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Wrong Turn Yields Large Fairbanks

Author Photo
By Wayne English | Aug 1, 2000

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The old Pamlico Ice and Light building, original home of the Fairbanks Morse.
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Steel rods were used as rollers under the engine, and the machine was winched almost 35 feet to the door.
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The Fairbanks Morse after being started for the first time in almost forty years.
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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.

Gas Engine Magazine

Preserving the History of Internal Combustion Engines