Wrong Turn Yields Large Fairbanks

Old Pamlico Ice and Light building

The old Pamlico Ice and Light building, original home of the Fairbanks Morse.

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195 Edgewood Avenue Franklin, North Carolina 28734

The single engine Piper taxied to a stop at the airport in Manteo, North Carolina, on a brisk fall day in November 1998. A sea breeze greeted me as I stepped from the plane, along with Earnest Durham, Earl Franks, Norman Durham, and the pilot, Lloyd McGowan. This day began for me in the early morning hours when I left my home in Franklin, North Carolina, to meet Earnest, Norman, and Earl in Pendleton, South Carolina. We then drove to the airport in Greenville, South Carolina, met Lloyd, and were soon airborne on a journey that took me from the rugged mountains of western North Carolina to the coast-a journey that only gas engine collectors can fully understand and appreciate.

We made this trip to the coast because of a chance discovery made by Reid Eassom. One day Reid took a wrong turn on the way to his home in the Manteo area. The scenic route eventually meandered along a canal and, from the corner of his eye, Reid spotted a set of Fairbanks steps providing entrance to a building. The abandoned, weathered building was located on the Pamlico Sound in Englehard, North Carolina. As Reid stopped to further explore his find, he saw a smokestack emerging from the roof, a sign that the building may be home to an engine. This theory was confirmed as Reid peered inside through cracks and dusty windows. The presence of a machine, which was barely visible in the darkened building, encouraged him to begin an immediate search for the owner.

According to local residents, a family by the name of Midgett owned the building. A search of telephone books resulted in a dead-end. However, Reid was persistent. Months later he saw an advertisement for Midgett Realty. He contacted the office and discovered that the realtor's cousin, Bernie Midgett, owned the building. Reid talked with Bernie, who lived on the Outer Banks, and confirmed that the building contained a large gas engine. It then took several months to coordinate our trip to the coast and a meeting with Bernie. When we arrived at the airport in Manteo, it had been almost a year since Reid's discovery. Our mission was to see and admire the large relic from the past, as well as learn about its history.

After a day of sightseeing, we awoke the second day, met Reid and traveled south from Manteo to Englehard. Our mission would soon be completed. Bernie met us at the building which had been known as the Pamlico Ice and Light Company. He explained that at one time the building housed six large engines, including a six-cylinder. He tried unsuccessfully to sell the engines in order to clear the building for other use and finally salvaged the machines for scrap iron. Only one engine, a two-cylinder, Model 32E Fairbanks Morse, remained in the building. The engine had been saved because of its location on a concrete pier in the back of the building, which made it more inaccessible than the other engines.

The flywheel was removed, and the engine was prepared for a 90 degree turn so it could be pulled by its end. Wooden beams spanned the space between concrete piers.

The rusty machine, with only traces of it original black paint, towered above me. The exhaust pipe still went through the roof, but the air and fuel lines had been disconnected. We found a hose and fittings at local businesses, used an air tank which was in the building, and tried to start the engine. It would only turn over and, with only a few tools available, we had to give up on hearing the engine run.

As we tinkered with the engine, Bernie began to talk about its history. The engine was purchased in 1935 by Bernie's father, P. D. Midgett, Jr., who was a North Carolina state senator. He had the engine shipped to Englehard, where it was used to operate an ammonia/brine block ice plant. The plant also generated electricity. Originally known as the Pamlico Ice and Light Company, the plant eventually changed its direction from ice production to total power generation and became known as the Pamlico Power and Light Company. Bernie explained that the Fairbanks Morse had endeared itself to his father's company because of it ability to run for months on end without a shut-down.

By the mid-1950s, small diesel generation plants across the country were being replaced by more efficient means of power generation. Bernie stated that in 1955 Pamlico Power and Light Company closed its generation plant, and the Fairbanks' work was done. He said the people in the community could not sleep for weeks after the shut-down, because they were so accustomed to the rhythmic drumming of the old engines. The Fairbanks-Morse was started up occasionally until the early 1960s. After that, it sat quietly on its foundation.

Bernie indicated he would be interested in selling the engine at a fair price. After a brief discussion, Earnest, Earl, and Norman said they would help me with the move if I wanted to buy the Fairbanks. My mission for this trip had been clear. It had not included purchasing an engine. However, I knew I wanted to own the Fairbanks Morse the minute I walked into the building. Therefore, without hesitation, I quickly worked out a deal with Bernie.

