1929 Fairbanks-Morse Six-Cylinder Diesel

By Staff
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Ferry boat Champlain powered by the Fairbanks-Morse engine.
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Top-down view of the 1929 Fairbanks-Morse 550 HP, 6-cylinder, 2-stroke diesel 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

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

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.

Engineer John Paul at the controls of the Fairbanks-Morse. The
wheel to his left controls the air-start cams for ahead or astern
engine rotation.

A characteristic of 2-stroke engines is that they can be run in
either direction, so when it is necessary to reverse the ship’s
direction the engine is reversed. This is done by reducing engine
speed and turning the maneuvering control to the stop position. As
the engine comes to a stop the maneuvering control is moved swiftly
to the astern start position (shifting the cam followers to the
correct set of cam lobes) and with a quick charge of compressed air
the engine reverses rotation. The maneuvering wheel is then brought
back to the astern run position, re-enabling the fuel injection.
The fuel injection timing cam is fixed so that injection takes
place before top center of the piston in either rotation

Keeping it Working

Now in its 73rd year of operation, this engine has an
outstanding reliability record. An important requirement for
maintaining uninterrupted ferry service, this reliability has not
happened by itself and is the result of a well-planned maintenance
schedule carried out during the winter months. This particular
vessel doesn’t operate in the winter, but others in the fleet
do, being equipped with special reinforced hulls for ice breaking
so they can maintain a navigable channel thought the lake ice.

One of the difficulties in maintaining an engine this old is a
lack of spare parts, as FM no longer supports this engine model.
Some parts, such as piston rings, gaskets can still be made or
obtained, and the pouring of new babbitt bearings can be carried
out by a skilled machinist. A practice of ‘innovative
scrounging’ is necessary for acquiring parts, and this has
turned up some surprising caches of parts across the U.S. In 1977
several pistons and cylinders were acquired from a fishing fleet in
Maine, but in 1982 the mother lode, so to speak, was struck in the
Alaskan Gold Mine Co. operation in Nome, Alaska. It was there that
three, 5-cylinder FM models that had been driving an electrical
power generation station (this style FM engine was popular for
electrical power generation) were found. A trip up to Nome provided
cylinders, heads, pistons – as well as hundreds of small parts like
gaskets, bearings, fuel injectors, etc. Many of the parts had been
meticulously packaged for storage while others had been out in the
elements. But, due to the cold air and low humidity they had
survived well. It would appear that when you get far north nothing
is scrapped, simply ending up abandoned due to the high cost of
shipping anything out. All told, 15 tons of parts were packed up
and flown to Anchorage and from there trucked to Vermont. As an
aside, there were also four older Workspove engines up at Nome,
abandoned but probably restorable.

Typical engine maintenance will see the pistons removed and
decoked along with the ports. Bearings are checked and the oil and
cooling systems are flushed, all 180 gallons! If any outer hull
panels on the ships structure have to be replaced or if work needs
to be done on the propellers and drive shafts, it is necessary to
realign the engine and drive shafts. This is a job requiring
infinite patience, using precision adjustable mounts and shims to
ensure the engine crankshaft runs true inside the engine housing
and that the propeller drive shafts are aligned with the engine
shafts and running true along their 65-foot length.

If any one knows of another stash of parts for this model
engine, be sure to let us know. And if you are ever in the Lake
Champlain area, take a trip on the ferry boat Champlain,
making sure to stop by the engine room to see this grand engine in

Contact engine enthusiasts Ivor Hughes at: 212 Rotax Rd.,
North Ferrisburg, VT 05473. John Paul is an engineer with the Lake
Champlain Transportation Co., Burlington, Vt.

Engineer John Paul stands next to the engine showing the
ship’s telegraph and engine controls. In addition to the wheel
control and telegraph, there is a separate throttle control.

Fairbanks-Morse Specifications

Year 1929 Model 37D14 Serial Number 730494 550 HP at 250 rpm
6-cylinder 2-stroke diesel


Weight: 30 tons
Dimensions: 18-fool long. 4-foot wide, 8-foot high
Piston stroke: 17 inches
Bore diameter: 14 inches
Output shaft diameter: 6 inches
Compressed air start pressure/air storage capacity: 250 PSI/Six
air receivers at 35 cubic feet each
Oil lubrication system capacity: 180 gallons of lubricant
Oil pressure: 12-20 psi
Oil feed: Electrical pump, 7.5 HP, fed through heat exchanger for
Raw water pump: Bi-directional, driven off engine shaft for heat
Cooling water system: Engine water jacket, heat exchanger
circulation by 7.5 HP electrical pump
Compressed air generation: Two 120 VDC electrical driven
compressors, one 3 HP Fairbanks-Morse for topping up pressure, one
10 HP Quincy (main compressor for pressurizing air receivers)
Electrical power generators – two sources for generating 120 VDC,
one source for 120 VAC:
Caterpillar 318D: 75 KW, 120 VDC
Caterpillar 3304: 55 KW, 120 VDC
Motor-generator set:
120 VDC to 120 VAC
17 KW and 7 KW

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