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Light of the Lantern
Bell Engines

by G. W. O' Connor 


 A former Bell employee's recollection, transcribed from "Railroad" - February 1946  - see Note

BACK in 1908 a young man climbed into a Stanley Steamer at Yonkers, New York, one morning, and rattled across the Bedford Hills in a cloud of dust and chicken feathers, bound for Chappaqua.  It took a born mechanic to urge an automobile over twenty miles of unpaved highways in those days, and the purpose of the trip gave a further clue to the driver's inclinations.  He wanted to see for himself the greatest engineering feat of the era—the huge Catskill adquaduct at that time being pushed across Westchester County, enroute to a couple of million New York City water faucets.

        Pulling to the side of the road at Chappaqua, the young man watched a chain of cement cars being inched along a narrowgauge construction railway by two little gasoline dinkies.  Chances are the aquaduct workers found his steam-driven horseless carriage equally interesting—at any rate he was soon talking with the boss of the outfit, a Mr. Baxter.

        "My name's Bell—Harvey W. Bell," the young fellow said.  "I'm manager of the Stanley Steam Automobile Agency in 
Yonkers. "

        He could have added that his father was mayor of the same city, but at the moment he was more concerned with the performance of the gasoline dinkies.

        "You know,"  he went on,  "I believe you could get more power out of the same size unit if you used one of these Stanley engines.  And it would cost a whole lot less to run."

        The contractor was impressed.  He examined the mechanism closely and suggested that Bell work up a design for an industrial locomotive of this sort.


OUT of the casual meeting just described was born the "Bell locomotive" which, for a dozen years, was to be a sturdy cart-horse of the construction industry; a geared engine which differed from the Shay, the Climax and the Heisler by adding moderately high speed to impressive tractive effort.

        The first Bell product, built at the Stanley Steamer garage in Yonkers, was little more than a steam automobile on railroad wheels.  Its chief novelty, from an engineering standpoint, was a vertical boiler built to withstand the remarkable pressure of 500 pounds to the square inch!   Of Bell boilers we will have more to say, directly.

        So successful was this first locomotive that others were soon in demand. Gradually they acquired more and more conventional locomotive characteristics.  Injectors replaced water pumps.   Oil, instead of gasoline, became the accepted fuel, and boilers were placed horizontally.   The relative locations of various parts were also altered.

        In one respect, however, Bell's locomotive retained a valuable automobile feature not found to so great an extent on other engines.  They were built almost entirely of standard, interchangeable parts.  Examination of the drawing . . . shows how this was possible.

        Notice that the power plant—cylinders, rods, valve-gear, gear wheels and shaft was a unit in itself, running in an oil bath and mounted much like a booster engine, except that there was no cut-out when it got up to speed.  Roller bearings were applied to all moving parts other than pistons and crossheads.

        This separate engine unit was applicable to any size locomotive, regardless of track gage; an important feature since construction railway orders called for a limitless number of wheel spreads.  Smokeboxes and fireboxes, too, required little alteration to suit different widths of frame.  Almost the only variables, then, were the axles and crossmembers of the frames.

        An additional feature of flexibility, from the construction standpoint, was the use of two Stanley engine units in the bigger locomotives, instead of a single, larger power plant.  This made for a reduced number of stock parts and sizes.

        The boiler, as shown in the drawing, was of the horizontal fire-tube, water-level type (not a flash boiler).  Turned out by the Stanley Steam Car people, its shell bras wound with piano wire, giving it tremendous strength.  A licensed engineer was not required to tend this safety boiler.  A great advantage in "dinkey" work. Practically explosion proof the design did away with the customary crownsheet, and had fire-tubes even in the steam space.  The full heat of the burner was deflected by baffles so that only a portion of it passed through these flues, protecting them, while at the same time imparting a small degree of superheat to the steam.  A soft plug in the center of the boiler guarded that member from damage by low water.

        The oil burner was operated by a steam jet which used the atomizer principle to lift fuel to a nozzle and spray it into the firebox.  When the jet was shut off, oil still in the pipe would return to its own level without dripping into the pit.

        Again referring to the drawing, we see that a sub-frame was interposed between the main frame and the rails.  Rigid journal boxes could be bolted to it because all road shocks were absorbed by eliptic springs before they reached the body of the locomotive.  This arrangement enabled Bell locomotives to travel over very rough track with little danger of going on the ground.

