Passion for steam era boils over

June 09, 2018

TO MANY, the halcyon days of the steam engine belong to a bygone era.

However, a younger generation’s fascination with boilers, pistons and steam driven machinery is keeping that era alive in the 21st century.

Chris Reynolds and Tristan McCrum, two men aged in their early 20s from Lilydale, are in Echuca-Moama this weekend for the annual steam rally.

They have brought with them a 1928 steam roller — a 12-ton roller powered by a two-cylinder compound engine.

‘‘It works on the same principle as the internal combustion engine you see in cars,’’ Chris said.

‘‘A valve releases steam that drives the pistons and the two cylinders means the steam goes through two stages of expansion.

‘‘Some of the steam engines here burn wood but we burn black coal in this.’’

The steam roller was built by Cowleys Eureka Ironworks in Ballarat in 1928 and was used by the Ballarat City Council for roadworks.

‘‘The CRB (Country Roads Board) were the biggest employers of steam rollers for roadmaking and most of the rollers were brought in from England,’’ Chris said.

‘‘Some came from America but only a few were actually manufactured in Australia.’’

The sheer size, complexity (or simplicity?) and longevity of the 90-year-old steam roller clearly resonates with both Chris and Tristan.

‘‘I love the historical side and it’s a feat of engineering,’’ Chris said.

‘‘They were some snazzy blokes back then to be able to build and design something like this.

‘‘Show me a Commodore that’s still going in 90 years.’’

‘‘There’s no such thing,’’ Tristan replies as he glances over to the steam roller.

‘‘They say it was the closest man ever came to creating artificial life back then.’’

The steam roller was picked up by Chris’ father Andrew back in the 1970s.

‘‘It was sitting in a quarry in Ballarat in 1975,’’ Andrew recalled.

‘‘The owner had bought it off the council thinking he could pick up some contact work for roadworks.’’

The contracts never came so when a 25-year-old Andrew heard about the derelict steam roller he drove to Ballarat and bought it.

A member of the Melbourne Steam Traction Engine Club, Andrew has always had a fascination with steam engines ever since he was a kid.

‘‘At school I always wanted to be a steam engine driver but when I left steam was finishing and I didn’t want to drive diesel engines,’’ he said.

He also had a passion for plants so he operated a plant nursery for years but still indulged his other passion by becoming a train driver for the Puffing Billy steam train in Melbourne.

In his role of Victorian Goldfield Railways marketing manager, Andrew is also keen to run steam trains from Castlemaine to Echuca.

‘‘We’re testing the viability of of bringing people up, maybe have lunch on a paddlesteamer in Echuca and then take them back to Castlemaine,’’ he said.

‘‘We’re testing the viability of it and we think we can make a go of it.’’

Andrew’s love of steam engines has clearly rubbed off on his son Chris.

‘‘Grandma tells stories about how dad’s mates would come round to work on the steam roller and she would cook them all chops for dinner,’’ Chris said.

The restoration of the steam roller took a few years and has been a part of the Reynolds’ family for a generation.

‘‘I’ve grown up on it,’’ Chris said.

‘‘I started out sitting on the coal bunker watching dad drive it and now times have changed — he’s the one sitting there watching me drive it.’’

The steering has been nicknamed Armstrong Steering ‘‘because you need a strong arm to steer it’’ and the strength needed to turn the wheel of the behemoth would certainly develop the upper body muscles quicker than a session in a gym.

‘‘Roundabouts are a pain in the arse,’’ Chris said.

Top speed is about 10km/h. ‘‘But it didn’t always have a roof on it and dad reckons he got it up to 15km/h but I’m not sure,’’ Chris said.

‘‘The roof can get some nasty vibrations so that tends to slow it down a bit.’’

The engine has two gears — ‘‘slow and very slow,’’ says Chris — and a reverse gear and does require ongoing maintenance.

‘‘For every good day on the road, two or three days are spent in the shed (working on it),’’ Chris said.

‘‘It undergoes a routine boiler inspection every two years when you strip it down and give it a good wash out.’’

From a cold start, it takes three hours to fire the engine up before the steam roller gets going but Chris and Tristan wouldn’t have it any other way.

‘‘I haven’t know anything better,’’ Chris said.

‘‘I’ve got a little brother who is totally disinterested in steam engines but to do it you have to love it.’’

‘‘And get filthy,’’ Tristan smiled through his soot covered face.

‘‘We’re from Lilydale and we’d take it down to the Coldstream pub for the day and that’s about an 18km round trip.

‘‘You get a lot of cars tooting their horns as we go past and give us the thumbs up, though you did get the odd one getting cranky because you’re going so slow.’’

It’s 90 years old now, but will the steam roller still be going in another 90 years?

‘‘Definitely, we hope so, that’s the plan,’’ was the unanimous response from the steam engine enthusiasts in earshot.

With such enthusiasm in the younger generation, it seems the days of steam will never die out.

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