie” Leask from Sugar Island. Leask, who died in 1987 at the age of 99, worked in lumber camps and later became one of the first hard hat divers and underwater ship repairmen in the Sault area.

The engine Laitinen got from Leask is a steam engine-driven centrifugal pump. Laitinen put on his detective hat and started to do some sleuthing to find out more about the engine’s origins. It was manufactured by Morris Machine Works but he couldn’t find out anything more about it with a simple computer search other than the company was located in Baldwinsville, NY. So he contacted a librarian in the small town near Syracuse and told her what he was looking for. Within a couple of weeks, the woman got back to him. He learned the company shut its doors in 1865, so the engine is indeed very old! He believes the engine was used on an old salvage tug called the Favorite that was docked in the Soo. It was likely used for salvage operations of shipwrecks, pumping water from the hulls of the sunken vessels.

Cloverland Electric Cooperative brought electricity to rural areas like Barbeau back in the 1930s. However, it wasn’t until 1956 that Neebish Island was included in the grid. Laitinen, who grew up on Neebish, remembers times before electricity came to the island when his mother used a gas-powered engine to run the washing machine. Not surprisingly, Laitinen has the old Maytag engine that was a step up from the old washboard at the time. It’s a small engine that needs to be kick-started to operate but managed to get the job done!

“My mother would curse at that thing when it wouldn’t start,” recalls Laitinen of the one-cylinder engine. Not only does it still run, but he also has the original Maytag spark plug that came with the cast-iron motor.

An old steam engine with the words "CCC" printed on the side.
The old engine donated from the CCC.

Every year, Laitinen loads a half dozen old engines on his trailer to transport to the Chippewa County Fair. He utilizes compressed air to run them during the week-long event. People of all ages enjoy hearing and seeing the old engines as they chug, whistle and hum along. They’re reminders of the days before electricity took over as the main source of energy to power the machines we use today.

Laitinen spends countless hours getting the old machines going. Most of the engines he acquires are rusted with parts missing. He has a machine lathe in his shop to fabricate parts as needed. It keeps the retired dredge worker busy, especially during long winters.

“It’s more than a hobby,” says Laitinen. “It gets to be a sickness – you can’t leave it alone and when you see one (engine) somewhere, you’ve got to have it.”