BENALTO — Growing up on a farm in rural Saskatchewan, if Ernie Beskowiney wanted a toy he had to make it himself.
“I’m from a very poor family,” he says. “I never had a bought toy in my life.”
Fortunately, he discovered an early knack for modelling the kinds of machines that surrounded him, and that he could run by the time he was nine or 10 years old.
“I’d look at a tractor and produce it in wood.”
A half-century later, Beskowiney is still creating through his company New West Live Steam. But to call his fully working model steam engines toys belies the level of craftsmanship that goes into his miniature idols to the romance of steam.
These are no electrical or battery-powered wannabes.
His engines run on real steam, just like their leviathan inspirations. The boilers are built in Ontario to the same specifications and standards as their larger counterparts and must go through a rigorous approval and manufacture process that takes years. Diesel fuel is burned to generate the heat.
To get an idea of the kind of attention to detail that Beskowiney brings to his steam engine projects, consider the research he did just to restore a set of plans where critical measurements had faded with time.
“I spent just shy of 500 hours resurrecting that,” he said, pointing to the large photocopied engine plans covered in hundreds of numbered measurements.
Each measurement was matched by the scale-down dimension — 1.593 inches to the foot — necessary to build a steam engine suitable for a seven-and-half-inch wide track, the standard size for most North American large-scale models.
“It was forensic detective work doing that,” he adds. Since he knew the size of the wheel, he could turn to a more complete side elevation plan he had to measure out other dimensions and painstakingly fill in the blanks.
After all, accuracy is not only everything in Beskowiney’s workshop. It is the only thing.
“To me, one-thousandth of an inch is a number I can throw a cat through,” he says. “I’m measuring everything in one-ten thousandths.”
In his well-appointed workshop, he turns blocks, sheets and cylinders of stainless steel into driving wheels, axle pumps or valve motion rods using computer modelling and high-tech machining tools. The mechanical ingenuity that steam engines showcase so well are recreated and assembled in a perfect homage to rail’s golden age.
Beskowiney’s journey back to the days of steam was a lengthy one.
After leaving the farm, Beskowiney trained as a journeyman automotive mechanic and spent a number of years at car dealerships before going to university for a year to get his teaching training. For three years in the early 1970s, he was a shop teacher at a composite high school in Regina.
He later joined management with Snap-On Tools and moved to Red Deer in 1984 to run a dealership for the next eight years. In 1989, he started up his own business, New West Integrated Technology Ltd., which created manufactured downhole precision measuring equipment for the oilpatch.
Never one to be left without a project, he did antique car restorations in his spare time. One of his projects, a 1915 Model T, sold for a record $35,000 in 1989.
By the 1990s, he was focusing on vehicle restorations full time. His 1931 Cadillac V-12 Sport Phaeton took top honours at a Detroit auto show in 2002 and was given an unheard-of perfect 100-point score by the Classic Car Club of America the following year. It’s a feat, he says, that remains unmatched. A 1954 Cadillac Eldorado he restored picked up 99.8 points.
After a dozen or so major car projects, he was restless to try something new. “Trains have always kind of been a passion of mine I guess,” he says. “I wanted to build myself one.”
His first project he built for himself, a 2-8-2 Heavy Mikado, a type of locomotive that was used in many countries including Canada, where the Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. employed them as their main workhorse during steam’s heyday. The 2-8-2 denotes the wheel arrangement: two small wheels at the front, followed by eight large drive wheels, and two more small wheels.
He modelled his version after Number 5400 built at the Montreal Locomotive Works in 1931, and he used the original drawings as his guide. The locomotive alone is just over two metres long, and with a tender the model is almost 3.4 metres long and weighs 740 kg.
Started in 2003, it took him three years to complete. A year later he delivered another version, 5404 for a client in Florida.
Among the rail projects now taking shape in his shop are three versions of the 6060 series U1F Mountain type 4-8-2 locomotive that is operated by the Rocky Mountain Rail Society out of Stettler and is one of the engines used on the popular train trips offered through Alberta Prairie Railway Excursions.
“It’s been three years since I started doing this one,” he says. “It will be four to five (years) by the time I’m done.”
Besides compiling dozens of plans, including a box full of work-worn original drawings, still stained with grease from a long-disappeared workshop, hundreds of photos have been taken of the running version at Stettler, and Beskowiney has become the resident expert on the workings of the massive railroad workhorse. When the engine’s multiple throttle needed overhauling, Beskowiney was the man to call.
“I’m one of the very, very few left that has the depth of knowledge, and that’s due to research,” he says.
Sometimes the volunteers who keep 6060 running come by to look at the model version to get a better understanding of how it all fits together and how problems can be fixed.
He is building one version for his wife Dorinda, one for a friend, and the other will go to a lucky buyer.
Another big project is to build a 5900 series T1a Selkirk (Texas type) 2-10-4 locomotive. Originally built for the CPR by the Montreal Locomotive Works in 1929, the engine was designed to haul heavy trains across the Selkirk Mountains from Calgary to Revelstoke, B.C.
The Selkirk was the biggest locomotive in the British Commonwealth in its day. A later model can be found at Calgary’s Heritage Park, but it hasn’t got the charm of the earlier versions, he says.
“I like the older ones better because everything shows, all the piping and everything.”
That project will be done sometime in 2013-14.
Beskowiney can’t even guess at the number of hours he puts into each model. “Thousands, just thousands and thousands.”
He routinely used to spend 15 to 16 hours a day in his shop, seven days a week on his hobby. He’s cut that back to 12 to 14 hours now.
Despite the massive amount of work that goes into each project, he is determined that it remains a hobby and that he does it on his own time at his own speed. He has no interest in setting up an assembly line and churning out engines.
Anyone who commissions a model pays a large deposit up front on the understanding it will come when it’s ready. “The moment they ask me when’s my locomotive going to be done, I give them their deposit back,” he says. He doesn’t like to talk prices, but his models are for serious buyers only.
Besides the mechanical challenge, part of the fun is designing and building pieces of Canadian railway history. “None of that has ever been done.”