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I’ll never forget the first time I heard it, an almost imperceptible throbbing in the Congolese night like a slow heartbeat, a drum of some great diameter. At breakfast I learned the sounds meant a steamboat navigating up the Lulonga, tributary of the Congo. A week later when I heard it again, I got up and drove my motorcycle to the river village to see it dock, offload passengers and take on wood for the boilers. Up close the throb and hiss were disproportionate to the speed, the crude technology as surreal along the equatorial riverside as they would be in New York harbor, where–in fact–a steam engine waits to be coaxed back to life aboard Lilac, until 1971 a Coast Guard lighthouse/buoy tender operating on Delaware Bay.


Below is the top of the starboard engine. Notice all the levers.


Blogging about Lilac makes me aware of how little I know about steam engines. Lilac needs volunteers of all skill backgrounds. I took this foto of rods from the lower engine room deck. I need to return here and study this engine more.


Lilac was hull #426 at Pusey & Jones Corp. in Wilmington, Delaware. Fir, last of the class represented by Lilac, exists in the Pacific Northwest. See current story here. I’d love to hear more about Fir from you all up in the Northwest. Unlike Lilac, whose oil-burning triple expansion steam engines remain intact if in need of “overhaul,” Fir was “dieselized” in the 1950s.


Spare props are secured on the foredeck, aka the buoy deck.


Check out the color-coded levers used to control the steam-driven crane for hoisting buoys.


The crew, except the master or officers, slept in these racks in the forecastle below the buoy deck. Imagine their sleep and dreams as punctuated by the throbbing of the twin triple-expansion steam engines.

A story I heard way back when and would love to corroborate is that steam engines taken from vessels dieselized in the US were shipped to rivers like the Congo for a second life.

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October 2007
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