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The Iron Giant of Yankeetown

What will be the fate of this abandoned steam engine?

By Dr. Donald H. Keith, Chairman, TCI National Museum

In this 1984 aerial view of Yankeetown, the Burrell traction engine is the dark shape hidden in the trees.

In this 1984 aerial view of Yankeetown, the Burrell traction engine is the dark shape hidden in the trees.

One of the most visually impressive historic sites you will find anywhere in the Turks & Caicos Islands is “Yankeetown” on West Caicos. I stumbled across it in 1983 during a survey for archaeological sites. The little cluster of less than a dozen buildings, all roofless but with their stone walls still standing, was an eerie ghost town. I knew nothing about it. It could have been centuries old except for the presence of large cast-iron machinery scattered throughout the site.

The most impressive single artifact was an absolutely enormous steam engine on wheels. Seeing it for the first time, all I could think of were questions: What was it for? Where did it come from? This thing is gigantic! How did it get here? It must be at least eight feet tall and weigh many tons. Look at the size of those iron castings! How long has it been sitting here? How did they offload it onto this desolate island?

Visiting West Caicos and Yankeetown from time to time in the 1980s and ’90s, I was always saddened to see how rapidly the buildings were collapsing. But the massive cast iron machinery seemed to be holding up well. Over the years the little bit of research I did on the history of Yankeetown raised as many questions as it provided answers. The modern history of West Caicos is a series of failed enterprises starting with an attempt at commercial salt raking in the 1850s, followed by a scheme a half century later to plant hundreds of acres of agave, the plant that produces sisal fiber. The twentieth century saw similar failures that included schemes to build an oil refinery, mine aragonite, dredge out marinas and build a luxury resort.

The nineteenth-century industries were dismal failures, as articulated in the Colonial Annual Report of 1920, but the observations are just as appropriate for those of the twentieth century: “The West Caicos Fibre Company, the last of the many companies which from time to time have buried fortunes on this little island, passed out of existence in 1916. For some years prior to this, however, the island had been practically abandoned. Fine buildings, erected at great cost, had been demolished and spoiliated by passing sloops; and today there is the pitiable spectacle of roofless buildings and valuable machinery, representing thousands of pounds, gone to ruin amid the scrub—striking testimony to incompetent management.”

The “Iron Giant” has stood tall on West Caicos for more than a century.

The “Iron Giant” has stood tall on West Caicos for more than a century.

But none of the historical sources mentioned where the “steam engine on wheels” came from. It seemed a shame that such a rare and wonderful artifact was just being left to rot, but I could see no way to rescue it. It must weigh thousands of pounds and although it has wheels, they haven’t turned in one hundred years and are probably locked solid by corrosion.

West Caicos has been uninhabited most of the last two centuries. There were no operational vehicles on the island, and even if there were something large and powerful enough to move the “Iron Giant,” there was no dock where it could be transferred to a barge. The situation seemed hopeless.

That all changed in April 2009 when I visited West Caicos accompanied by Museum Trustee Robert Krieble and Department of Environmental & Coastal Resources (DECR) Chief Science Officer Marlon Hibbert to conduct a brief survey of an archaeological site near Yankeetown. Thanks to the kind offer of assistance by Ryan Blain, we hitched a ride on a Molasses Reef Resort boat that delivered us to the resort’s marina. When we arrived, I was astounded by the enormity of the development, which has all the infrastructure of a small but prosperous town—including heavy machinery. Suddenly, it dawned on me that here was everything needed to get the giant iron steam engine on wheels off West Caicos and over to Providenciales. We needed to talk to whoever was in charge. Maybe they would be willing to help.

At that time, the future of the Molasses Reef Resort development was uncertain, following the economic downturn of 2009. The fate of the “Iron Giant” of Yankeetown was not on anyone’s list of priorities. It was not until 2012, when I received an e-mail inquiry out of the blue from Graeme Glynn, that the pieces of the puzzle started to come together and a faint glow appeared at the end of the tunnel. Graeme had seen an image of the engine on the Museum’s web site. His first message was an eye-opener: “From the looks of the photo I will say it is most definitely a Burrell road locomotive, quite possibly a 6–7 NHP class engine. She is a single drive to the rear axle. Burrell primarily built 3 shaft engines. Being a double crank compound engine she was quite a powerful, yet economic engine. As she is a road locomotive she is fitted with ‘belly tanks’ these were extra storage tanks under the boiler. Charles Burrell & Co were based in Norfolk, Thetford England. They are probably best known for their Showman’s class engine—which were arguably the finest steam engine ever produced. Just how an engine like this ended up on West Caicos Island is a mystery! There were so many American- and Canadian-built engines that there was never any need to send for European steam engines. As the Turks and Caicos were a British dependency, that may explain the Burrell engine being there. Britain exported a lot to her colonies in the late 1800s early 1900s. Some of these engines are still to be found in Argentina, Patagonia and Australia. Parts of Africa and India are known to have some remaining engines also. If you are to move her please be extra careful as being so close to the sea all these years will not have done the engine any favours. The boiler barrel and firebox will definitely need replacing as will the smoke box. If there are any gears or ‘motion work’ missing these can be recast from patterns in the UK. Overall it would be a very expensive undertaking to get her back to operational condition but it would be most worthwhile. I am very interested in this to say the least so please don’t hesitate to ask any questions you like and I look forward to seeing your progress. If you ever feel like selling her to me, rest assured she would be returned to her former glory in a family that has been raised in steam!”