        Notice that the pulling power through these same eliptic springs, enroute to the couplers.  Back in the early days, when Bell had not yet learned the need for strong springs to withstand such strains, a set of them gave way as one of his engines started off under load, letting the sub-frame run right out from under the boiler in the best slap-stick comedy manner.
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BELL engines were used in all kinds of dinkey locomotive work—on plantations, in stone quarries and clay pits, and for construction work, throughout the United States.  They found, too, a considerable export market in Cuba, South America, and the Philippines.  One of their most interesting jobs was that of furnishing transportation in the long underground bores which were to become New York City's intricate subway system.  There they stayed, assisting in ballasting and track-laying operations until the job was finished.

        I was working with Mr. Bell at the time the Seventh and Lexington Avenue lines were under construction in 1917.  Our offices, then, were at 30 Church Street (the Hudson Terminal Building), and a loop of the Seventh Avenue line ran almost by the door.  Mr. Bell used to say that we had our demonstrating floor downstairs, and certainly we did take nearly all prospective purchasers down into the subway to see the engines at work.  When it was practicable we even gave them a ride on one of them.

        I recall the inventor showing some Mexican gentlemen how his locomotives operated. It happened that they were dyed-in-the-wool gasoline-engine men, and, to pile one difficulty on top of another, none of them spoke English very well.  They finally made it plain that they wanted to see the clutch and transmission.  Patiently Mr. Bell explained that a steam engine did not need that form of drive. It took a lot of time and hand-waving, but at last he thought he had them pretty well instructed on the fundamentals of reciprocating steam power and they started back to the office. Suddenly one of them stopped.

"Show us," said he. "Where is the magneto!"

        About this time I had the pleasure of operating a seven-ton engine, owned by the Contracting firm of Engel & Hevenor, which was being used in track-laying and ballasting of the underground.  The experience of running her under actual working conditions proved invaluable.

        One night a severe thunderstorm announced itself with a series of flashes that stabbed in through the ventilators.  Soon water was flowing down the stairways—spreading across the floor of the tunnel—creeping up the webs where they dipped near Houston Street—then closing over the rail heads.  On our first trip over this section we went very cautiously, only to find that the engine slipped too badly to make the grade on the far side of the submerged track.  Backing up for another run at it we spun to a stop on the opposing grade.  Only by see-sawing to and fro with increasing momentum were we finally able to reach dry rail.  On the rest of our trips we went through the "water jump" in a hurry.

        On another occasion, when the locomotive was standing idle, I was called upon to fire her up for a demonstration.  When I inspected the boiler I found that it had been drained.  The best way to replenish the supply was to unscrew the safety valve and feed water in through the opening.  It happened that the nearest source was a street hydrant, with a couple of lengths of hose brought down through an opening in the tunnel roof.  Examining this hose I found that I could get it no nearer than a foot from the end of the safety-valve pipe.

        Time was short and I had to do something.  So I wired the hose to the side of the smoke stack, aiming it, as best I could, at the intake pipe.  Then I went up to the street and cautiously opened the hydrant.  Since I couldn't see the engine from that point, I had to guess at the adjustment of the valve.  But when I got back to the locomotive I found water playing out of the hose in a graceful arc—straight into the center of the pipe.  I couldn't have guessed it tike that again in a hundred years!
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DURING World War I the Bell company built a few small gasoline driven engines. Probably the one which was seen by the greatest number of people was a dinkey which the Army bought for use at Fort Wood, New York Harbor.  It was operated, all through the conflict, on Bedlow's Island, where the Statue of Liberty stands.

        I well remember the man who came to the office to place the order.  He had an accent German enough for the Kaiser, himself. When Mr. Bell asked him what the steepest grade on the line would be, he held up his arms to indicate a slope of nearly 45 degrees and said "about like dot."  As I recall, the actual measurement was somewhere between four and five degrees, but for some reason it did took almost as bad as he had indicated.

        One of the remarkable things about this little locomotive was that while it represented Bell's first experience with gasoline powered dinkies, the job was ordered, designed and built, in exactly ten days.

        Today the stream dinkey business is just about chuffing its last. Gasoline and Diesel engines have usurped the place the little kettles once occupied.  But during their hey-day, Bell locomotives did their proud share of the world's work and it is pleasant for me to recall my experiences with them.


Note:   All text in dark red on this page was as transcribed directly from the article in the February, 1946 issue of "Railroad".
The article was provided courtesy of
John Taubeneck of Seattle, Washington. 

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