Steam – The Ubiquitous Power Source of the Past

In today’s world, electricity is a ubiquitous power source – we use it for everything from running factories to cooking to powering model “steam” locomotives. In the vast majority of cases, that electricity is purchased from a utility. While doing research on the various industries along the N&W in Circleville, it became clear to me that steam was the ubiquitous power source back in the day – and that power was generated at the plant site.

The Circleville industries I model, circa 1939, used steam generated in the plant to power a variety of processes necessary for their business. From north to south, they were:

  • Maizo Mills – Steam used to power an engine that drove the corn cob grinding machinery
  • Pickaway Grain – Steam powered a steam engine that operated the elevator leg machinery
  • Esmeralda Canning Company – Used steam in the cooking process prior to canning, and to power the canning machinery.
  • Container Corporation – The most extensive operation in size with the widest variety of steam uses, “The Strawboard” used steam under pressure in the straw cooking process, to power turbo-generators that supplied the plant’s electrical needs, other turbines that were mechanically connected to pumps and other peripherals, heating the paper drying rollers and finally, to heat the entire mill complex.
  • Norfolk & Western Railroad – The railroad, of course, used steam for transportation services.

What got me thinking about this were three Circleville Herald articles I came across using Newspapers.com. All reported cases in which local plants needed externally generated steam to replace their on-site production due to emergency or maintence situations. In all three cases, that external steam that was provided by the mobile steam generating plants of the N&W (i.e., steam locomotives) .

August, 1942

In August of 1942, Esmeralda Canning Company experienced a boiler failure during the canning rush. A call to an N&W official in Portsmouth (where division headquarters were located) led to a locomotive being dispatched from Columbus. The locomotive’s boiler was then tied into Esmeralda’s system to allow their canning work to resume.

August, 1952

Problems struck Esmeralda again in May, 1952 – another boiler failure shut the plant down. Like in 1942, the plant’s management called the N&W, which again dispatched a steam locomotive from it’s closest terminal (Columbus) to get Esmeralda up and running.

January, 1955

Finally, in January 1955, Container Corporation – a strawboard mill – leased a steam locomotive from the N&W to supply steam for heating the buildings while the mill’s main boiler was down for planned maintenance.

Unlike the two Esmeralda incidents, this was not an emergency so probably did not require a frantic call to the local railroad agent. This particular article lists two interesting details; the steam locomotive was capable of producing 10,000 pounds of steam per hour compared to the mill’s boiler capacity of 90,000 pounds per hour.

It appears that, prior to the 1960’s, steam locomotives could serve the same purpose as flatbed-mounted diesel-generators do in today’s world. They both provide a source of energy compatible for the energy consuming loads of their times – emergency or planned.