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Historic steam engine to return to Braintree after 125 years

Posted by Jessica Bartlett  May 1, 2013 01:29 PM

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After four years of searching, and a significant amount of coordination, a 125-year-old steam engine is about to make its return to Braintree.

Crafted at the Fore River Engine Company in East Braintree, which was operational from 1883-1900, the steam engine has come to symbolize the work done at the historic site, founded and owned by telephone co-inventor Thomas Watson.

For James Fahey, director of the Braintree Historical Society’s Museum and Research Center, the relocation of the artifact is a tangible dream.

“I always wanted something back, and I have it,” Fahey said. “It’s a piece of art. But I wanted to bring it back to where it was born.”

The Shipyard, which would eventually move to Quincy in the early 1900s due to space constraints, started after Watson helped invent the telephone, producing steam engines for use in ships.

According to Fahey, Watson’s company built two navy destroyers and a pleasure craft, eventually receiving a navy contract for the U.S. Des Moines, which was too large to construct at the Braintree site.

The entire operation moved to Quincy shortly thereafter, but Braintree locals have been seeking for a way to revive the history in recent years. A working steam engine could do just that, Fahey said.

“[Trying] to locate something like that from long ago is pretty difficult. I did find one in a museum in Maine but it wasn’t in the best condition. I found two more in a farm in Vermont … they were in very poor conditions. Then I found another at MIT – it’s small. But this one here is museum quality. It will really be an eye opener,” Fahey said.

The engine, which was constructed in 1888, spent its seafaring days aboard the U.S. mail ship the Columbia, transporting mail packages across Lake Winnipesauke for 25 years. The ship was dismantled after its retirement, and the engine came to be owned by a man in New Hampshire,

Ted Valpey, the owner, restored the engine, and agreed to permanently loan the artifact to Braintree. And after 125 years, the machine still runs.

The machine will be returned to the spot it was constructed, at the site of the Watson Park Branch Library building, on Saturday in a ceremony from 2 p.m. till 3 p.m. From there, the antique will be permanently stored at the Braintree Historical Society Museum, across from Town Hall.

“Where that engine will be shown, Thomas Watson can see it,” Fahey said. “He was buried in a cemetery in Weymouth - North Cemetery - that overlooks the shipyard.”

Fahey is hoping to create an entire exhibit based off the machine, and is currently looking for records of the steam engines constructed or manuals of how it operated.

A grand opening at the Historical Society museum will be hosted in July or June for the exhibit.

“It’s a unique piece of history that’s returned to Braintree,” Fahey said.

Though the engine will be permanently showcased elsewhere, Fahey said the town constructed a plaque to go on the Watson Library to signify the shipyard and its history.

Mayor Joseph Sullivan and other local dignitaries will help commemorate the plaque and also welcome the machine back into the town. Representatives from the Navy will also be in attendance, Fahey said.

“We’ll have a lot of VIP’s, local mayors. It will be quite the event,” Fahey said. “After 125 years, the thing is gorgeous… It’s going to be a good teaching tool to institutions.”

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