Joyce Marie Taylor
Live Oak —
Steve Hall of Live Oak has had a passion for steam-powered engines for many years and he recently showed off his 1920 steam-powered tugboat named Ajax at the 24th Annual Antique Tractor and Engine Show at Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park in White Springs recently; a working tugboat no less.
Hall was born and raised in Washington, D.C. and later moved to western Pennsylvania. He and his wife Darlene now live in Live Oak and can lay claim to something most folks can’t - ownership of a steam powered water vessel that was pulled from the bottom of the Baltimore Harbor and restored. It was during a hurricane the Ajax sank, but Hall wasn’t certain which hurricane, or whether it was 1968 or 1969.
After the boat was retrieved from the harbor it was stored in a barn for many years. It was eventually shipped up to New Hampshire Boatwrights for repairs, which included replacing one side and putting a new bottom on the boat.
The Walatka Boat Shop, which is down near Palatka, built the cab for the boat and once it was completed the first test run was done in Silver Springs.
There was still rotted wood in the roof and the fore and aft decks, but overall, Hall said the hull was in excellent shape. The old boiler had unfortunately bitten the dust from age and neglect. In Hall's opinion, the boiler was too small for the boat, anyway, so he installed a larger, more modern one. It was truly a task of love and determination just trying to get the old one out without further damaging the main structure.
“The tin bucket covering the smokestack had a big hole rotted through the middle and water had been pouring down the stack into the old boiler,” Hall wrote in an online journal.
He also said the flue sheet and tubes were shot and rotted out.
“The two cylinder, 10 horsepower compounding steam engine is the original engine that was on the boat when I bought it,” said Hall.
Ajax, he said, can get up to 6 knots on the water, but it can't sustain that speed for long. Since the boat has a flat bottom, he said, only the large keel hangs down in the water.
Getting the boat onto the trailer was a challenge at first, but Hall now has it down to a science.
“I can just float it up on there,” he said. “I can load this thing up on my trailer by myself and unload it by myself.”
Running the boat literally costs nothing because it runs on steam from burning wood. Hall said he likes to use dried cherry wood because it burns hotter than other types of wood. If cherry wood isn't available he uses hard oak, but he said it doesn't put out as much heat as the cherry.
The big cost is the diesel fuel to trailer the boat back and forth to different events and river excursions.
After all the extensive restoration to Ajax, the Hall's are proud to take their friends out on leisurely trips, usually up and down the Mount Dora Canal and the Dead River. Hall said the sight of the tugboat chugging along the river is reminiscent of scenes from the “African Queen”, a 1951 classic movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn.
Over the years, Hall has owned steam engines and steam tractors, and at one time he and his wife owned three steam locomotives, so their fascination with the technology is clearly evident and explains why they bought Ajax.
When asked how much he paid for the boat, all Hall would say is, “a lot.”
Aside from his fascination with steam engines, Hall indulges in another fun amusement which is burning wallets. You heard it right. Burning wallets. He gets a kick out of demonstrating it to anyone who asks. The novelty wallet, he said, is sold in the U.S., but he buys and sells cheaper ones that he gets from Hong Kong. In fact, he just ordered another dozen of them.