Engine restoration planned for prison museum
ANGOLA — Seven mechanically talented inmates and some outside “old engine guys” are planning to try and restore a piece of Louisiana State Penitentiary’s history, a massive diesel engine that once generated electricity and pumped water off the prison’s farmland.
The pumping and generating station beside the Mississippi River levee was equipped with two 820-horsepower diesel engines and a 740-horsepower engine.
The motors powered generators that supplied the prison with electricity in the days before the remote West Feliciana Parish prison was connected to the outside power grid. After Gulf States Utilities ran power lines to Angola, the generators were used to supply emergency power during outages.
They also were connected to huge drainage pumps that kept the farmlands and buildings from flooding in the Angola “bowl” between the Tunica Hills and the Mississippi River levees. Smaller diesel and electrical pumps are used for drainage relief today.
Twentieth Judicial District Judge George H. Ware Jr., in private life an expert machinist who established an inmate-staffed machine shop at Angola, is leading the prison’s second recent restoration project.
Ware and a group of inmates recently restored Angola’s first maximum-security cell block, the Red Hat, to working order. The historic building will be featured on the Angola Museum’s prison history tour.
Ware said the engine work is another effort to preserve a bit of Angola and Louisiana history.
The goal is to rescue one of the three engines from decades of benign neglect, get it in working order and make the pumping station another stop for the tour groups that visit Angola, including those on riverboat cruises.
“Potentially it will be a good money-maker for the museum’s foundation,” the judge said.
Ware enlisted the help of Merle Bazer, of Batchelor, and Robert Mayeaux, of Pineville, who have extensive experience in bringing old engines back to life.
“I don’t want to insult them, but both of them never walked by a piece of old iron that they didn’t try to pick up and take home with them,” Ware said of Bazer and Mayeaux.
The inmates working on the project are Jake Ortego, Freddie Wilbert, Charles Winfree, James Rock, Jeff Haggins, Dana Jackson and Donald Wayne Holton, all of whom work as tutors in the prison’s re-entry program.
Their primary responsibility is teaching short-term inmates from several parishes such skills as automotive repair and welding that would provide them with job opportunities after prison.
Thomas Hill, 85, gave the assembled group a living history talk Friday, sharing some of his experiences in the pumping station. The Port Hudson resident said he went to work at Angola in 1953, a year or two before Gulf States Utilities extended service to Angola.
“This is all the power the prison had,” Hill said of the generating units.
“When I got here, the engines were already here,” Hill said, adding that some of the equipment in the station may have come from Camp Van Dorn, a World War II Army infantry training base near Centreville, Miss.
Hill said he spent 28 straight days working the pumps one year when the river was high and rains fell continuously.
“By the time we would get it pumped down, it would come another big flood,” Hill said.
Hill told the inmate crew that compressed air, at 210 pounds per square inch, was used to turn the engines over and get them running on their own. When all three were running at one time, their roar could be heard all over the sprawling prison farm, he said.
Bazer and Mayeaux will help the team overcome one of the first hurdles it faces, determining the model number of the engine and possibly finding a manual for it.
Ware said the engine destined for restoration is a Worthington Corp. six-cylinder engine, but the brass plate with the model number is missing.
The engine is 10 feet high and 18 feet long.
“This is the biggest thing I’ve seen in my existence,” said Wilbert, who said he had worked on diesel engines before coming to Angola.
“It’s going to be a challenge to work on something this big and this old,” Holton added.