May 18, 2020

This Week in Herreshoff History: May 18

Steam engines that powered the plant, and a whole parade of boats belonging to a [human] Plant

May 17, 1898

The Bristol Phoenix reports "the machine shops at the Herreshoffs was [sic] closed Saturday in order to replace the engine running the machine and boiler shops..." A short sentence in passing reminds us that HMCo. didn't just build engines for boats, they designed and built all the engines that powered the plant - and many of the plant buildings too!

  • View of the HMCo. machine shop, late 1890s; HMM photo archive

During the 19th century, it was common for many machines in a shop to be powered by a single steam engine by way of a long horizontal shaft running the length of the shop. A system of pulleys and leather belts connected the shaft to different shop machines. Equipment was powered on and off by engaging or disengaging the belts.

The 1897 HMCo. stationary steam engine pictured here is the only engine that is a part of the HMM collection today that was not designed to power a boat. You can tell it was a shop engine because it has this 44" 380 lb flywheel attached to it. Shop engines required heavy, large diameter cast iron flywheels to store and release energy to the system through inertia. Without a flywheel to keep everything running at a steady speed, the load on the shaft would vary dramatically when different stationary tools were turned on and off. These abrupt changes in load would in turn cause the engine speed to vary. This could cause slippage and shorten belt life, as well as potentially damage equipment or the pieces being worked on. (Imagine, for example, you're cutting something on a table saw. The person working next to you turns their bandsaw off and all of a sudden your table saw is running twice as fast as before! Not ideal.)

Take a look at this video from the Charles River Museum to see (and even better, hear) what a belt-driven machine shop looks and sounds like in action: 

  • The shop engine of the plan at right.
  • The engine is part of the HMM collection today, currently on exhibit in our Steam gallery

May 17, 1912

A great schooner yacht returns! The Bristol Phoenix reports that "ELENA, Ex-[N.Y.Y.C.] Commodore Plant's racing schooner, built at the Herreshoff's last year, arrived from New London Tuesday afternoon, and is anchored in the harbor off the boat shops. The craft will be equipped with new sails made in the sail lofts of the Herreshoff’s. Capt. Dennis is still the capable skipper of the racer. The ELENA is accompanied by her tender, the power boat Thelma." The 136' steel ELENA (HMCo. #706) was launched on April 24, 1911. She was originally built for financier and serial HMCo. customer Morton F. Plant, who owned a veritable parade of HMCo. designed and built vessels including steam yachts PARTHENIA (HMCo. #222)EXPRESS (HMCo. #228) and EXPRESS II (HMCo. #236), the sloop NELLIE (HMCo. #586) (still sailing today!), the

schooner INGOMAR (HMCo. #590), a BB15 named DAD (HMCo. #677) the L-boat SHIMNA (HMCo. #694) the NY40 MAISIE (HMCo. #773) and numerous dinghies and tenders.

  • Detail of ELENA (HMCo. #706) under sail, August 1911;
  • detail courtesy Historic New England Stebbins Collection - click here to see high-resolution original

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