Vintage Mining Engine Chugs Anew

Fairbanks Morse engine

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P.O. Box 36 Spanaway, Washington 98387

Rummaging around old junk yards in Alaska yielded quite a treasure for Warren Lofquist of Eatonville, Washington. While trail riding and exploring old mining trails, he discovered a vintage Fairbanks-Morse engine in the discarded remains of an old mining operation.

'You find many old mills and mining shacks collapsed on themselves up in that country,' he notes. 'In Alaska's back country, you see old mining machinery, dozers, power plants and such, all left there by old time miners.'

He was told miners were required to clean up the old equipment, when their mines closed down, but scrap prices were so low it didn't pay to haul it out, so much of it was just left, or buried, there.

Exhaust pumps from the Fairbanks Morse engine as Lofquist makes an adjustment. Note 'stick' in front of Lofquist, a tree branch used as a clutch lever over 60 years ago.

Somewhere north of Fairbanks, Warren came across an abandoned mine. A little research told him four partners started up this particular mine around 1910.

'The mine apparently ran sporadically until about 1940,' he said. 'But was never economical. The mine consisted of a shaft dug through hard rock, some 2,000 feet into a hillside, mostly dug by hand and with powder. Miners worked under the permafrost, so no framing inside the mine was necessary. They would pile the gravel outside during the winter and work on separating gold all summer. They would keep the mine itself closed in the summer so the permafrost wouldn't melt.'

Up until the time my friend discovered the one-cylinder 1916 Model Z Fairbanks-Morse, 10 HP, 350 rpm engine, many pages had fallen from many, many calendars while harsh Alaskan winters continually buried the mine debris and equipment in snow drifts. The sounds that had echoed through the wilderness from the once noisy mining equipment as it worked to separate gold from ore, had long ago fallen silent. The machinery slowly rusted away.

Lofquist primes engine with gas. Note 'stick' on left. Appears to be a vintage tree branch used by the miners over 60 years ago as a clutch lever for pulling clutch in and out. Lofquist retried it near where he found the engine.

Warren discovered the Fairbanks-Morse engine in a shed that had fallen down around it. 'Trees were growing up through parts of it. The engine had not run for over sixty years.'

A machinist by trade, now retired, Warren could picture the engine back in his shop. With some tinkering and lots of cleaning he could imagine hearing the engine's rhythmic puffing and popping sounds, turning the belt that ran a Herman Ball Mill, used to crush ore into a kind of 'mush,' he explained. 'The ore then went into a cyanide bath to leach out the gold, and from there the mixture went through a Mercury bath to separate the gold from the cyanide.'

After tracking down descendants of the mine claim, Warren got permission to remove the engine from the wilds. A D6 Cat loaded the vintage Fairbanks-Morse into the back of Warren's pickup truck.

Back home, he dismantled the engine and its two 40-inch flywheels. Parts were cleaned and oiled. He made a new exhaust valve to replace the original. When it was time to see if it would start, a friend came over to help. 'And the dam thing started right up!' Warren exclaimed, 'They'd closed the mine down sixty years ago and it hadn't run since!'

For this interview, at Lofquist's home, he towed the engine (bolted onto a trailer) out of his garage and agreed to fire it up. With a squirt of gasoline in the priming cup and a few hand turns of one of the flywheels, Lofquist stood back. Puffs of gray exhaust jumped from the exhaust pipe, followed by some serious snorting and coughing as the monster came to life. Occasional loud 'pops' followed and the entire trailer bounced to the heartbeat of the engine.

'S'posed to run like that all the time!' Warren smiled.

'There's no spark plug. A set of points inside the cylinder open at a predetermined time, causing a spark from the current generated by the magneto. It has a seven-inch bore, nine-inch stroke, and weighs about one ton. It starts on gas and when warmed up, runs on kerosene. I advance the piston to about stroke on compression and bleed out pressure. Next I add gasoline to the priming cup and set ignition timing to L (for firing Late). Then I turn the flywheels through the rest of the compression stroke and when the magneto fires, the engine usually starts. Then I move the lever to E (for firing Early). I am unable to pull the engine through a full compression stroke.'

In the wilds, cooling of the engine was normally done by using water from a nearby stream, he noted. 'But I added a pump and a small radiator for cooling.'

How does he stop the engine? Lofquist pointed to a kill switch.

One of the books Lofquist used for researching his engine is called, Fair-banks-Morse, 100 Years of Engine Technology' by C. H. Wendel.

Lofquist shows his treasured engine at Pacific Northwest events such as the annual Tacoma Model T Ford Club's Early Bird Swap Meet in Puyallup, Washington, where it always draws a crowd.

Thanks to hobbyists like Lofquist who appreciate the historical value and workmanship of yesterday's machinery, and who uses his hands and a lot of patience to save an old engine, the rest of us can now 'see, hear' and imagine something about what it was like sixty some years ago in an old mining camp in far away Alaska, where most of us may never venture.

(Editor's note: Pacific Northwest automotive writer Marian Dinwiddie's vintage car articles have appeared in various publications for nearly 20 years.)