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Rescuing a 1918 Fairbanks-Morse Type Y

Another sleeping giant rescued

| July/August 1995

  • Fairbanks-Morse Type Y
    Circa-1918 Fairbanks-Morse Type Y semi-diesel rescued from the woods near Alexandria, Virginia.

  • Fairbanks-Morse Type Y

Long-time GEM readers may remember A. L. McGowan's excellent "Sleeping Giant" stories about rescuing and restoring early Fairbanks-Morse diesels down in the Carolinas, where that type of engine was common in cotton gins. This is a sleeping giant story of my own about an early two-cylinder Fairbanks-Morse Type Y semi-diesel that my brother Mac and I found resting in a patch of woods in Alexandria, Virginia, only a few miles from the nation's capitol! This was an exciting discovery for us ten years ago, and surprising too; as those of you familiar with the area know, there aren't many places left there for such things to hide.

History of the engine
Of course this wasn't always so, and back in the 1930s when the engine was installed it wouldn't have seemed so out of place. At that time small farms and other types of producers were everywhere, supplying local markets and those next door in Washington D.C. One enterprising family, the Gailliots, started a large-scale chicken farm on their land near Ft. Belvoir Army Base. To support the operation a grain elevator was designed and constructed by Albert Gailliot. One of three brothers, Albert was an excellent machinist, builder, and mechanic. Before he passed on in the mid-1980s I was fortunate to get to know him, and was impressed by his knowledge and the things that he had done in his day. One of his biggest jobs must have been hauling this large Fairbanks-Morse engine generator in on a little 1930s Ford flatbed truck and erecting it in a powerhouse behind the elevator. There it was used to generate electricity to run the machinery and heat the chicken coops.

However, the story of s/n 356952 and its 50 kw generator doesn't begin here, because it was acquired used by the Gailliots and is in fact much older. The people at Colt Industries tell me that it left the factory in 1918, making it one of the earlier type Ys left today, I would imagine. Nothing else is known about this part of its history. I was given an original manual for it which is stamped 'Quartermaster, Ft. Howard, Maryland 1924,' so perhaps the first owner was Uncle Sam.

After getting it up and running, the family used the old engine for just a short time when a great fire consumed the chicken coops and birds in a smoky, smelly blaze. Fortunately the concrete elevator and powerhouse behind it were spared. The chicken farm was never rebuilt and the Gailliots launched a successful sand and gravel operation downhill from the elevator. For the next several years as "Hilltop Sand & Gravel" flourished, the old Fairbanks-Morse enjoyed a life of leisure. I am told that it was fired up occasionally during this period, more or less just for fun. The last run was made in 1954. After operating for a short time it commenced knocking and was quickly shut down. A check of the lube lines was made while it cooled off. Upon restarting, the pounding grew worse. Fearing catastrophe, the engine was shut down for good.

Years rolled by and the elements took their toll on the now idle and largely forgotten power plant. The powerhouse eventually collapsed or was taken down, exposing all the equipment inside to the elements. A grove of trees grew around everything, and the engine, generator, exciter, and Frankenstein-style switchboard became completely enveloped in vines and creepers. It seemed that this was probably the end of the line.

Acquiring the engine
About 1973-1974 the Army at Fort Belvoir initiated a project that started a chain of events which would culminate years later in my acquiring the engine from the Gailliot family. Fort Belvoir relies on microwave transmissions for a lot of its communications, and at that time needed a study of the microwave pathways around the complex. A local engineering firm was contracted to do the work, and Everson (Jack) Hottel was assigned to the project. Needing height, Everson went to Hilltop to see about going to the top of the old elevator. The stairway to the upper floors turned out to be too rotten, so Hilltop lifted Everson in a loader bucket on a knoll behind the elevator. This provided two happy results: Everson got the data he needed, and also spotted the Fairbanks-Morse cylinder heads poking out of the jungle. Being interested in antique machinery he wasted no time in finding out about it and even shared news of his discovery with others. Not long before this he and his dad had become proud owners of a 50 HP Peerless, and steam being their main focus they weren't really interested in getting a big stationary diesel power plant. At that time neither were most engine collectors, and so the engine was left alone to continue decaying in obscurity.

12/23/2014 9:44:00 AM

I ran 2 of the FM Model 32Y 4 cyl engines, 1956 to mid 1980w for a Municipal Utility. 257 rpm, 60 cycle gen. Arcadia, WI. still has one in operation


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