Finding Fairmont

A search through the sketchy history of Fairmont Railway Motors’ engine manufacturing

| August 2007

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    The engine, mounting frame and battery box shown in this January 1935 photo were part of a Fairmont “Engine Outfit” railroaders could buy to convert a hand pump car into a motorized track car. The Model QBA engine was introduced at the 1925 Railway Appliance Show in Chicago.
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    Pre-1915 Fairmont engine: The vertical 2 HP.
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    Fairmont Railway Motors, 1916.
    Image courtesy Martin County Historical Society.
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    In 1927, the Fairmont MM9 Inspection Car was the choice of track inspectors and signal maintainers. With its light weight of 395 pounds, extendable lift handles, which reduced pick-up weight to 120 pounds, and standard rail skids, it was easily handled by one person. The demountable housing seat provided room for a second person and dual tool trays allowed signal maintainers to carry the tools and supplies needed. The MM9 featured a 4 HP Fairmont water-cooled, 2-stroke gasoline engine.
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    Pre-1915 Fairmont engine: The horizontal 4 to 6 and 10 HP.
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    Someone has to keep those oil-burning signal lanterns going! Imagine having to climb the tower, bring down the lantern, trim the wick, fill it with oil, light the lantern and then climb the tower again to put the lantern in place, in all sorts of weather – day after day. Such was the life of a signal maintainer before the development of electric signals.
    Photo circa 1927.
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    The Fairmont train order stand provided a safe method of delivering written train orders to the crews of passing trains. Prior to the use of two-way radios, train crews received written train location information as they passed various stations. The telegraphed information was written on a form, attached to the clip wires of a delivery fork and held up by the station master for the locomotive and caboose crews to retrieve. The stand eliminated the need to stand by the track as the train rolled past. This August 1946 photo shows an installation at one of the Fairmont, Minn., stations.
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    Raising low or sagging rail joints was an on-going maintenance job. A track section with good joint maintenance reduced the back and forth swaying of a train. This made passengers more comfortable and allowed trains to operate at higher speeds over well-maintained sections. Assuring their section provided a better ride than others was a source of pride and competition between railroad section gangs.
    Photo circa 1928.
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    A postcard dated 1917, depicting Fairmont Gas Engine and Railway Motor Car Co.
    (Image courtesy Martin County Historical Society.)
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    Fairmont Boat Co.
    Image courtesy Martin County Historical Society.
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    Steve Gray’s PH-4 early Fairmont engine before its restoration.
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    Steve Gray’s PH-4 early Fairmont engine after its restoration.

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Present-day Harsco Track Technologies, located in Minnesota, is probably not a name familiar to most engine enthusiasts. But it traces its history back to a name that almost certainly is: Fairmont. The company, a subsidiary of Harsco Corp. was formed from the merger of Fairmont Tamper and Pandrol Jackson Inc. in 1979.

On the following pages you will see postcards sent to us by Dennis Pollock that show images of a bygone era, when Fairmont was the manufacturer of engines used in railway maintenance.

According to company history, "The company started as a small machine shop shortly after the turn of the (last) century. In 1907 the shop began the manufacture of single-cylinder engines, mainly for farm use to pump water, saw wood and similar jobs. Two years later, in 1909, it was incorporated as Fairmont Machine Co. That same year Fairmont engines were first applied to railway hand or pump cars, and marked their entrance into the railroad field. This enabled the workmen to ride to and from the job, and save their energy for actual productive work.

"Business grew throughout the teens and consisted mainly of supplying engines for mounting on the pump cars already in use. In 1913 the city of Duluth (Minn.) offered the company an attractive proposition to move the factory and general offices to their city. However, a committee of Fairmont citizens pledged assistance to the company, and the directors decided to remain in Fairmont. In 1915 the company name was changed to Fairmont Gas Engine & Railway Motor Car Co."



Because of its development in railway motorcar production in the early 1920s, the company's name was again changed in 1923 to Fairmont Railway Motors Inc. The Canadian branch, Fairmont Railway Motors Ltd. was formed in 1929 and the attention from engine production to railway maintenance production shifted from there, although a service instructions and parts list for the RK-B 2-cylinder engine from 1972 shows engine manufacture continued through the 1970s.

Fairmont Railway Motors appears only briefly in C.H. Wendel's American Gasoline Engines Since 1872. Wendel writes: "Many thousands of these 2-cycle engines carried railroad section gangs down the rails. Almost anyone can recall the distinctive sound of railway motorcars headed down the tracks - with the vast majority being powered by a Fairmont engine. Today's old engine collectors count these among the unique designs of yesteryear. Certain Fairmont designs were created by 1909 under the direction of Horace E. Woolery. He later left Fairmont to form Woolery Engineering Co." Pictured in Wendel's book is a 4 HP, produced in 1938.