Rydall Mill – A Steam Engine Story that powered a family.


On Saturday, July 31st, 2017, Superior Media was invited to go and check out a fully operational steam engine that defined how Rydall Mill Road got its name. Rydall Mill Road is named for the Mill that was owned and operated by the Duncan & Gladys Rydall family.

The Rydall family was having a summer gathering on Bar River Road, in central Algoma – just east of Echo Bay, Ontario. The steam engine was the centerpiece of that gathering – drawing generations into its midst – offering stories where history meets present day.

Barry Rydall spoke with Superior Media about the history of the steam engine, and how it helped to define a family legacy.

The steam engine arrived a year before Barry Rydall was born. In fact, Barry is one of 8 children born to Duncan (May 9, 1902 to Sep. 8, 1966) and Gladys Mildred (Mayauig) Rydall (1903 to August 6, 1968). Duncan and Gladys are buried at Laird cemetery, Laird, Ontario.

In order of birth, the Rydall children are –  Norma – Brian – Mona – Barry – John – Carl – Gail – Darwin. Mona (Ramona) died in infancy.

“A fellow by the name of Campbell, from Portlock, Ontario brought the steam engine up from Hamilton, Ontario to run his thrashing machine. When he sold it, dad bought it to run the mill. That was in 1935.”

“The steam engine was anchored to cement piers at the Mill.” said Barry Rydall. “My dad did custom sawmilling. Farmers would bring over logs to saw.”

Jim Abelson stokes the fire

“When I got home from school – my dad would find me and send me out to the saw dust piles. I would have to walk along with a pail of water – and put little fires out that were starting in the saw dust and slab piles. One of the reasons that we stopped using steam was because of the sparks in the sawdust and slab piles.”

Barry Rydall shared a story about a day, when he was a youngster, that a neighbor his father hired to keep the steam engine fired up for the Mill was running around the yard. “He was really panicked – He was concerned that the engine was going to blow up. If you keep the fire on and let the water get really low – there could be a problem. As it turned out – that didn’t happen, but it demonstrated one of the concerns running a steam engine could have. In all of the years the Rydall Mill used the steam engine to power the operation, that never happened.”

However, there was one day when Gail Rydall (Abelson) was about 1 year old, and woke up the entire household crying loudly. Her tears would be what saved the Mill that day from potentially burning down. An orange glow could be seen through the windows of the Mill.

“In those days we had a party line (telephone). The party line originated at our house. Dad roused the neighbours who all came out and helped to save the Mill. There is a reservoir under the steam engine that was used to help get the fire out.”

“In 1948, when I was 12 years old, the steam engine moved to Iron River, where we ran a Mill. It was pulled up there by a three ton truck. These (steam powered engines) weren’t the handiest – You had to wait about two hours to get the mill going and there was always the concern for fires spreading.”

Rydall Mill was built on what was originally the John & Catherine (McKinnon) Rydall homestead near Desbarats, Ontario. John Rydall arrived to central Algoma from Wiarton, Ontario.

“After the 1948 fire in Chapleau, Ontario, we went up to Rocky Island Lake – way up the Chapleau highway – and set up the mill there. We sawed logs for a retail lumber company out of Lewiston, Michigan. My brother and I ran the mill then with six or seven other men. The first year we cut around 500,000 trees, and then the next year we were up to 1 million trees. By that time, we were using a gas powered machine to run the saw mill. I was about 16 or 17 yrs old then. We were up there for two years.”

“The logs were floated across the lake, tug boats and booms and then a winch would pull them up over the jack ladder into the mill. My dad was very smart about building saw mills. We sawed on average about 12,000 trees a day. There were mostly red pines up there.”

“We built a bunk house and cookery up there, and when it got too cold we would shut the Mill down.”

“After we all started getting married, the Mill was sold.” said Barry Rydall. The steam engine sat in a field for many years on the Rydall homestead.

“Tom Buller, from Ohio, eventually bought the engine, restored it, and when he died, he requested that the steam engine go back to the Rydall family. Tom Buller took the steam engine to shows all across the United States, including Michigan when he was alive.”

“Jim (Abelson)  – who is married to my sister Gail, took on the responsibility of keeping it working when it came back to the family. Jim is very knowledgeable about engines, and how they work. Jim’s son (Johnny) helps him keep it operational. In all the many engine shows that Jim has travelled to, he has never seen a functioning steam engine like ours.”

Jim Abelson gave Superior Media the 411 on the steam engine, which can be seen in the accompanying video.

Thank you to the whole Rydall family – especially Barry and Jim Abelson for introducing Superior Media to the Steam engine. And in the words of Jim Abelson – whose prompts to pull the green line connected to the whistle – is often followed by… “Give it another one – There’s lots left in there yet.”

‘In 1698, Thomas Savery, an English inventor, patented a device that allowed for the use of steam to pump water. The steam engine that he created was used to remove water from mines. This design was improved upon by English engineer Thomas Newcomen in 1712.’

A steam engine works by either wood or coal loaded into the firebox and the fire heats up water in a boiler— which is essentially a giant kettle.

The boiler produces steam under high pressure. The boiler is a big tank of water with dozens of thin metal pipes running through it. The pipes run from the firebox to the chimney, carrying the heat and the smoke of the fire with them. This arrangement of pipes or tubes means the engine’s fire can heat the water in the boiler tank much faster, so it produces steam more quickly and efficiently.

The steam generated in the boiler flows down into a cylinder which pushes the piston back and forth.