A rare, century-old, 115-ton piece of Buffalo's industrial history pumps again

May 31, 2019

Looking for a day trip to honor Buffalo and witness something awesome at the same time? The National Museum of Industrial History in Bethlehem, PA is debuting the results of its decade-long labor of love this weekend to the public.

"This is the largest and most powerful operating steam engine in the country and perhaps North America," said museum Marketing and Outreach Coordinator Glenn Koehler. "So it's really significant."

More than a century after being built by the Snow Steam Pump Works in Buffalo, the museum's Corliss water pumping engine is running again.

"There's not very many engines like this left in the country anywhere, perhaps all of North America, and to have one that is not only existing but operating is extraordinarily rare," said Koehler. "We're really, really pleased we've been able to save this piece of important history."

Koehler said at 115 tons and about 15' high, 40' wide and 20' deep, "it's quite stunning and absolutely massive." Similar engines pumped water for cities across the nation before steam was replaced by electrical power.

He said this Corliss pumped water to the some 100,000 residents of York, PA from 1914-1956, then was kept as a standby engine. It came to the rescue again in 1972, when Hurricane Agnes hit York.
 

Finetuning of the engine's mechanics have been taking place for about a year.
Credit National Museum of Industrial History

"It flooded out York, PA and ruined all of the electrical pumps they had installed to replace the Corliss. So they fired up the Corliss again, which had been submerged in water, and it fired right up and they were actually able to pump water to people," Koehler said. "Without that engine, they weren't sure what they were going to do. This engine kind of saved the town in that hurricane - and after it had been out of service for more than 10 years."
 

A restored Corliss steam engine is rare in North America.
Credit National Museum of Industrial History

"The restored Corliss steam engine will undoubtedly impress and inspire visitors young and old, " said American Society of Mechanical Engineers President-elect Richard Laudenat. "This piece of mechanical engieering history and the museum as a whole play an important role in STEM education and the development of our future workforce."

The engine was acquired a decade ago, as the 13,000-square foot exhibit space was preparing to open, and first installed in 2015.

"Due to its 115-ton weight, we had to pour a special concrete foundation for it. Then it was craned in," Koehler said. "It kind of sat for a while after the museum opened in 2016 and we started putting in thousands of thousands of manhours and time actually getting it back into working order."
 
 They finally got it operational about a year ago and have been finetuning it since. This weekend is its debut to the public. The next demonstration will be Father's Day.

"It's been a long, long decade and a labor of love, but the result is quite amazing."

Bethlehem, PA is about a 1 1/2-hour drive from Buffalo. Among the other Buffalo-related industrial marvels at the relatively new museum are machinery from Bethlehem Steel and Ingersoll-Rand.

Note to radio fans: "Don't Touch that Dial," featuring nearly 100 historic radios, components and early broadcasts, is on display at the museum through Nov. 3.  Visitors can even try their hand at creating radio sound effects using the art of foley and craft messages using Morse code.