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Book Review: "Smoke Ash and Steam"

Steam Engineer to the Rescue


Vertical Boiler Types        Even though I love old machinery, and used to restore antique Studebakers in a backyard shop, technical manuals are not what I read for fun. However, I know that buried in them are gems of information that can add a lot to the social histories that are my main focus now. Luckily, there are historians like Captain Robin Sheret who believe that "looking through old manuals makes fascinating reading." Sheret has taken those fascinating details on steam engineering and made them accessible to the rest of us.

       The West Coast of North America has one of the most colourful histories of any area in the world, and hundreds of books have been written on the boats and people whose lives have become so fascinating in the modern world, where very few jobs now offer an adventure like steamboating did. We can now only imagine what it would have been like aboard the little sidewheeler Eliza Anderson as she struggled across the stormy ocean to reach St. Michael in 1897, to cruise to Alaska on the luxurious Princesses, or to work under flamboyant captains like John Irving or Alex McLean.

     Having just re-read Arthur Knutson's marvelous Sternwheels on the Yukon, I was already in "steamboat mode" when Captain Sheret's Smoke Ash and Steam arrived in the mail, and a quick flip through the the 200-plus photos and graphics made going below-decks easy.

       In the first chapter, Captain Sheret gives just enough general history of West Coast steamboats to give the engineering details in later chapters some context. Through the rest of the book, he avoids what is often a strong temptation for writers to make their projects "all things to all readers." While the market may be smaller in the form that he chose to present it, Smoke Ash and Steam has earned a special place in my reference collection instead of being buried among many other steamboat histories. Of special note, the 6 technical chapters (Steam - How it Worked; Boilers; Sidewheelers; Sternwheelers, Screw-driven Ships; and Auxiliary Machinery) are designed to be used as independent research tools, without having to refer back for information. While this results in some minor duplication, I found it to be very effective. I don't expect to read it cover-to-cover more than once, but it's very convenient to carry down to the Klondike to see how the deck winch worked, and have the information all on 4 pages in Chapter 7.

       The graphics, drawn by Captain Sheret, are superb - large and clear, with extraneous material removed when appropriate. From engine layout to fire tube locations to water-level sight glass design, every detail is covered. The pros and cons of different designs of such equipment as boilers are pointed out, allowing an understanding of why certain changes, such as the addition of jet condensors, would have been made in a boat over the course of its life.

       As would be expected from someone who started his career on steamboats, the lives of the engineering crews are not ignored: "On smaller tugs and coasters the engineer would have to do a lot of the work himself, including firing in a lot of cases. Everything had to be monitored. The bearings had to be felt by hand to see if they were getting hot. Hot bearings were very common on the early engines. The rods had to be swiped with lubricant. Some bearings had to be oiled by hand..." Given the popularity of genealogy these days, information such as that may be crucial to understanding exactly how grand-dad lived.

       The one place where the book falls down is in somewhat sloppy editing of both the text and the graphics placement. While I consider it to be a fairly minor concern, given the overall quality of the book, a good review by an editor (no, not the software type!) could have made it an easier read. As an example, while it becomes clear to the reader eventually, Sheret's use of many different names for a single type of boiler is unnecessarily confusing, particularly when a graphic of a different type entirely is on the page you're reading.

       The best indicator of the success of a book such as Smoke Ash and Steam is to judge whether it fulfills its aim - to help people identify the parts of steamboats. So, after reading it, I toured the S.S. Klondike at Whitehorse, and the wreckage of the Tutshi and F. H. Kilbourne at Carcross. I'm very pleased to be able to say that yes, even most of the rusted pieces of scrap from the Kilbourne now have places in the little steam towboat that I can see in my mind. Thank you, Captain Sheret, for sharing your love of steamboats, and for your contribution to a more complete understanding of our maritime history.

The book is available at ABEBooks.com

Smoke Ash and SteamCover
by Robin E. Sheret
ISBN 0-921107-04-8
Published April 1997
8.5" x 11", 108 pages, 118 photos,
     106 detail graphics, index
$23.95

Distributed by:
     Cordillera Publishing Company
     Box 46, 8415 Granville Street,
     Vancouver, B.C. V6P 4Z9
     (604) 261-1695