Flight of the Flywheels

Rock mountain

Content Tools

1340 W. Glenn Street, Tucson, Arizona 85705-4030

Rumors of a large engine in the hills of southern Arizona came my way a few years ago. When a friend and I canceled plans to go look at the engine, he said he had seen it years earlier and was willing to lead me there.

After searching around for a few hours, we spotted the Fairbanks-Morse engine in a deep ravine, 200 feet from the nearest washed-out, 4-wheel drive road. After talking to the owner of the mining claim, we struck a deal. He laughed as he took my money, thinking I could not move the 10,000+ pound F-M.

First of all, the mountains are very rugged in this area of Arizona and a large 4-wheel drive truck would be required to even get near the recovery site.

The F-M engine was 30 HP with a date of October 12,1903 and serial number 54QK1, head number 31696. The F-M sat perched on a small ledge of built-up rubble about mid-point on the side of a rock mountain. Several mining tunnels at the top of the hill fed an ore bin made of wood that sat next to the F-M. The powerful engine turned a ball mill, which made short work of the rich ores. A little Hercules engine of 3 HP pumped water from the stream 150 feet below to cool the F-M and mix with the ore during crushing.

Some parts had been removed from the old work-horse and pushed into the canyon for sport. The belt wheel was found about a mile down the canyon, crushed and rusting in a bend in a stream. The nameplates, connecting rod bearing and cap were probably taken by souvenir hunters.

Every step in the recovery was going smoothly when disaster struck! Picture 4,000 lbs. or so of cast iron flywheels and steel crank, 30 feet up from its perch on a 50 degree incline, when the cable dropped to the ground. At first I figured that the three small trees of less than 10 inches in diameter that we had attached our cable to had been pulled out of the ground by the roots. I could only imagine being swept into the canyon below by the tree limbs. There was nowhere to run.

The flywheels started to roll back and gather speed. Everything was happening in slow motion. There were one, two, three revolutions of the wheels. I felt sick as disaster was in the making. One flywheel dropped off a stone retaining wall; the flywheel rolled end over end and headed in a new direction, to my great surprise, of 90 degree parallel to the cliff edge.

Well, it was very nice to be alive, but we were now further away and 10 feet lower than before with one shattered flywheel. We called it an early day and headed for home, several hours drive away.

Blessings come in several forms. If the wheels had rolled into the canyon, I would have walked away from the project. I'd had a major setback, but was not defeated. That evening my wife and I completed a project we had worked on for more than a year, and our son was born. But that's another story in itself.

A few weeks later, I was back with new equipment and tactics. What I thought was my strongest piece of equipment had been the part that had failed me. It was inch cable end , that had not been properly joined to the connector. The cable end was not frayed when the hot metal was poured into the connector and it simply unscrewed at a very low load.

Sometime later, I was showing my broken flywheel to the man I had bought the defective cable from. He said, 'If I had known you were going to use it, I would have told you the connection was defective.' What was he thinking?

The engine, I suppose, could be run on one flywheel, but two would be nice.

If you could help me get this work-horse running again, please call or write. My phone is (520) 882-7073.