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Kettle Valley Steam Railway : Big Iron / Little Iron

The year 1912 was a special one. It was an age of technical marvels with new developments springing out from every corner. Here we have two of them together on the Kettle Valley Steam Railway, as though it was always meant to be.

Beyond just looking like the perfect couple when seen together, the two machines on these pages have a couple important things in common. For one, they are both of tremendous historical significance—when they were built in their respective factories in 1912 they represented two very big developments from the world of technology—maybe the biggest. Another thing they have in common is that both now reside in Summerland, British Columbia—one as a key asset of the Kettle Valley Steam Railway, which served British Columbia’s fruit industry in the pioneer days of 1910-1915, but now exists only as a 16-kilometre stretch of track through a choice section of BC’s Okanagan Valley. The good ol’ steam engine “3716” carries tourists on a 90-minute ride along these restored rails. 

Montreal Locomotive Works manufactured #3716 in 1912 as a class N3B, which meant it held 10,000 gallons of water and weighed 16 tons. Though it was originally a coal-burner, it was later modified to burn oil and changed class to N2B: 7,000 gallons of water, 2,275 gallons of oil fuel. Number 3716 is one of 125 similar engines produced by MLW, but there were a few others built by different loco works. The steam engine is what’s known as an “external” combustion engine: fire heats water; water becomes steam; steam pushes a large piston. Seems like a simple idea but the execution is quite complex. Great structural strength is required, and there are many moving parts. 

Montreal Locomotive Works manufactured #3716 in 1912 as a class N3B sits primed and ready to go blowing steam

Then there is the boiler, heat and pressure lending credence to the courage of the operators, both engineers and fire tenders. The greatest engineers of the day were constantly looking for more power and efficiency. (Sound familiar?) I think it would require a larger imagination than mine to truly appreciate the value of the goods moved and the personal experiences of the passengers and crew this locomotive moved in its working days. Today in semi-retirement it continues to deliver a sense of what the old days were like. (Sound like the making of a vintage run destination?)

The other half of the dynamic duo here is a 1912 Indian owned by Steve Sopranos, who knows a lot about technology (Sopranos Superbikes) but has interests that have turned to the vintage world in the last couple of years. What we have here is a fully documented 1912, original, unrestored, two-valve, 42-degree, 61-inch V-Twin. Steve even has the original registration papers. We can’t show the serial numbers because there is ongoing research into the identity of the original owner. When confirmed the bike’s value and importance may climb even higher but it needs to be a secret for now. 

What I can say is, while quite a few “Regular” 61-inchers were built in Springfield, Massachusetts, there was also a very small batch of 61 “Specials.” The Regular bikes output seven horsepower while the Specials made eight. In those days one extra horsepower was a huge advantage and went to some special customers. The Specials apparently shared the bottom ends with the eight-valve racers so they could possibly be modified even further.

This was a time of fantastic technical advancements—as opposed to the comparatively minor developments of today’s variable power modes. (Has bike technology advanced to the point where all we can do is add gimmicks?) Indian by the way was the first factory to use the twist grip throttle, and ignition advance. 

Indian Motorcycle’s first production V-Twin was introduced in 1907 with “atmospheric action inlet valves” which were not very efficient in the production of about four horsepower. In 1909 came mechanical inlet valves operated by camshaft and pushrods just like many new V-Twins, with power doubling to around seven hp. 

Also introduced in 1909 was a full cradle frame that helped stiffen things up in the handling department. Model year 1912 was the last for Indian’s rigid rear end. By 2012-2013 Indian had introduced leaf springs though the improvement was debatable—a smoother ride but heavier and maybe a step back on handling. 

In 1916, Indian rolled out its new flathead Powerplus engine and the start of the next generation big Indian. 

All this development was taking place in a super competitive atmosphere. Bicycle racer and toolmaker Oscar Hedstrom and former bicycle racer and builder George M. Hendee (both used to competition) had got together in 1900 leading to the production of their first three bikes in 1901, using single cylinder engines manufactured by Aurora Automatic Machine Co. (later known as Thor). During an interview with Emmett Moore, an 83-year-old Hedstrom said, “We didn’t want any of our customers passed by a Thor so we had some tricks we added to the engines.” 

The name Indian was probably chosen because Hendee was already selling bicycles, and one of his most popular models was called the Indian. Soon enough they were duking it out with Harley-Davidson as well as a slew of other contenders. Soon Indian was producing a proprietary engine as competition was heating up with as many as a hundred brands producing various numbers of bikes—anyone with an idea and some skill was giving it a go.

1912 indian 51 inch twin sits before a 1912 N3B class steam locomotive

Indian certainly was able to hold its ground, and which factory made the best early bikes will be forever debated but Indian will always be in the conversation. The Harley-Davidson versus Indian rivalry is legendary, and I can still remember seeing an Indian ad from yesteryear. It was quite outrageous but those were different times. It went like this:

Harley-Davidson made of Tin. 

You ride them out and push them in. 

Buy Indian.

As the advancements came so did production. In 1912 Indian built about 20,000 bikes if you count all models. In 1913 the production run went to about 35,000 units. By 1914 Indian had 2,000 dealers and produced about 60,000 bikes, according to the World of Motorcycles Encyclopedia. The factory had become big business! 

Over a hundred years is a very long time, and to find an unmolested runner is no small task. Steve’s bike is what serious collectors are now looking for; unrestored (it’s only original once), documented, RARE, complete and running. This bike can be ridden! That’s not to say it’s easy to ride. A lever mounted on the side of the gas tank operates the clutch. This means starting off with one hand on the bars manipulating the throttle of the antique Hedstrom carb.  

The patina is correct, and even though the Indian name in gold paint has been worn off there is no mistaking what it is.

While you may not see Steve’s Indian, next time you are in the vicinity check out the Kettle Valley Railway—it’s history you can touch, which is worth way more than the price of admission. 

 (Special thanks go out to Kettle Valley Steam Railway Operations Manager and Chief Engineer Brad Coates for all his logistical and technical help in the making of this story. More information can be found on the Kettle Valley Steam Railway here) 

1912 indian 51 inch twin sits before a 1912 N3B class steam locomotive in a black and white mood image

by Rich Burgess Canadian Biker Issue #320


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