October 11, 2012 | Volume 42, No. 41

Steam drill project nears completion

Renovation of an historic, self-propelled steam drill on display for 30 years at Portage Cove is nearing completion.

David Pahl took apart the six-ton machine last winter, replacing fir timbers, grinding and repainting its iron wheels and carriage, and adding a chimney to its steam boiler. He recently reassembled it on a new, concrete foundation at Lookout Park.

Pahl, founder of downtown’s Hammer Museum, won the $18,800 job to restore the drill to its former condition, but is hoping the borough will take the project one step further.

Mounting a derrick and drill bits and replacing tie rods and a lost steering wheel would give visitors a better idea of what the drill was and how it worked, he said. He also wants to add an interpretive illustration.

“It needs an explanation because it’s a complex machine,” Pahl said.

Pahl said he has found photos and descriptions of the 1903 “Keystone Driller” in historic catalogs. “There were a lot of them made. They were shipped all over the world.” Advertised as digging as deep as 500 feet, it could be used to drill water wells or to tap into oil or gas, he said.

“This was one of the first, mechanical drilling machines. Before this, you dug a well with a shovel.”

In operation, the drill likely wasn’t a pleasant affair, Pahl said.

A single steam engine that turned the rig’s large rear wheels also operated the drill mechanism. The drive train would be disengaged for the 11-horsepower engine to turn canvas belts and lift the drill that, akin to a jackhammer, dropped down repeatedly, pounding a hollow metal tube into the ground.

“To run this thing, you’d need a bottle of Excedrin. It was a headache from beginning to end. And it started with cutting a big pile of wood to turn cold river water into steam,” he said.

Pahl has found no record of who brought the drill to the Chilkat Valley, but said in the local goldfields its apparent use was for taking core samples. A museum photo that shows it working at Pleasant Camp in 1938 may be a record of its final use.

For decades, the drill rusted away at the side of the road near the present site of the U.S. Customs Station before it was donated to the City of Haines in 1983. A Boy Scout effort renovated it for display at the waterfront, but years and weather have since taken their toll. “It was getting to the point where it was falling to pieces.”

Porcupine miner Jerry Fabrizio recently turned up bits up between five and nine feet long that fit the machine and Pahl spent a day at the drill’s former highway site, searching for parts with a metal detector.

Pahl said he’d like to replace most of the drill’s working parts. “I kind of fixed it up like I was going to use it. That’s what I do. It’s not just painted… It’s been rewarding to build something that hopefully will be enjoyed by the traveling public and locals alike.”

Counting his hours into the project, Pahl figures he’s making about $10 an hour. If the Haines Borough doesn’t bite at his idea for additional work, the piece should still get more attention than it was shown in the past, he said.

“Like a wooden boat, it should be cleaned every once in a while. If the dirt’s cleaned off of it and it’s repainted every year or so, it will last a long time,” he said.