Skip to main content

San Diego: Antique Gas and Steam Engines


You'd be excused if your first thought on arriving at the Antique Gas and Steam Engine Museum was 'Junkyard. Big Junkyard.' But while there's plenty of rusted glory in sight, the Museum is much more than that.


In one huge place, the enthusiasts, a few paid and most volunteers, who keep the place running have created a monument to the power behind the throne, to the machines that make the electricity, that power the assembly lines, that move the material and mow the wheat and hay.


And, initial impressions aside, many if not most of the equipment is operable, maintained and rebuilt on premises. Twice a year the museum has its big exhibit weekends, with demonstrations of the stationary engines on Gas Engine Row and Steam Engine Row showing what they can do; quite a few of the vehicles take part, too.


While there are some smaller engines and machines to be seen, a great many of these are huge. How huge? Take a look, for scale, at this huge tractor's wheels. Below that, what looks like a vastly-enlarged gasoline engine that once ran the generator that powered Catalina Island.


An aside: museums are basically created by collectors, whether it's art, artifacts or tractors. The Gas and Steam museum seems to have formed a habit also of collecting museums. On its 55-acre site in Vista, North San Diego, it's also made space for a galaxy of sort-of-related exhibits which have moved in since the museum opened in 1976.


Among the 'tenants' are a sawmill, the West Coast Watch and Clock Museum, a short-track N-gauge model railroad, a blacksmith and wheelwright shop and a weavers' barn and spinners' cottage. Hours vary, and during the pandemic many exhibits were closed, so checking the website is a definite do.


Some of the machines are so complex in their layouts that they almost resemble Rube Goldberg devices, but one way or another, every one of them is designed, in the end, for one purpose: Turning a shaft to power work, whether it's generating electricity, lifting ore from mineshafts, grinding grain or powering a railroad.


Given that, though, I was impressed with the variety of shapes, from a single vertical boiler to a variety of horizontal ones, they're all there. And the gas- and diesel-powered ones were quite varied also. That chandelier? When this engine is turned on, it turns on the lights!


Granted, this kind of museum is not going to be everyone's favorite; I admit to being a bit of a gearhead and history buff, and old machines (and new ones) have a real attraction to me. But even if you go on a day when there are no docents or demonstrations, there are lots of signs with full discussions of where, and why, and when the particular engines were used—it will give you a new sense of what it took to build our 'modern' society and keep it running.


But, of course, the stationary engines are only part of the collection; there are also quite a few farm vehicles and trucks (sorry, folks: you won't find the family sedan here). Some were surprising to me, including this very early powered tilt-bed, and a number of others that clearly represent adding a 'mechanical horse' to a wagon.


P1140023More tractors than you can shake a crop at, too. They range from small to huge, and are powered by steam, gasoline and even some early models that ran on kerosene.

Included in the collection are some that were modified to run on tracks for local conditions.


It takes a lot of looking to figure this one out. It barely seems at first as if it were able to move at all, much less under power. It is a combined hillside harvester, capable of staying level even on fields with a slope of up to 30°. The first, invented around 1896, was pulled by teams of up to 24 horses; this one is only half the size of the largest ever built. This is a 1917 model; motors had been added to operate the machinery, while a smaller team of horses pulled it across the field.


And here's a pair of twins...separated at birth, as it were, and re-united in retirement at the museum.


The museum is open every day for self-guided touring, but if you want the full experience, mark October in your calendar; the next scheduled Engine and Tractor show is set for October 23-24 and October 30-31st. Many of the other on-site museums will be open then, too.


Congratulations to George G, who solved our One-Clue Mystery!


Images (33)
  • P1130903
  • P1130904
  • P1130907
  • P1130909
  • P1130916
  • P1130921
  • P1130926
  • P1130928
  • P1130929
  • P1130933
  • P1130937
  • P1130938
  • P1130939
  • P1130941
  • P1130944
  • P1130947
  • P1130950
  • P1130960
  • P1130963
  • P1130965
  • P1130969
  • P1130978
  • P1130998
  • P1140001
  • P1140011
  • P1140014
  • P1140018
  • P1140023
  • P1140025
  • P1140028
  • P1140036
  • P1140037
  • P1140045

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

Add Comment

Comments (1)

Newest · Oldest · Popular
Link copied to your clipboard.