The rescue of Otto No. 6033, a 9-1/2 HP engine hidden away in a Philadelphia basement.
Tiny and crowded Church Street in Philadelphia. The Otto has to come out of the area in front of the second car on the left.
Our story is set in October 1999. A Philadelphia woman posts an ad on Smokstak looking for info on an Otto engine she found in her basement. Naturally, she is overrun with offers to take it off her hands, and she ends up running a blind auction (one bid per person, no knowledge of other bids).
We came in fifth. Dad didn’t think much about it until the woman called and said bidders one, two and three had backed out for reasons we did not learn until later, and if bidder four didn’t come up with the money in 24 hours it was ours AT OUR PRICE. All of a sudden the engine that was lost was a very real possibility, and Dad started preparing the truck and trailer for an adventure.
At the time I was just getting settled into my first semester at college. It was the Wednesday afternoon before the Coolspring Fall Swap that Dad called me and asked how soon I could be ready to leave, because we got the engine. The only catch was we had to have it out before Friday. I had class all day and hockey that night, so I told him to pick me up at the hockey arena at 11:30 p.m.
We left Toronto around 12:00 a.m. Thursday and arrived at Brookville, Pennsylvania, around 6:30 a.m. There we met up with Phil and Connie Klausz, who had left their home in Ohio a few hours earlier with additional tools and supplies we had forgotten in our haste to leave. The four of us headed east toward Philadelphia. After a brief (and accidental) visit to New Jersey, we arrived at 109 Church Street in Philadelphia. Just over 663 miles (1,065km) for Dad, who started from Kippen, Ontario, on Wednesday night.
To say that Church was a narrow street doesn’t do it justice. It is a one-lane, one-way cobblestone street with cars parked down one side. It narrows to accommodate a parking lot, which didn’t help our 1-ton truck and tandem axle trailer. We actually had to block the street and drivers had to drive through the parking lot to avoid us.
Once we arrived, we saw part of the problem that had made the other prospective owners nervous: A storm door that led to an eight-step stairwell that went 11 feet down into the basement at a very sharp angle.
We ventured down into the basement and found the engine sitting exactly where it had been since it was new 100 years earlier. The brass tag and cylinder oiler were missing but everything else was intact. Before we started anything, we took pictures and video of exactly how the engine was.
Then we started to work on our Plan A, which involved removing any small pieces and pulling the keys out of the flywheels so the crank was left on the engine. That plan lasted until we realized the keys were content after 100 years and were not coming out without a fight. And so began Plan B where we removed the main bearing caps, separated the oil rings, disconnected the rod, and lifted the flywheels and crank out in one piece before removing the block as a separate piece.
The flywheels were removed easily enough, using a jack and planks to get the required height difference and then rolling them down a makeshift ramp. We leaned the jug forward with the flywheel weight off it to cut off the studs holding it to it’s original base. The studs ripped the teeth right off Phil’s Sawzall blade! After three blades all four studs were removed, and the base was free. After some careful modifications to our flywheel ramp we were able to get the cylinder on the ground and began building a ramp to get everything out of the basement.
As we started building the ramp the sun was beginning to set. We had been blocking Church Street for more than six hours. We backed the truck into position above the storm door and attached a borrowed winch to the rear bumper of the truck. The flywheels began their slow crawl up the ramp and out of the basement. As the flywheels reached the top of the ramp we ran into our first major snag. The large sandstone ledge above the storm door was too close to the ramps for the flywheels to clear — we were stuck! After some careful and not so careful thought we pushed a pair of 4x4s through the spokes as a safety precaution and began drilling holes lengthwise in the end of the ramp. As the boards began to collapse, enough of a gap was created to ease the flywheels past the sandstone and the flywheels were free. The block of the engine came out with only a minor hiccup of keeping the rocker arm off the floor as it moved up the incline.
By the time we got both pieces out it was dark. As we were setting up to winch the flywheels onto the trailer, Dad mixed up the positive and negative cables for the winch, making the winch cable itself live. It was certainly enough to wake me back up after 30-plus hours without sleep! Once we got the engine loaded and strapped down with every strap we had (you can never be too careful) we drove north on I-476 to Allentown, Pennsylvania, where we found a hotel for some much needed sleep.
The next morning we grabbed some breakfast and headed out for Coolspring. Every stop along the way I managed to oil and wash our new prize, and wipe just a little more grease off to expose some of the original chocolate brown. By the time we made it to our last stop before Coolspring, the engine was showing quite a bit of its original brown. As we pulled into the Coolspring Power Museum, it was apparent that several people were waiting to see who was going to show up with the engine.
Friday afternoon at Coolspring saw the engine built back up to its natural height with the use of a 4x4 subbase that Dad had constructed in case the Otto could have been removed in one piece. It also saw an incredible amount of brown paint revealed as we removed 100 years of dirt, oil and grime. Phil and Dad orchestrated a plan to reinstall the flywheels as I finished up the basic cleaning of the engine. As supper time loomed we had repositioned the flywheels and found enough wires to start our new toy. As the Otto was plumbed for natural gas, we had to squirt gasoline down the inlet pipe and play with the fuel, but after a few minutes of guesswork the old girl sprang back to life and ran off the primer can until we ran out of gas!
The Otto now resides in our woodshed where it is run regularly and rarely disappoints. Otto No. 6033 is a circa 1899 9-1/2 HP model (if it was gasoline it would be a 10 HP), but it has heavier flywheels than its later counterparts as well as a wider crankcase. To this day it is the most amazing engine rescue I’ve been a part of and one of my favorite engine stories!
Contact Jonathan Triebner at email@example.com