Rescuing a 1918 Fairbanks-Morse Type Y

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

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.

By then my brother and I were getting real interested in old iron, although we were just kids. A couple of rides down Franconia Road with Mom and Dad had taken us right past the elevator and we didn’t have a clue what was hidden behind it. But a rusty Fordson tractor, a shop, and a sawmill across the road did not escape our notice, and so we knew that there were good things around there. Later we heard of more Fordsons in the area and also antique lathes in the same shop. A few more years rolled by, and while going to the local community college Mac happened to meet Albert Gailliot’s son Frank. It turned out that Albert owned the place across the road from the elevator, so I stopped in to visit a couple of times and look over the old Fordson sitting just off the road. This was a neat old tractor with extension rims (extra rear wheels welded on, actually) that Albert had used to pull logs to his mill. Frank had started to work on it, but had stopped after taking the head off and never resumed. He and his dad were both pretty tight-lipped and didn’t reveal much about what else was around.

We didn’t learn of the Gailliot Fairbanks-Morse at that point. Instead, one year at the Berryville Show, Mac, Everson Hottel, and I were admiring Dick Sandy’s restored single cylinder F-M as it chugged along. Everson suggested that we “should look into getting the one at Gailliot’s” to restore. Well, this was news to us! We had to find out whether or not it was still there, especially since ten years had passed since Everson last saw it. Next time he saw Frank, Mac found out that indeed it was still there. Frank added with some glee that his dad had brand new bearings for it in his shop, and that he (Frank) had just recently melted them down to make sinkers for his fishing pole!

One day after work we drove over to Hilltop (Hilltop Landfill now, since the gravel played out) to see the owners. Clemens Gailliot Sr. (Albert’s brother) ran the place. He gave us permission to go back to look, but didn’t show any interest in letting us get the engine. At first we couldn’t even find it. Then we saw two large pipes protruding horizontally out of a giant mound of vegetation (mostly poison ivy), about 8 ft. up. These were the exhaust pipes, and pulling away the brush revealed a completely intact, albeit rough, early Fairbanks-Morse torch-start, semi diesel. This was really excitinglike unwrapping a giant Christmas gift. After examining what we had uncovered we went back to Mr. Gailliot and told him we would like to restore the engine, or see it go to an organization that would restore it. But he remained non-committal.

Then in 1986 I met Mr. Gailliot’s grandson, Mike, while going to college myself. He was surprised to learn of the Fairbanks-Morse engine, and we both went down to see it. By 1987 he had convinced his granddad that it was worth saving and that I should have it. Well, I was down there right away! I removed both exhaust pipes and the water piping above the cylinders so that I could cover it with a tarp. Then I made plywood closures for the exhaust ports, and filled the cylinders with diesel fuel to loosen things up. It was a good thing I got the engine when I did, because shortly afterward a scrap man offered the family $1000 for it. The Gailliots turned him down cold, for which I am truly grateful. I didn’t know when I would be able to do anything with it, but they assured me that it could stay on its concrete foundation until I either moved it or donated it to a worthy organization. In the meantime I visited it often to keep it covered and well oiled. I offered it to a couple of groups but couldn’t generate any commitments from them, so I figured that one day I would restore it myself.

Meanwhile, Mac had joined Dresser-Rand Company in New York state, where he could fulfill his ambition to , work with large bore stationary gas engines. Dresser-Rand is one of the last manufacturers of such machinery in the United States. My own ambitions were simpler, and mainly involved finding a good job. An opening at the same plant looked good so I followed Mac up in 1991. We soon discovered folks up here that shared our interests in antique machinery. There are a lot of nice shows within driving distance, and we have met a lot of fine people up here. Tioga County Antique Engines and Tractors Inc. has grounds and a show in Halsey Valley. In 1993 I donated the Fairbanks-Morse engine to them on behalf of Hilltop Sand and Gravel in the memory of Clemens Gailliot Sr., who had since passed away. In June 1994 club president Max Godfrey finalized arrangements with Hilltop, whose generous assistance with crane and manpower was much appreciated. The engine and generator were removed from the foundation and brought up intact. The future looks bright for this well-traveled engine as a restored and running exhibit. I am especially glad that it followed me up here so I can see it all happen!

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