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First started as "My 2 Cents" in 1997, I have written posts numbering into the hundreds. It will take some time to resurrect the older posts, so keep checking back. They will include meet reports, travelogues, and news of interest to Ontario licence plate collectors.

Watson, Steam, Nash, and Fun

Updated: Oct 3, 2020

I spent part of my weekend volunteering at the Cumberland Heritage Museum in Watson's Garage, displaying a portion of my license plate collection.

Cumberland was a small town just east of Ottawa in the days before it was absorbed into the city itself. Cumberland is still pretty quiet, and many of the buildings are throwbacks to a simpler time. The heritage museum is located at the east end of Cumberland and includes the old train station, a schoolhouse, blacksmith shop, fire hall, and various other interesting buildings, including Watson’s Garage.

It was operated by John Watson starting around the 1920s and was a typical service station with a small repair garage. It was closed in, I think, the 1950s and relocated down the road to the museum in, I think, the 1970s (I only have one weekend of museum interpretation under my belt, so I’m sure you’ll forgive me if some of my facts are foggy).

The exterior of the garage has been repainted to its original colours from when it was an Imperial fuelling station, although in earlier years, it ran under the B-A brand. The interior is, from what some old-timers have told me, exactly the same as it was when it was operating at its original location: bare boards for walls, odd tools hanging from nails, old safety and spark plug adverts displayed, and even the mild aroma of auto grease. I learned from Dave Truemner, my volunteering mentor, that Three-Star Imperial fuel was initially the sponsor of the "Three stars" of Canadian NHL games... it was meant as an ad campaign!

Housed inside the garage is a modified 1925 Ford pickup (the rear box is not authentic), and a 1929 Durant passenger auto. Both start up with coaxing and can run around the museum under their own power once coaxed. I displayed my license plate collection on tables inside the garage. The era the museum captures is the 1920s to 1940s, and I built a modest series of display boards to show off my collection. I filled them right up, and 1956 was the most recent year I displayed. I also had a bucket of rustic old plates from the 1920s to 1960s, from which kids could take and keep one free plate each. Who knows—maybe I’ll have planted the magical bug that will prompt someone to start collecting seriously.

The focus of the show for this weekend was engine power, and while there were some pretty neat antique autos present, such as a 47 Buick Eight, a 39 Nash, 34 Ford flatbed, and a 1920s-era Harley-Davidson motorcycle in vintage NYPD livery, they weren’t the main focus of the event. That honour went to the agricultural tractors on display in the field, as well as the stationary hit-and-miss engines, and even some neat steam engines (complete with whistles that would hoot every once in a while).

I was told one interesting, but somewhat macabre story while I was there, which I’ll recount here in my typical paraphrased style. Down in Ohio, some time ago, a person with lots of money, but not as much know-how, acquired a very heavy, self-propelled agricultural steam engine. For those who aren’t aware, a steam engine works by lighting a fire with coal, which burns in a boiler. In a separate chamber of the boiler, directly above the fire, is a holding tank of water. It is completely water-tight, and the high pressure created by the heating allows the water to stay in a liquid state, well past the boiling point (400 degrees was the figure I was given, although I don’t know if that’s Celsius or Fahrenheit). To use the power of the engine, valves are opened in a controlled manner and the liquid water instantly turns into steam as it exits the boiler. The volume ratio between water and steam is about 1:1700. That means that one cubic foot of liquid water, if turned to steam, would take up 1700 cubic feet of space. So the steam, when it escapes and expands, is powerful enough to push heavy pistons in an engine, to turn a shaft, and create motion to spin wheels, turn belts, and other ingenious things.


Anyway, the owner of this engine filled it with water, fired it up, and drove it slowly onto a newly-asphalted highway. The engine had steel wheels and weighed several tons (20, I think), so you can imagine how rough the ride must have been, how much the boiler must have been vibrating, and you can probably picture the trail of damage it was leaving on the highway.

After about half an hour of driving (he had chewed up about a mile of asphalt by then), the cops showed up and ordered him to pull over. He did so, and the front end of the steam engine moved downward with the slope of shoulder of the road.

Later investigation showed that he had been running low on water from his mile-long journey, and the act of pulling over caused the water in the boiler to slosh over to one side, leaving part of the tank floor uncovered by water.

Now, when the tank is full and heated, the water absorbs the heat from the fire underneath as it should, and the tank floor gets no hotter than the water it carries. But when there is no water to absorb the heat, there is nothing to stop the tank floor from overheating until it glows red, orange, and yellow. And of course, what does iron do when it gets that hot? It begins to melt, of course. However, this problem was made worse because apparently, the tank floor had rusted over decades of use and no inspections. A nominal tank floor should have a thickness of around 5/16 of an inch, and this guy’s tank had rusted away to 1/16… almost nothing left. So it melted quickly, and the tank ruptured, allowing the 400-degree water remaining in the tank to expand into steam. Remember how 1 cubic foot of water produces 1700 cubic feet of steam? Well, that’s why boiler explosions were so devastating in the days of steam-powered ships and trains, and that’s why today, antiquers are required to submit their boilers for inspection.

The engine in the story was destroyed and five people were killed, including the owner. There were multiple injuries to bystanders. The police officers survived. Buckets of shrapnel were collected from the area surrounding the explosion.

I should mention that the steam engines at the Cumberland Museum were all inspected and operated in a safe manner, and that people liked my display. But I found that story particularly interesting, so I thought I would share.

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