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Giant hoist engine, stilled for decades, runs again -- and another waits to be rescued

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The iron beast sits stolid in the pale October sunlight, massive bolts and shafts and valves motionless yet seemingly on the very verge of motion, like a dinosaur trapped in a tar pit.

It was built in another age, and for nearly eight decades it worked day and night, taking miners and supplies up and down, down and up, 5,000 feet beneath Butte and back again. And precisely because it was built in another age, it is perfectly capable of working once more.

“Go ahead and kick the throttle on,” sang out Larry Hoffman Thursday morning, and Matt Krattiger kicked the throttle on, and the chippy hoist engine at the Steward Mine leapt smoothly out of the tar pit and into this century.

The sight of the 1,500-horsepower engine turning is, in 2017, a fearsome and wonderful thing. What was routine a hundred years ago is now exquisitely rare — and unforgettable.

Made in 1912 in Milwaukee from long-lost blueprints under the personal supervision of the Finnish sea captain and industrialist Bruno Nordberg, the hoist was the very latest thing, running on compressed air.

Nordberg compressed-air hoists were ordered for 11 mines in Butte, and a massive compressed-air system was piped all over the hill, producing more than 60,000 cubic feet a minute, the air heated to 450 degrees because it worked better that way.

FIVE-MINUTE FIX

Larry Hoffman, former miner, Montana Tech alumnus, and professor, decided to take a look at the Steward chippy hoist in August. The padlock on the door did not respond to any known combination, so Butte-Silver Bow’s Bob Lazzari cut it off, and Hoffman went in. What he saw left him thrilled.

“Every other hoist in Butte has been badly vandalized,” Hoffman said. “They’ve taken the copper fittings. When I got into this one, I saw that only two fittings were missing in the complicated valve mechanism, and that meant we had a chance.”

He and fellow enthusiasts Krattiger and Loch Gordon realized that with almost all the parts intact, there was a good chance they could make the hoist engine — last operated in 1978 — run again. But it was covered in “about five million pounds of pigeon s––t,” Hoffman said.

With the help of Montana Tech mining students and Butte-Silver Bow, they got the hoist cleaned up.

Critically, one sump was several feet deep in old grease and pigeon droppings, a sign of deeper damage. He got Eric Hassler, who runs Butte-Silver Bow’s Residential Metals Abatement Program, to send over the vacuum truck that is used to suck dust from attics, and with the combination of a fire hose and the powerful vacuum, they cleared the sump and discovered that, unlike Hoffman had feared, the only thing needing repair was a tiny three-quarter-inch drain pipe. “A five-minute fix!” he said.

They drained the engine of “about 200 gallons of water,” but because the engine was superbly lubricated all those years ago, there was no internal rust. The biggest chore was to find and patch up leaks in the compressed-air piping and valves.

Four weeks to the day and a bunch of elbow grease later, they fired up the hoist engine. “It started and ran like it was never shut down,” Hoffman said.

“We brought Louie Loushin (a former hoist operator who turned 92 Thursday) up and had him pull the throttle,” Hoffman said. “It was something he never thought he would do again.”

Indeed, the old engine runs as quietly and smoothly as it ever did — as anyone interested will be able to see it Saturday during an open house (see info box). Another hoist engine, this one found and “saved” from a shed near the Anaconda Road by Mark Reavis, former county historic preservation officer, has also been restored to running condition and will be demonstrated Saturday.

Mission accomplished? Not so fast.

Next to the “chippy hoist” is the enormous main hoist at the Steward — a massive 2,500-horsepower hoist engine with two huge 34-inch pistons, built by Nordberg in 1905 to be powered by steam but then retrofitted in 1912 to run on compressed air like the rest.

It, too, is essentially intact, although numerous fittings have been stolen, and Hoffman’s dream is to fire up the main hoist engine.

He fully expects it to be able to run again. But why wouldn’t he? Larry Hoffman has been in love with the main hoist at the Steward for 60 years. It is his muse, his Everest — perhaps his white whale. But he fully expects to see Nordberg’s massive creation run again.

BIG MINING MACHINERY

Larry Hoffman looks like he was not born but drop-forged, just one more hunk of steel in the engine room, and he has aged as well as the old hoists. A native of Lewistown, he mined for gold and lead when he was a kid, so when he got to Montana Tech and the Richest Hill on Earth in the 1960s, it was natural he would gravitate to the big mining machinery.

As a Tech student in mining engineering, he would come to the Steward's main hoist building and sit in a corner and do his homework — just to be close to the great machine. He loved to watch it work. After he did that a few times, the oiler and hoist boss set up a kid’s school desk in the corner for him.

The main hoist was devoted to bringing ore to the surface, and so the huge machine was engineered to haul 60,000 pounds at a time, 5,000 feet up. Its twin pistons, enclosed in massive, bolted cast-iron cases, are 34 inches in diameter. A piston ring for one is propped casually against a casing, as if it were waiting to be installed.

The huge hoist wheels have hardwood brake shoes, last changed in 1946, with plenty of wear left on them.

Massive chains and pulleys, designed to be hand-pulled, web their way around the huge machine. In the foreman’s office, a chalkboard still carries scrawled details of the last shift’s operations. The “telltale,” a complex graphing machine, recorded the hoist’s every pull, so productivity could be monitored. Equally complicated governors, designed to shut the hoist off automatically if the operator became unresponsive, still carry their stainless steel alarm bells.

They look as though they’d work just fine.

A fearsome bank of massive electrical switches, complete with guard pieces designed to prevent a disastrous arcing short circuit, testify to the enormous load needed to power up the huge compressors. Finding someone with the nerve to pull those handles would not be easy today — but getting the hoist engine itself operational would not require the restoration of that enormous electrical system.

Hoffman estimates the main hoist project would take $10,000 and a couple of months’ volunteer labor after the money was raised. They will need to fundraise in any event to continue demonstrating the two restored hoists. “It costs about a dollar a minute to run them,” he said. “But if we got the big one running, it might cost five bucks a minute.”

He sees no reason why the project should not succeed. He has a couple of other hoists around town to cannibalize from, and some parts can be re-machined.

“We proved ourselves next door,” he said, pointing his chin toward the chippy hoist. “We got that one going, and we can get this one going, too.”

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