Restored ‘steam donkey’ from Birchville Mine near Graniteville |

Restored ‘steam donkey’ from Birchville Mine near Graniteville

Rolf Laessig
Special to The Union

The Steam Hoist, or "Steam Donkey" as it was called, was invented by John Dolbeer from Eureka, Calif., in August 1881 and patented on April 18, 1882.

They had a wide range of application, used mainly in the lumber industry for pulling logs to locations where they could be transported either by water or railroad.

In the mining industry, they were mainly used for construction or lifting large loads, such as large machinery from trucks.

This spring, a particular steam donkey that was used in the Wisconsin Quartz Mine, part of the Birchville mine near Graniteville, Calif., was brought back to life at the North Star Mining Museum.

It was built by Marshutz & Cantrell from San Francisco in 1906. It came to the North Star Mining Museum in the mid 1970s. Fortunately, it was painted with Rustoleum by the Rotary Club of Grass Valley. This preserved the structure and the running gear very well, and in 2012, the decision was made to protect the steam donkey with a roof.

Starting in spring 2013, the steam donkey was dismantled and after a year's work, was restored to operating condition in the spring of 2014.

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Most mines had one or two of these steam donkeys. The steam donkeys were also used in the shipping industry for loading and unloading ships.

The steam donkey operation usually required three men: The operator or spool tender of the donkey; the choke setter, who attached the log or load; and the retriever of the cable, usually a boy with a horse, also called the whistle punk, as well as sometimes an extra man to provide fire wood and the water necessary for operation.

There was also a string attached to the steam whistle that was pulled by the boy to indicate to the spool tender that operation should commence.

Today very few operational steam donkeys exist any more, but hundreds are rotting away in the Western forests.

To exemplify the purpose of the North Star Power House, this donkey is operated with compressed air instead of steam, thereby providing an instant demonstration instead of waiting for steam to build up for operation.

This machinery was given to the museum by Stan Dundas, Melo Pello and George Pello in the mid-1970s.

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