I’m at Ted Tullis’s house in Porter Creek to talk about a steam engine he built. As I flip through several envelopes of photos on a coffee table, I’m distracted by images of a pink and purple airplane. Tullis tells me that he built it.
“You built an airplane?”
“Yeah, I’m afraid so,” he says.
I tell him I like the colour. He seems surprised.
“Most people thought it was a goofy colour.”
Tullis likes to build things. During the interview I learn, not only about the airplane and the steam engine, but also a Ford Model T. His affinity with engines is not surprising, as he was a heavy duty mechanic by trade. The airplane, the steam locomotive and the vintage car were what occupied him for the last 30 years. He is now 83 years old.
Tullis moved to the Yukon in 1969. As a mechanic, he worked on the heavy equipment used in road construction. He has an image of a crew he worked with on the Dempster Highway construction in 1978.
He also placer-mined for a few decades. Many of his photos are of mining areas near Carmacks – Mount Nansen and Freegold Mountain. He owned all the big equipment in the photos, he tells me.
He seems by nature to be drawn to vehicles of all sorts. This affinity appears to be the best explanation for why his vocation and his hobbies were both related to engines. When I ask why he made a steam locomotive, any definitive purpose evades him.
“Well … I don’t know, I don’t know,” he says. “Like, they’ve got clubs down in all the western states and eastern states and in Vancouver and just out of Victoria somewhere. That’s what old geezers do. They build a locomotive and they run it around on their tracks. I’ve been at the one on Burnaby Mountain. They’ve got a park there. I just always wanted to.”
He later adds that building a live steam locomotive and building an airplane were two things he wanted to do when he was young.
Tullis no longer has the plane, but both the steam engine and the Model T are stored in outbuildings on his property.
Tullis ordered castings and built the steam engine to spec according to blueprints. The outbuilding where the steam engine is stored also houses the machine Tullis used to lathe the parts, as well as the drawings.
“Those are just bare castings,” he explains. “Everything has to be machined on it.”
The engine itself rests on a table about waist height. It’s not as big as I expected it would be, but it’s large enough that a person could sit on it, with a seat similar to a riding lawn mower. The locomotive is in a few pieces.
But Tullis has photographs from 2013 when it was fully assembled. It’s the one time that he had the engine “fired up” or, to use the correct terminology, “under steam.” Shortly afterwards, Tullis had found that the engine needed more work and he took it apart. He hasn’t had time to put it back together.
“I’ve been so damn busy,” he says.
Tullis also shows me the restored Model T, which has wooden side panels painted green. He says he built it from parts that came out of “a dozen junk piles scattered across Canada.” It took about 60 years to gather together all the pieces.
The final piece of machinery we talk about is a snowblower in his yard. It’s bright red, and has a cab that Tullis built.
He doesn’t plan on starting any new projects, he says he’s too old. But he would like to get the engine put back together one more time. Once he does, I hope to go back and see it under steam.