No, I haven’t completely gone off the rails. There is a persistent rumor that the boilers in the basement of Boise High School (BHS) were of the same design—perhaps by the same manufacturer—as those on the Titanic. I’ve even heard that when James Cameron made the movie Titanic, he borrowed the boilers from Boise High, then put them back when they were through with them.
Nope. The boilers haven’t moved much since the first ones were installed in 1912. That was the year the Titanic went down, which may have contributed to the rumor. Moving the boilers would essentially mean tearing down the school, so the movie theory is easily put to rest. Someone would probably have noticed.
But were the boilers like those on the Titanic? Yes, they were. Sort of. They were like them in that boilers are much the same design the world over, as their function doesn’t vary much. Boilers are where water is heated by a furnace to create pressure and heat for some function. In the case of BHS, heat was the primary function. In the case of the Titanic, it was the pressure the engineers were after since that could drive the gigantic propellers of the ship.
Still, the boilers could have been a lot alike, right? Well, the BHS boilers are 11’ 9” long. The boilers on the Titanic are (though a bit damp) 20’ long. All the boilers are about 15’ 9” in diameter, but that’s about the biggest aha I found. BHS has five boilers, though they are no longer in use. The Titanic has 29, also no longer in use. Most of the boilers on the Titanic were fed by six furnaces each, as opposed to a single furnace per boiler at BHS.
The heating plant at BHS may not have had a connection to the Titanic, but it was titanic. It required three crews of three men running it around the clock, seven days a week during the heating season. The vast underground coal storage bunker—now under the administration parking lot—would be filled at the beginning of the season, and then a couple of wagons (later trucks) kept bringing more coal as fast as the men could unload it. Meanwhile, a couple of men were loading a large handcart underground, rolling it to a stoker, and unloading coal into the stoker almost constantly. An engineer had to be on hand at all times, controlling the pressure. In the early years, before automatic safety valves, that was critical. Explosion was more than theoretical. The basement where the boilers boiled was well away from other buildings initially and had concrete reinforced walls, ceiling, and floor.
The boilers at Boise High heated things up with coal from 1912 to 1972, when the fuel was replaced by gas. Much of the campus went to geothermal in 1983.
A sad footnote to the BHS boiler story is that a student, Terry Glancey, fell into the smokestack in the spring of 1979. He and three friends were drinking and had climbed the six-story smokestack on a Wednesday night. He would have graduated the following Tuesday but died, probably from suffocation, in a pile of ash in the throat of the stack.
Much of this information comes from the 2004 book Temple of Liberty, Boise High School Defines a Frontier Town, by Dean Worbois, which is a fascinating read.