When Al Crook was just a youngster in elementary school, he spun his teacher an amazing sea-faring tale.
He spoke to her about traveling from North America down to Venezuela for the summer. But the story got even richer than that.
“I went there on an oil tanker!” he told her, with all the enthusiasm a six-year-old could muster.
Naturally, that unbelievable story led the teacher to call Crook’s mother, to discuss how young boys like to tell fibs.
So imagine that teacher’s shock to hear the mother say: “Well, he’s telling the truth.”
What the teacher may not have known is that Crook’s father was a sailor, as was his father’s father, and an uncle, too. So it comes as no surprise that Crook’s own life led him out into the ocean.
Crook is now a marine engineer by trade — has been for 34 years.
“My father took me to sea when I was five years old,” he says, “and that was it.”
He has spent most of his life aboard tankers and ocean liners, working on their steam engines. It’s a career that takes him all over the world, and back again. But when he gets home, he doesn’t hang up his tools and rest.
He loves steam engines too much to leave them alone.
“I just love it to death,” he says. “It’s good old fashioned engineering.”
But his favourite steam engine is his 1928 Wallis and Steevens, which he’s been operating since 2001. He acquired it through a partnership with the Atchelitz Threshermen’s Association in Chilliwack.
“It was languishing in the back,” he says. “Nobody was restoring it … so I took the bull by the horns and they said by all means.”
There were some bumps along the road to outright owning the engine, and it’s quite a process to keep it legally insured, he said. But keeping it operating and sharing it with the world is all worth it to Crook.
Just as it’s no surprise the boy who went to sea at five years old became a marine engineer, it’s equally assumable a man who collects antique steam engines is interested in history.
Crook lives for it. He scours the internet for all bits of history related to steam engines, from his home in Hope. And when he’s done that, he heads overseas to where the story of his engine began — Basingstoke, England.
It’s listed as number 7985 in the Wallis and Steevens registry. Crook knows this because he has his own copy (see illustration next page). He also has copies of the original mechanical drawings for the engine, which he obtained from the Museum of English Rural Life, in Reading, England. It was purchased for the City of Vancouver, through Engineering Supplies Limited, located at 1114 Hamilton St in Vancouver, in 1928 at a price of $5,146. The engine went into service on March 7, 1929. It would have been busy paving roads at a time when Vancouver was growing quickly in size, and many of the city’s landmark buildings began construction at this time. The steam engine was used up until 1959, when the City of Vancouver disposed of it.
Crook has a folder almost a foot thick of papers relating to his engine, but not all of them are historical. To keep it running for exhibition use, he has to keep it insured. And that means everything from physical inspection by a boiler inspector, keeping a meticulous paper trail and even taking detailed ultrasounds, charting the large machine square inch by square inch.
“When I first got it certified, I had to do a complete ultrasound of the boiler and shell to determine the thickness of the materials so it would be safe,” he says. “It passed with flying colours.”
Keeping it operating also means replacing parts as they’re needed, and you can’t just run to the local autobody shop for an 85 year-old machine.
“I couldn’t buy these things even if I wanted to,” Crook says. “They all have to be handmade.”
He’s not aware of any other steam engine that is licensed and insured to run on the roads, although there are a few other steam engines across the province. But they are few and far between he said, as rare as the people who know how to fix them and operate them.
“Here in the province of B.C., there are about 20 of us,” he says. “We’re quite rare.”
He wishes that Canada would cherish the history of steam engines in the same manner that they do in the United Kingdom, where museums and historically-minded events abound. If Canada would promote its history more, he feels it would be a benefit to tourism.
“I go (to the U.K.) pretty much every year, for the last ten years,” he says, staying anywhere from three to five weeks each time. ” And I drop money at every one of them (events), every time I go.”
The Great Dorset Steam Fair is one of the biggest outdoor events in the world, stretching across an astounding 600 acres, for five days.
He would like to be able to show his engine locally more, but there aren’t many chances to do so. He was thrilled to be a part of the Agassiz Fall Fair parade this year, though, and being able to share his knowledge of steam engines and history with everyone he met.
“Everybody loves to talk about it with you, and that’s probably the biggest joy you get out of something like this,” he says. “It’s that interaction with people, and the people in Agassiz were so thrilled that I wanted to bring it to the parade.”
He didn’t do it alone. He’s had a lot of support from Ray Zervini at Canyon Cable in Hope, along with Richard Zervini. The steam engine was transported to Agassiz by Emil Anderson Maintenance, and kept at the Schwichtenberg farm before the parade. He also gave thanks to the fair board, for including him in the festivities, and he hopes to return to future events.
“That’s what makes it all worthwhile, people like the councillor’s (Holger Schwichtenberg) family who let me store it there,” he says. “It just makes you feel good inside.”