20 HP Fairbanks-Morse Gas Engines Rescued in Alaska

By Staff
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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.
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Alan stumbled onto this pair of Fairbanks-Morse 20 HP Type N engines at an abandoned school in Tanana, Alaska, while looking for a generator .
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Alan stumbled onto this pair of Fairbanks-Morse 20 HP Type N engines at an abandoned school in Tanana, Alaska, while looking for a generator.
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Transporting both 20 HP Fairbanks-Morse engines through Alaska's dense forests meant coordinating plans to have them shipped by rail car as well as by barge.
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Transporting both 20 HP Fairbanks-Morse engines through Alaska's dense forests meant coordinating plans to have them shipped by rail car as well as by barge.

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.

Long Way Home
The project started in the spring of 2003. My research indicated the engines were ordered by the Signal Corps in 1907 and installed in 1908, remaining in operation until 1923 when the post was deactivated. Both engines are 20 HP Fairbanks-Morse ‘Special Electric’ Type N engines. One engine was manufactured in 1906 and the other in 1907. They used flat belts to drive the inductive alternators that powered wireless transmitters, and both engines were mounted on a concrete platform and housed in a two-story building that burned in the early 1950s. After the fire, they were abandoned until I found them.

As I got ready to head for Tanana, the size and scope of the project finally sunk in. I decided this was something that I couldn’t really handle by myself – the little voice inside kept saying, ‘What were you thinking?’

Alaska’s untamed wilderness and lack of roads didn’t help the problem, either. The only way to transport things in or out of Tanana is by air (165 miles) or by river (200 miles). Hauling by barge is cheaper than airfreight, so I made plans to ship it by river. I gathered some pictures of other engines that I had restored and started asking for assistance from people I knew. I was taken completely by surprise when everyone I talked to said they would be glad to help. Joe Cockran at Warblows Air Ventures, Matt Sweetsir of Yutana Barge Lines and Chelcie Eager of the Alaska Railroad all were more than accommodating to help me and the engines get back to my home in Fairbanks, Alaska.

I flew to Tanana with all the gear I thought I would need. The first thing I did was clean the site of brush and trees, then I built two log skids to transport the engines. Next, I stripped the engine parts that could be removed to keep the shipping weight down. I removed the bolts holding the engines and inductive alternator and also dug around the building to see if I could find anything useful.

This phase of the job took almost a month due to rain, lack of equipment, and family and work responsibilities. Tanana was installing sewer and water pipes throughout the village, so Earl at Too Gha Construction agreed to bring a very large loader to pick the engines up from the concrete pads they sat on. When the loader arrived, I put slings around the engines, and up and away they went.

I used the old Public Health Service garage as a staging area. I set the engines on wood skids and bolted them down, then lifted them up again and hauled them to the Yutana Barge Lines staging area. I put all the parts I had pulled off the engines on pallets and readied them for shipment.

A week later, a Yutana barge picked everything up for the trip to Nenana, Alaska, a town on the Tanana River about 150 miles up river from Tanana. Barges in this area usually carry freight to villages on the Tanana and Yukon rivers, but my pickup was a back haul as the barge was empty and headed back to Nenana for more freight.

Once I had readied the engines for shipment, I caught a flight back to Fairbanks so I could prepare for their arrival. Two days later, the engines arrived in Nenana. A phone call to the Alaska Railroad assured me that a rail car was waiting in Nenana for the engines to arrive. When the barge did arrive, I drove to Nenana and watched the transfer of the engines from the barge to a flat car. I loaded my too-small snow machine trailer with all the extra parts and headed for Fairbanks to meet the train.

When the engines arrived at the Alaska Railroad terminal in Fairbanks, the railroad crew – as with the Yutana Barge crew -thought the engines were great, but probably too far gone to ever work again.

Mel Brabham, vice president of our engine club, donated his trailer to haul the engines to my house. As we unloaded the first engine, the loader we had borrowed proved too small and tried to stand on its nose! What to do but go up the hill to see my neighbor Mel Bovencamp? When we walked in the door, he took one look at us and said, ‘I don’t have time to play right now!’ handing us the keys to his new John Deere loader. After two trips to town, both engines were finally in my driveway, and I was ready to start the restoration.

Home at Last
With the engines too big to fit in the garage, I removed everything on the engines I could. I bought an A-frame hoist and a couple of coffing hoists at a garage sale to raise the flywheels so I could clean the crank and bearings. In fact, the A-frame became a winter tent for one of the engines. I spent the next eight months cleaning, rebuilding and refurbishing all the parts except the engine bases and flywheels – those had to wait until spring. Since fall and winter arrive early in Alaska, all outside work ceased by the end of September.

One cylinder wasn’t repairable due to water damage, but the other was in excellent shape. The inductive alternator – although having been through a fire – just needed the coils resealed and reinstalled. When spring arrived, I reversed the removal process and put the reworked parts back on the good engine.

But what good is an antique engine if no one can see and appreciate it? I had to have a trailer to haul it around.

I acquired a trailer, but unfortunately had to fit it with three new 6,000-pound axles, electric brakes and a new deck. Then, I borrowed Mel Bovencamp’s loader again and mounted the engine on the trailer. Another week was spent double-and triple-checking everything that I had done – this was the biggest project I had ever undertaken. The engine made its debut appearance (although it wasn’t operational) at the 2003 Fairbanks Golden Days parade and was a huge success.

The only major parts missing from the engines (which I never found) were the fuel pumps. On the Internet, I found someone in Idaho who just happened to know someone in California who made rough castings. He offered to have one of his machinists finish one so that all I need to do is bolt it on and add gas.

Now that spring’s here in Alaska, I can install the pump. I’m also in the process of designing a starting system that will use a pony motor and hydraulics or an electric motor (depending what I find) to start the engine.

The engine with the damaged cylinder will be installed at the new Pioneer Park Rail Road Museum in Fairbanks when it’s finished. This massive project wouldn’t have been possible without the overwhelming help and support supplied by the individuals and companies mentioned in this story. All I can say is, thank you very much.

Would I do this again? Did I mention that I found two more?

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