20 HP Fairbanks-Morse Gas Engines Rescued in Alaska

Back from the middle of nowhere


| June/July 2004



Fairbanks-Morse, Special Electric engines'

The 20 HP Fairbanks-Morse 'Special Electric' engines, once used to power wireless telegraph machines, at the author's house in Fairbanks, Alaska. When this photo was taken, the engine in the sling was almost finished, but had yet to be run.

20 HP Fairbanks-Morse Type N "Special Electric" gas engines
- Two found in Tanana, Alaska, in 2001
- 20 HP, hit-and-miss governing
- Serial no. 66456 and 67307, built in 1906 and 1907, respectively
- 10-by-4-foot base, 5 tons each
- Sold in tandem with a belt-driven inductive alternator
- Eight-spoke, 6-foot-diameter flywheels
- Type N engines built in 5, 8, 10, 12, 20, 25, 32, 40, 50 and 60 HP sizes

In 1901, the U.S. Army Signal Corps began construction of an overland telegraph system to connect the far-flung towns of Alaska with the rest of the United States. The system was completed in 1904, but in 1903 a newer communications system using radio waves had been tested across Norton Sound, Alaska, between St. Michaels and Nome. The new system proved successful, and the wireless telegraph successfully connected parts of Alaska to the outside world. By 1908, stations were installed and operational in seven or more locations.

The new wireless telegraph was revolutionary because it wasn't subject to the outages experienced by the land-line telegraph, which had to cross rough terrain including rivers and mountains -and withstand harsh arctic climates. Fairbanks-Morse engines in the 5-20 HP range were used to power these wireless telegraph transmitters, and among those early engines was a pair at Ft. Gibbon, Alaska, now known as Tanana, which is located at the confluence of the Tanana and Yukon rivers in central Alaska.

In the fall of 2001, a family friend asked me to help with a house-building project in Tanana. After a little persuading (he bought me a plane ticket and food), I was back in Tanana for the first time in almost 30 years after having lived there in the 1960s and 1970s.

After I finished wiring his new house, I had some free time on my hands, so I went looking for an old generator I remembered sitting behind the local school. I walked over to take a look at the generator and noticed two 20 HP Fairbanks-Morse antique engines sitting within 30 feet of the generator, which I had somehow missed seeing 40 years before. How I had overlooked two engines 10 feet long, 4 feet wide with 6-foot flywheels, weighing 5 tons each, I still haven't figured out.

I contacted Carla Bonnie and Mike Andon at the Tanana Tribal Council and was informed the site was going to be cleared for school housing. I was told if I wanted to restore the engines, I had better get with the program. In trade, the council wanted a copy of an area history project I had completed years ago. Three boxes of photos, many maps and books later, the engines were mine. That fall and winter, I studied the school and engine site, planning how I would move 10 tons of metal.

nancy dewitt
1/4/2011 11:58:02 AM

We now have one of these Fairbanks-Morse engines on display at the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum in Fairbanks, Alaska.