Steam Dream

Save

By Liz Wylie

When the paddle steamer Waimarie needed hauling ashore for her marine survey last year, there were no better machines for the job than her road-going cousins -- two steam traction engines.

If not for the mandatory high-visibility vests worn by the men supervising the operation, the scene on the banks of the Whanganui River could have been lifted from the late 19th century.

Like a scene from a bygone era, a crowd gathers on Dublin Street Bridge to watch antique engines pull the Waimarie from the river.
Like a scene from a bygone era, a crowd gathers on Dublin Street Bridge to watch antique engines pull the Waimarie from the river.

Making sure the operation to get the Waimarie out of the river went smoothly was local steam expert and traction engine owner Steve McClune.

"There were around 2500 traction engines imported to New Zealand, but there are only around 10 per cent of them left now," he says.

Alexander Hatrick brought four of the great steel and cast iron machines to Whanganui and sent them up the river on a paddle steamer in the 1890s.

The engines, along with 13 trailers, were offloaded at Pipiriki and used to help build the main trunk line from Ohakune.

 John Archbold's painting of Steve McClune driving visitors on Ridgway Street during Vintage Weekend last year.
John Archbold's painting of Steve McClune driving visitors on Ridgway Street during Vintage Weekend last year.

"They were used a lot for road and bridge building when the only alternative was draft horses or bullock teams," says Steve.

Portable steam engines had been in use for a while and had to be hauled by horses until Thomas Aveling came up with the idea of fitting a long driving chain between the crankshaft and the rear axle in 1859.

Steve says traction engines were never manufactured in New Zealand although English manufacturers had many agents based here.

"The most common brands here were Fowlers and Burrells."

Traction engines were used as portable power sources on New Zealand farms, making back-breaking work like threshing, tree pulling and general farm duties easier.

"They were not only used for work, though," says Steve.

"They can tow really big carriages so a whole congregation could go on a church picnic together instead of taking a whole lot of horses and gigs."

Job done: The Waimarie sits in her cradle on shore after the traction engines had done their work. Photo/Bevan Conley
Job done: The Waimarie sits in her cradle on shore after the traction engines had done their work. Photo/Bevan Conley

Each year Steve hooks a carriage up to one of his engines and can be seen taking passengers for rides around Whanganui at Vintage Weekend and at the annual Steam Fair in Feilding.

Painter John Archbold captured a moment when Steve and his engine were towing a group of passengers from Drews Ave into Ridway St last year.

When he is not busy driving and maintaining vintage steam machines, Steve is taking care of modern ones.

He recently sold his Whanganui business -- Steam and Machinery Inc -- although he still works for the company, repairing steam boilers all over New Zealand.

"I am working my way towards retirement," he says from New Plymouth where he is fixing a furnace.

The late Johnny McClune makes sure all is going to plan during the haulage operation.
The late Johnny McClune makes sure all is going to plan during the haulage operation.

Steve's son, Johnny McClune, had been working at the business with his father for the last decade until his life was tragically cut short in November last year.

The younger McClune was 32 when he died after falling off the back of a truck in Whanganui.

After completing his automotive apprenticeship in Hawke's Bay and moving into general engineering, Johnny moved back to Whanganui to work with his father a decade ago.

Continued below.

Related Content

He was at the controls of one of the traction engines that pulled the Waimarie from the river last September and he worked to keep her safe during the June 2015 floods.

While suspended in a cage, Johnny cut logs away from the front of the boat.

"If he hadn't done that, the boat would probably have been destroyed," says his father.

John Archbold also captured an image of Johnny McClune and a friend driving the family's 4hp Fowler traction engine known as "Superchook" through Marton last year.

"I just love the sight of old machinery that is so lovingly cared for," says Archbold.

"Each one of those engines was so skilfully made and even those of the same model were not mass produced."

There are five traction engines in the McClune family and three of them are in running order.

 John Archbold's painting of Johnny McClune (left) travelling through Marton last year.
John Archbold's painting of Johnny McClune (left) travelling through Marton last year.

In addition to "Superchook", there is a 7hp Burrell engine named the "Dixie Flyer" and a 10hp Fowler engine named "Black Beauty".

Steve says he has driven the engines as far north as Reporoa and as far south as Oamaru.

There is very little that can go wrong with the engines, he reckons, as long as they are well looked after and driven by people who know what they are doing.

"You have to maintain the steam pressure and keep them running at the right speed.

"The engines are old ladies and you should treat them with the respect they deserve."

Many early licensed New Zealand traction engine drivers were drafted for service in WWI and many of the engines they left behind were cut up for scrap. Their numbers were further depleted during the Second World War when Steve says they were used to set up road blocks and commandeered for all kinds of uses.

"My big engine spent the war in a glass house where it was used for soil sterilisation," he says.

By the 1950s, traction engine numbers were seriously depleted worldwide and a preservation movement began.

The Steam Traction Society in Feilding is the biggest North Island preservation group, with the South Canterbury Traction Engine and Vintage Steam Club Inc doing their bit down south.

When Steve McClune gets round to retiring, he will not doubt lovingly restore the two other traction engines he owns and you may hear a hissing and clanking sound as they pass by.

The sound has inspired poets as well as painters and inspired musician Christian Williams to produce an album based on old poems about traction engines.

Share this article

More The Country