1929 Fairbanks-Morse Six-Cylinder Diesel

Still Making Waves after more than 72 Years on the Job

| July/August 2002

  • Fairbanks-Morse Engine

  • Ferry boat powered by Fairbanks Morse Engine
    Ferry boat Champlain powered by the Fairbanks-Morse engine.
  • John Paul

  • Fairbanks-Morse Engine
    Top-down view of the 1929 Fairbanks-Morse 550 HP, 6-cylinder, 2-stroke diesel engine.

  • Fairbanks-Morse Engine
  • Ferry boat powered by Fairbanks Morse Engine
  • John Paul
  • Fairbanks-Morse Engine

Cresting the hill and descending Main Street into Burlington, Vt., presents a view that never gets old. Laid out before you as you head down the street are downtown Burlington, Lake Champlain and a spectacular view of the Adirondack Mountains. It's as if Main Street runs straight down into the lake, which, in fact, it almost does.

Actually, it dead ends at the Lake Champlain Ferry Dock, where any one of a number of ferry services operated by the Lake Champlain Transportation Co. ply the waters between Vermont and New York state. And this is where our story begins, on the vehicle and passenger-carrying ferryboat Champlain.

Built in Baltimore at the Maryland Dry Dock Co. and lunched in Jan. 1930, this 650-ton ferryboat can hold 35 vehicles and 340 passengers. And any engine enthusiast with a finely tuned ear boarding this vessel will soon lock on to the melodious tone of an engine that signals, 'I need to go and check that out.'

The Fairbanks-Morse Engine

A hatchway and a steep ladder lead you down to the source, and once you've climbed down there's a feeling of having dropped through a time portal as you are confronted with a resplendent Fairbanks-Morse (FM) from the 1920s. And not just a run-of-the-mill FM, either, but a 550 HP, 6-cylinder, 2-stroke diesel, packed into an engine room with all the other ancillary machinery necessary for the operation of the ship, including a workshop.

The engine configuration for shipboard operation has drive shafts exiting both ends of the engine. One shaft is directly coupled aft to the aft propeller and the other runs forward to the forward propeller. A single flywheel is mounted on the aft engine shaft. The ferryboat is designed to sail either bow forward or stern forward, and hence the aft and forward propellers are always turning and are reversed by reversing the engine rotation (a useful feature of 2-stroke engines). This aids in docking and exiting, eliminating the need to keep turning the vessel around. Vehicle boarding and disembarking can take place from either end of the vessel.

Engine commands are received from the captain in the pilothouse on the upper deck via an old style ship's telegraph. Engine start/stop, ahead/astern (forward/reverse) and engine speed are controlled by means of separate maneuvering and throttle controls. Engine starting is by compressed air, which is admitted to the combustion chambers through timed poppet valves. There are two sets of air-start cams, one for ahead rotation and one for astern rotation. The cam followers are shifted to either position by the maneuvering wheel control. To start the engine ahead, the maneuvering wheel is turned briefly to the 'ahead start' position, admitting air into the cylinders and forcing the engine to turn over. The control wheel is then brought back to the 'run' position, disconnecting the compressed air and allowing the fuel injection process to begin and the engine to pick up and run under its own power, engine speed being set by the throttle control.


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