That evening, as the Piper flew west into a golden sunset, I had a new mission. I had to develop a plan to move the 21,5000 pound engine 500 miles across the state of North Carolina. This would be the greatest challenge I had faced during my 38 years of engine collecting.

It took about four months to devise a plan, save money, schedule a tractor-trailer, gather supplies, and coordinate the move with all those involved in helping me. A fellow engine club member, Stan Holland, assisted with the move. Since Stan lived nearby in Otto, North Carolina, I frequently discussed my ideas and plans with him. The remainder of the coordination for the move occurred by telephone.

In the early morning hours of March 4, 1999, Stan and I left Franklin, North Carolina, in Stan's ton truck loaded with a variety of supplies, including wood beams, planks, blocks, chains, cable, steel rods, fuel, etc. After a ten hour trip, we met Earnest, Earl, and Jake Harbin in Englehard. We only had a few hours of daylight left-just enough time to start the Fairbanks Morse.

We changed our intake air valve, cleaned the injectors, and changed the diesel fuel. After squirting some ether into the intake, the trusty old engine turned a few times and rumbled into action. Stack music filled the building! Norman was regulating the controls. The rest of us rushed outside to see black smoke puffing from the stack. As the 110 horsepower engine reached its 360 rpm, the smoke turned white. The Fairbanks Morse had been brought back to life after a silence of almost 40 years!

Bernie did not meet us until the next morning. He had not heard the Fairbanks run since he was a youngster, and I wanted him to hear the engine run one last time. This would be its final cranking in the old Pamlico Ice and Light building. As the engine started with a 12 x 15 inch bore and stroke, a smile spread across Bernie's face. Even though the sounds of the large machine would never again be heard in the Pamlico Ice and Light building, Bernie knew a piece of the Midgett family history would be saved. After this second cranking of the engine, hard work commenced.

We took off the flywheel and disconnected the cooling line and muffler. The engine was sitting on a pier about 18 inches high. Bolts one inch in diameter were embedded in the concrete, anchoring the base of the engine to the pier. We took the nuts off the bolts and began slowly jacking the engine up, one end at a time. Planks were put under each end of the machine as we jacked it, and were also used to balance the engine in the middle. We jacked from end to end until the engine was about three inches above the concrete. A torch was then used to cut the bolts and free the engine from the pier.

Stan drove his ton truck as far as possible into the building, and a winch was attached to the hitch receiver. Using the winch and chains, we turned the engine 90 degrees so that we would be pulling it by the end. A second concrete pier was located about 30 inches in front of the one supporting the Fairbanks. We had to get the engine across this pier and onto the concrete floor. Heavy wooden blocks supported beams, which spanned the space between the two piers. Round steel rods about 1? inches in diameter and five feet long were used as rollers under the engine. Slowly, the engine was winched across the beams, which were placed between the piers.

The Fairbanks Morse, flywheel and airtanks on the tractor-trailer, heading west to its new home in the North Carolina mountains.

Wooden beams were also used for a gradual step-down from the pier to the concrete floor. Once the engine was on floor level, we had to move it about 35 feet to the door. We again used four or five steel rods for rollers, moving the rods from front to back as the engine was inched along with the winch. After approximately eight hours the engine was at the door of the building.

Curtis Allison arrived sometime during the night with his tractor-trailer and was ready to load the Fairbanks early the following morning. The low trailer, which had a hydraulic beaver-tail lift, was especially designed for moving heavy equipment. The lift was lowered, and the engine was winched forward. Boards were placed under the engine to provide stability on the metal trailer. By mid-morning, I stood in the yard of the Pamlico Ice and Light building and watched Curtis drive out of sight with the engine, flywheel, and two air tanks chained into place on the trailer. The experience and hard work of my friends had made the successful move possible.

My mountain-to-coast journey, which began that day in November 1998, was completed when the engine was safely unloaded at my home. Before the 10 ton machine was off the trailer, I began making plans for its future. These plans (which I continue to work on) included doing the minor restoration work needed on the engine, purchasing and restoring a tractor-trailer from the '50s or '60s, taking the Fairbanks Morse to engine shows-and so, new journeys begin.