Will Rise Again
Redoubtable Driver No. 2 Keeps Chuggin' Along
people believe the age of steam reached its twilight years back in
the 1950s, when the railroads moved to diesel locomotives. That
would mean that steam power would have virtually no application in
this modern century. Certainly for the Roger Rabbit characters
running the Diesel Technology Forum, steam is indeed dead. In fact,
there is no suitable alternative to diesel, according to the forum,
as diesel contributes $85 billion to the U.S. economy and moves 94
percent of the nation's goods and materials. The prestigious Charles
River Associates, who thoroughly analyzed the nation's transport,
construction, and mining sectors, provided these figures. And they
found a lot of diesel, just as they were paid to do.
Buried in this charming report are
a number of highly apocryphal statements, such as in footnote 50,
"We expect that nearly 100 percent of the off-road equipment
used in construction is diesel powered." That's a footnote! And
we are generally led to believe a footnote is where you find cites
for information, not speculation which, as in this case, is just
for the record, steam powers a majority of electrical generating
power plants, a significant number of Great Lakes freighters, the
majority of the Matson Line container fleet, a high proportion of
U.S. Navy ships (including nuclear vessels), and closer to hand, the
Port of San Francisco's two steam-powered pile drivers.
These two steam pile drivers help
maintain miles of pilings and groups of pilings (called Dolphins)
around the Port of San Francisco. It's a job loaded with jargon,
hand signals, and whistle signals that were developed in the days
before radio, when workers needed to talk across longer distances in
the presence of loud machinery. Sometimes shouting is just not
practical, so alternatives were developed: stop--a closed fist; up
the one line--thumb up, followed by one finger; one whistle-stop if
lifting or lift if stopped.
It's not all about driving
pilings. Sometimes it's removing older ones, sometimes it's working
with the underwater divers to rig for a pull or place some lower
supports. Sometimes it's lifting with the boom. Since the driver has
no propulsion, sometimes it's using the lines to pull itself
crab-like along the dock (called warping) or sending out the
motorboat with lines to pull itself to an adjacent dock.
what powers this Driver No. 2? There is a huge boiler, operating at
120 pounds per square inch, burning diesel fuel driving an old
logging skid. The skid was welded to the barge it floats on in the
late 1940s. The Logging Skid is even older. It's sort of a
semi-self-propelled, self-contained, all-purpose workshop and tree
remover. To move, it sat on steel sleds and attached a line to a
stout tree and then used its steam power to winch itself forward.
The engine drives three winches,
one of which counter rotates, so that the full range of options is
available. In its logging function, ropes would connect to saws and
it would chew up a forest, burning waste wood for fuel. In its new
application, the skids have been welded to the deck and the rope
winches connect to a pile driver, a slide bar (which moves side to
side and can lift things off a "Gant Line"), or an
optional boom, which can drive a lighter weight pile or lift, as
There is a hierarchy of jobs
onboard, the most senior being the Operator, or the person who runs
the steam driven machinery. He takes orders (depending on the job)
from either the lead man, who is in a position in the loft (up in
the framework), or from someone else in a position to see the work.
Assisting the Operator is the Spool Tender, who actually operates
the lines, slipping them into the winch holders and out, as needed.
Generally, an Operator has already worked as a Spool Tender, so the
two of them work harmoniously.
The whole thing creaks and groans
as if she were a sailing ship from the days of yore. But make no
mistake about it, onboard this is a team of professionals who work
well together. A crisis simply makes them better at it. Jim
Meisenbach, the Driver Operations Supervisor, noted that on the
Driver, you had to leave your animosities at the Pier Head.
"There is no room for anything but teamwork here," he
noted. With a main driver weight of 3,200 pounds and a Swing Lead
Driver weighing 2,400 pounds, this is nothing to play around with.
History suggests that these guys respect the heavy stuff they work
on--with only four serious accidents since 1978, they have created
an enviable safety record in any construction industry.
this reporter's tour, it was time to move the Driver forward. There
was steam up and the crew was poised around the dock and on the
Driver to winch her ahead. A stern line was kept attached and a
bowline was released to move her forward to the next position. After
releasing the bowline, the stern line announced that it had worked
enough and separated with a dry "pop." Suddenly, the
unpowered Driver was floating free toward the shore, with no lines
There was no consternation among
the crew. They calmly picked a new line and cast it toward the dock,
but the Driver had separated far enough for the line to fall short.
The Driver was still moving toward the bulkhead and the separation
from the dock was increasing. Jim Meisenbach went inside and grabbed
a lighter weight line that he attached to the heavier line. The
lighter line could be thrown across the increasing gap and pulled
the heavier line in, and the crew attached it to a bollard. With
less than 80 feet from a collision with the bulkhead, the crew
brought the Driver under control.
Your reporter could tell by the
lack of excitement among these regulars that there was never any
danger. It was simply a fallback plan; that is, what one did when
the first and second plans failed. Something they had seen many
times before and would see again. Professionals who knew what to do.
Rickey Johnson is the operator. He
has worked with the Driver for years, back in the days when the Port
had its own tugboat to move Driver No. 2 from job to job. He
remembers when both Drivers (No. 3 sits idle at Pier 80) had more
work than they could handle. While Driver No. 2 has enough work, he
notes there appears to be less as time goes on.
Rickey pointed out the logging
sleds still welded onto the base of the Driver and put her age at
sometime before WWII. The engine and boiler are a Dutton D-4860-3DS,
designed for logging, but with a good Spool man, useful for all the
work required from Driver No. 2. A brass plate points to time spent
working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Rickey speculated that
this is the last steam Pile Driver operating on the West Coast and
perhaps in the country. It is the end of an empire, where operators
know how and when to "blow down" the boiler to eliminate
scale or when to add water treatment to prolong the life. The water
injector on this Driver, usually a cranky device, has been set so
that by only turning one lever, fresh water from the 16,000-gallon
tank can be added with a minimum of fuss.
Bobby Keith, the Spool man,
pointed out the "gypsies"--the gears that could be either
rope powered from the main engine or ratcheted by a heavy bar.
Seemingly without any effort, he handled the lines around the winch,
either feeding lines to it, or taking them away. The trick is to
know exactly what to do and when to do it. Years of experience made
this appear effortless and simple, but to the newcomer, it was
clearly none of these.
So for the rest of us, Driver No.
2 works most days, putting in or taking away pilings in plain sight,
yet out of sight. It is a microcosm of industrial life, where people
must rely on the expertise of their fellow workers to get through
the day. The day Jim's hand got ripped by a broken line, Bobby drove
him to St. Francis, commandeering a police officer along the way.
When the doctors discussed amputation, a riot almost broke out as
the freshly arrived crew of the Driver refused to accept this
alternative. Today, Jim still has his hand and the crew has the
camaraderie that can only develop after a lifetime of working with
equipment that weighs in the tons.
For the crew of Driver No. 2, the
art of warping along a dock is second nature; 20 piles a day is good
production and popping a dried up line is just one of the many