Seattle collection offers one man’s history of marine propulsion

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Mike Wollaston can be found every morning with his friend Dan Grinstead engaging in their common interests, drinking coffee out of to-go cups and feeding a little flock of ducks at the Lake Washington Ship Canal in Seattle across from Kvichak Marine.

Grinstead is a semi-retired marine engineer, diesel mechanic, tugboater, ragtime musician and piano restorer who also revels in restoring the health of old and broken diesels. Wollaston owns Ewing Street Mooring and the adjacent Northwest Marine Propulsion Museum, which sits across a notably rough dirt road from Foss Maritime’s headquarters. Both men like the venerable relics, but this story is about Wollaston.

Wollaston has 25 or so museum-grade marine engines (and enough parts to build quite a few more) housed under a translucent roof in a Quonset-style shed. The hut sits among a cluster of buildings and boats that Wollaston calls home. He has his engines arranged as space dictates, the whole surrounded by parts bins and tool benches. In this riot of combustion history, he tinkers the dead and forgotten back to life.

An Atlas three-cylinder diesel built in the 1930s. The collection boasts about 25 engines in a high-state of preservation. All but one is in operating condition.

“I started the museum about six years ago,” he said, “but I don’t have as much steam as I used to have, so I’m running on slow bell now.”

First and foremost, Wollaston is a collector. What got him started was seeing people carting off all kinds of marine engine parts and paraphernalia to the junkyard “I thought, ‘Well that’s a crime,’ so I started collecting the junk. Then people found out what I was doing, and they started calling me to come out and pick up whatever they had.”

Whatever they had turned out to be old marine engines, some in boats, some in the yard, and others Wollaston had to dig out of the bush.

Truth be told and true to his nature, Wollaston has scads of artifacts with no connection to the marine industry stashed in one building or another, but his prime focus is marine. Moored at his marina is a Canadian troller built in 1933, with a working one-cylinder Easthope engine. Another Easthope, recently revived, sits by his workbench waiting for a spot in the museum’s shed or on a boat.

Wollaston has amassed his marine engines from myriad places, “Wherever they happened to be. We raised a 70-foot tug named Challenger and took out the Lorimer five-cylinder diesel, and I fixed it up.”

A Fabco Tuxham diesel built in Oakland, Calif., in the 1920s.

All but one of the 25 engines assembled in the museum are working. The exception is a Viking one-cylinder diesel that Wollaston obtained from Markey Machinery, a longstanding Seattle manufacturing firm best known for its big render/recover winches, common on modern escort and assist tugs. Unfortunately, while he was putting the Viking together, the price of scrap brass was high.

“The brass thieves got in here and stole all the fittings and parts that I had laid out while I was working on it.”

Most of the engines in the museum are small in size compared to the husky propulsion units in tugs and fish boats today. But there is one engine big enough to dominate the back wall. A Washington Iron Works six-cylinder 240-hp diesel, painted white and looking bright in the sunlight penetrating the translucent roof, was ordered by the Navy in 1942 for a YTM tug.

“The engine came out in ’44 and went straight into the shop and was never used,” he said. “I turn the crank every once in a while to pump some oil through her.

“This Atlas three-cylinder diesel was built in the 1930s. It came out of a fish boat and was laying in a farmer’s field when I got it and rebuilt it. This green engine is a Fabco-Tuxham built at a factory in Oakland, Calif. I dug it out of the woods, and when I put air to it, she started up on its own fuel that was in the tanks. It’s from the late ’20s.”

A Washington Iron Works six-cylinder, 240-hp diesel that was delivered to the Navy in 1944 for use on a YTM tug but was never installed on a vessel.

The engines in the Northwest Marine Propulsion Museum cover the whole spectrum of fuel types — steam, gas, diesel and multi-fuels. Many of them are rare, some of them the only known surviving examples of their kind.

By Professional Mariner Staff