So now the Iron Giant of Yankeetown had a proper identification: it is a Charles Burrell and Company 6–7 NHP double crank compound single drive steam traction engine fitted with belly tanks, most likely dating to around 1900. If it was imported by the West Caicos Fibre Company, which was incorporated in 1891 and dissolved by 1916, that would make the engine between 98 and 123 years old now! Even more importantly, someone really cared about it. I assured Graeme that the Museum did not own the Burrell and as far as I was aware it was not for sale!

Over the next couple of years Graeme and I corresponded scores of times about what should and could be done to preserve the Burrell traction engine. He made me aware that there is a large and active community of “steam buffs” who research, collect and restore machines like these to working condition and operate them regularly at special events. I began to wonder if the Burrell on West Caicos could be restored. Graeme was adamant that the engine should be taken indoors, away from constant exposure to sea spray, as soon as possible. “She is in very bad condition. The rear water tender has completely rotted through, as has the boiler, firebox, smokebox and belly tanks. From the looks of it this will be a replacement more than a restoration. At the very least she should be covered in burnt oil or some other means of preventing oxidization straight away, or within a few years there will basically just be wheels and gears left. At that point she would only be good for parts for another engine.”

Getting the Burrell “indoors” means moving it from West Caicos to Providenciales. Graeme’s advice was to strip it completely, but cautiously, because we are dealing with something that is both massive and fragile at the same time. Separating the steam chest from the boiler will be particularly difficult, he warned, because they are joined by “carrot head” bolts which will be frozen by rust and corrosion. Even after removing the steam chest and wheels, the Burrell will have a dead weight of around three to four tons just in the boiler, firebox and chassis elements.

Graeme predicted that restoring the engine cosmetically would be almost as costly as restoring it to original operating condition. In either case we would have to make a new rear tender, belly tanks and smokebox. With all these new pieces, the current boiler would not support the additional weight and would therefore need to be replaced. There would be no way of “patching” these up as they are just too far gone to be repaired.

In November 2013 while pursuing other lines of inquiry, Graeme made contact with Eric Christensen, the CEO of the development company that is revitalizing the Molasses Reef Resort on West Caicos, and found a sympathetic ear. That contact resulted in meetings and dialogs between representatives of the Department of Environment & Maritime Affairs, Apex Development, the National Museum and steam tractor enthusiasts.

Rescuing the Yankeetown steam engine now is possible, but there are a number of thorny ethical and logistical problems to work out first. Chief among these is the question of who, or what agency, has the authority to decide the Iron Giant’s fate. Will the inability to make a decision doom it to sit where it is until it disintegrates? Assuming that the Giant “belongs” in some way to the government of the Turks & Caicos, will “insufficient funding” be the reason given for inaction? If so, should the Iron Giant pass into the hands of people who do have the enthusiasm, expertise and resources to perform a proper restoration—even if that means the Giant leaves the Islands forever?

Assuming that sufficient interest and funding were forthcoming from within the TCI and that we were able to disassemble the engine and get it to a safe workplace on Providenciales, what would our options be then? We could simply store it out of the weather and try to arrest further deterioration, or we could give it a “cosmetic” restoration, or we could rebuild it so that it actually runs!

A few years ago, the questions would have been: Where on Providenciales could that kind of work take place? Who would find the necessary expertise and oversee it? Where would the Iron Giant reside? Who would maintain it going forward so that people could see and appreciate it? Now that the Museum has property and facilities on Providenciales, the logical answer to all those questions is: the National Museum in The Village at Grace Bay.

Too big of a challenge? Too uncertain of an outcome? Too big of an expense? Perhaps, but I keep thinking of the encouraging words of Consul John Newport, penned 151 years ago in reference to another ambitious West Caicos project: “ . . . some day, not far distant, the labor there used will produce results commensurate with the largeness of the undertaking and worthy of the courage and skill, and energy displayed by the conceiver and principal conductor of the enterprise in question.”



2 Comments

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david eves
Jul 20, 2014 14:06

Would you please contact me direct regarding the rescue of the engine on south caicos?
My kind regards,
Dave Eves.

Donald Keith
Mar 24, 2015 11:18

Dear Mr. Eves,

I just now discovered your comment on the Times of the Islands Web site. Feel free to contact me regarding your concern for the Burrell steam traction engine on West Caicos.
Kind regards,
Donald H. Keith

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