A DECADE IN THE MAKING: Sunraysia Steam Preservation Society volunteer Malcolm Bennett with the ‘Dragon’ steam engine at the old FMIT workshop. Society volunteers have been working for the past seven years to restore it to its former glory, with an estimated three years remaining to complete the project. Photo: PAUL MENSCH

THE Sunraysia Steam Preservation Society is currently undertaking the restoration of the historic ‘McLaren Traction Engine’ No. 438,  affectionately known as ‘The Dragon’.

The eight horsepower, single cylinder ‘Stump Grubber engine’ was manufactured at the McLaren engineering company located in Leeds England in 1892, having been purchased by the Chaffey Brothers for clearing land for the Mildura settlement.

The Dragon was one in a series of approximately 14 engines that were purchased by the Chaffey brothers. In fact, the last four traction engines ordered by the Chaffeys were of the same design and named ‘Dentist’, ‘Doctor’, ‘Demon’ and ‘Dragon’. (The Demon is on display in Fotherby Park, Wentworth).

“The Dragon was actually the very last one built and was designed for pulling out stumps,” one of the Society’s founding volunteers, and steam engine enthusiast, Malcolm Bennett, said. “The steam engine was then destined to play a pivotal role in the district’s development.”

Interestingly, the chief engineer in charge of maintaining the steam engines was named Peter McLaren, a relative of McLaren Manufacturers, and was even the company’s Melbourne representative.

He came to Mildura with the engines and subsequently married into the Chaffey family.

The restoration of the engine commenced in 2010 and still has three to four years to go, making it a solid 10-year project.

“Initially there were only two volunteers, of which I was one, but over the years we have developed into a group of five or more enthusiasts who help out,” Malcolm said.

In 1895 the Chaffey Brothers went into receivership, and eventually the engine became the property of Mr F.C. Gray from Cohuna. As the years passed, the Dragon performed a variety of work, including the construction of the Torrumbarry Lock and Weir between 1919 and 1924, and the Mildura Lock and Weir from 1924 to 1927.

However, during work on the Mildura Lock, the engine’s boiler was condemned in 1925, by which time it was under the ownership of the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission.

“After it was taken out of service, crucial repairs were then undertaken at the Cowleys Eureka Boiler Works in Ballarat, which saw a new firebox installed, new girder stays, a tube plate and new tubes, all of which cost a total of 195 Pounds – quite a sum in those days,” Malcolm said.

In 1946 local sawmiller Max Anderson drove the Dragon from the bush to Rio Vista, the home of W. B. Chaffey, and donated it to the people of Mildura.

In another milestone, in 1963, it was put on display alongside the ‘Billabong’ Chaffey pumping engine in the park opposite Rio Vista.

Then in 1985 when this display was dismantled, the Dragon and the Chaffey pumping engine was transported to the old First Mildura Irrigation Trust (FMIT) workshop where the engine is now being restored.

The FMIT evolved from the original Chaffey Irrigation Company, and so the location would seem fitting.

Malcolm points out that the major work being done at the moment is the installation of a new ‘plate’ inside the boiler: “Which entails ‘lining everything up’ and drilling 52 holes. The plates rust out and need to be replaced periodically.”

“These days we can treat the water with chemicals to minimise the corrosion,” he added.

When the restoration is complete, the engine will be fully operational, however the logistics of moving it around may be difficult, but the Society certainly hopes to display it somewhere.

Naturally a project like this requires funding, with Mildura Rural City Council awarding an initial grant of $6000 to the Society to enable work to commence, but with the total project cost likely to exceed $20,000, more money is required.

“Some additional funds have come from the proceeds of admissions and donations received from the ‘running days’ at the Psyche Bend display of the Chaffey steam engine and pump, which the Society maintains as one of its main functions,” Malcolm said.

Anyone wishing to donate funds or services to the Society can contact Malcolm on 0417 125 607 for more information.