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The Little Engines That Could

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News on October 20, 1990


Thanks to Patterson’s steam locomotives, NCR stayed clean

by Roz Young

Dear Mrs. Young:

            We were talking at the American Legion about the little steam locomotives that NCR used, and I told the following I remembered as a 14-year-old (1942) living in Edgemont:

1. Mr. Deeds got the idea in Europe.
2. There were four engines: Rubicon, South Park, St. Clair and ?
3. They were like thermos bottles and filled with steam twice a day. A Navy veteran said he worked on steam engines and they have to have generated steam. He is right, but I think it was taken care of at the roundhouse.

            Could you shed any light about the little NCR locomotives in your column?

            John M. Brackett
            6515 Azure Way

            As you probably remember, the founder of NCR, John H. Patterson, was a unique man. For one thing, he detested dirt. He wanted his plant to look like a college campus rather than a dirty old factory. He planted trees and geraniums and grass, and the sandstone buildings had big windows so the workers could look out and see pleasant vistas.
            Smoke-belching, sooty old switch engines would pollute the air, blacken the sandstone and speckle the geraniums, and he would have none of that.
            On a trip to Germany he saw fireless steam locomotives used in factory yards. They would be just the thing for NCR!
            On his return he had three locomotives built at the Lima Locomotive Works. The Rubicon (1909), the South Park (1910) and the Dayton (1913) were among the first fireless locomotives in the country.
            They were indeed built somewhat like giant thermos bottles with cylinders and wheels. The tank of each was filled two-thirds with water and charged from a 150-lb. steam line in the powerhouse.
            "As the Rubicon's engineer opened the throttle," explains the Carillon Historical Park booklet, The Fireless Locomotive, "steam passed through a reducing valve and reached the cylinders at 60 pounds per square inch. The steam charge at 370 degrees F. gradually converted some of the water to steam."
            Depending on the work load, the little locomotives ran three or four hours on a charge. A 2-inch layer of magnesia insulated the tank, which was fitted with baffles to keep the water from sloshing when the engine started and stopped.
            Compressed air from tanks replenished at the roundhouse rang the bell and sanded the rails in icy weather. Batteries for the lights were also recharged at the roundhouse. Brakes were mechanical.
            Although they were clean, the little locomotives had some faults. When the engine was pulling an exceptionally heavy load, such as four or five coal cars, the brakes were not strong enough to stop quickly. Visibility from the cab was limited and became hazardous as the factory grew and more automobiles and pedestrians crossed the yards. The Rubicon received a bent driving rod when a touring car slid into it in 1915. The automobile was badly smashed; one wheel was crushed and the rear part of the chassis caved in.
            Maintenance costs, as the years passed, became prohibitive. The time came when nobody sold replacement wheels, so they had to be cast at the factory. Other parts had to be fashioned by toolmakers. Toward the end, it took two mechanics working full time just to keep the engines running, to say nothing of the $16,000 annual maintenance bills.
            The little locomotives long outlasted Patterson, who died in 1922, and company officials decided to replace them with a diesel-electric locomotive, a 50-ton 8-wheel machine manufactured by General Electric Co. at Erie, Pa. The South Park and Dayton were sold for scrap, but the Rubicon was cleaned up, painted and its brass work polished. It was placed on exhibit in its own building in Carillon Historical Park July 16, 1962. So far as the Carillon Park staff knows, it is the very last example of its kind.