An experience outback

Karen and Elwood Schapansky

We stopped at the antique shop, as we usually did. It was in Cranbrook, British Columbia, Canada, and we were taking a break from our ride home from the Calgary Stampede. The shop was in an abandoned railroad storage shed and we had a pleasant time searching the dark nooks and crannies for treasures. Karen, my wife, looked the hardest, and while I was outside examining an old Maytag washing machine with a gasoline engine, she discovered a dual-flywheel, stationary engine resting under a table in a back room. Knowing my love for old engines, she beckoned me in to examine her find. I didn't know what I was looking at. It was mounted on heavy wooden beams, didn't have a water reservoir or radiator and had strange levers that appeared to adjust fuel and spark advance. It was all new to me. I had examined hundreds of old engines, but not one like this.

The proprietor of the shop came back to assist and told us the engine had been dropped off by the son of an old man who used it as the power source for his home saw mill. He said the engine was complete, as far as he knew, except for a spark coil. Since we were in a pickup and had plenty of room, I decided to gamble on the engine and take it home with me.

Back in the US I started my research and found my treasure to be a Fairmont Section Car Engine. Several old timers in Sandpoint, Idaho recognized it and informed me that the cooling system was missing. I was chagrined, but still interested. I hauled the engine all the way back to Santa Barbara, California and placed it in my garage, where it has rested for the past five years. (It would have to wait until I had the time to find the parts and get it running).

After spending last summer working as a pilot in Cordova, Alaska, Karen and I planned a return trip to Australia. We had visited the East coast in 1987 and looked forward to another trip. We finally got to Sydney on February 15 and soon started our journey to Adelaide, Perth and the west coast. On the way, while visiting an old friend at Tuross Head, I happened into a news agency and came across a copy of the February issue of THE OLDE MACHINERY MART. In it was an excellent article on the Fairmont Machine Company by Nic Doncaster. I read it with great interest in hopes it would lead me to getting my engine running. The article included an invitation to contact the author in Adelaide, which was exciting since we were headed that way. I purchased the magazine and reread it several times on the bus journey that followed.

In Adelaide the art festival was on and hotels were hard to find. We were excited to be there and enjoyed touring this beautiful city with its magnificent stone churches and green parks. On our second day there we called Nic and were surprised and pleased that he invited us to his house to show us his section car which was in the process of being restored. He had a great deal of information for us, but the description of my engine did not fit with what he knew about them. It seemed that I possessed a RQ-D engine, but the flywheels on mine weren't the right size. Positive identification has yet to be established, but the meeting with Nic was most fortuitous. Being an avid fan of old train engines, owner of a running section car, and between jobs, he invited us to accompany him to Peterborough to ride his car and see the Steamtown Train Yard Museum in which he is an active member. What an exciting offer! Two days later we left at six in the morning and enjoyed a (cool) two-hour trip to the soon to be (hot) plains of Peterborough. We first visited a friend of Nic's, Don Smith, to get keys to the gate at the yard and then we began a great morning of travel to the outback of Australia.

Pulling the section car from its storage area and getting it set up on the track was a thrill. Not only were we seeing a Fairmont engine in action, we were going to be propelled down the narrow gauge track by it. Starting it was interesting. I had heard them run as a child and the distinct sound brought me back to remembering them cruising the tracks at home some fifty years ago.

I participated as much as possible hoping to learn all I could to run my own engine.

We were soon backing out of the yard with Nic at the controls. We cautiously crossed several automobile roads and were then out into open country. What a thrill to see Australia the way it was so many years ago. We bumped along old rails that had done their duty in hauling heavy loads for many years. Many of the sleepers were warped with age, but they remained steady for our passage. How great it is to be able to preserve this great railroad heritage for Australia's future.

We soon caught up with the three volunteers who we left to see, Stan, the "crew leader", (what would they do without him), Fred, the all-wise engineer, and Terry, a visiting RR enthusiast from Bunbury, WA, (great guy to be volunteering in the heat on his vacation!) All three were perspiring from the heavy labor of clearing the right away and were just about to quit for the day. We stood out on the tracks for about half an hour, talking of their past careers and reminiscing about their experiences as railroad workers. After awhile, we started both cars and continued on to an old pub at Black Rock. The new owners, Bud and Lana, were excellent hosts. We had come in unannounced and they weren't quite open yet, but it was no problem. We were

welcomed graciously and were provided water, tea, and delicious biscuits! What a treat for hot, tired travelers! Bud and Lana are in the process of restoring the old pub and converting it into and art gallery and teahouse. Since a new road is to pass the area, they are looking forward to enough financial success to make a good living and have the resources to continue restoring. Surely with their welcoming historic landmark they will be successful.

Soon Stan invited Karen to travel back to Peterborough with them and Nic asked me if I would like to run the speeder back. Of course my answer was yes and I had a chance to practice starting the engine and also reversing it. I seemed to do okay and thoroughly enjoyed the trip. Upon returning we were given quite the tour through Railroad history.

Thanks goes to Stan, Fred and Terry. Before leaving Peterborough, Nic decided we needed to visit the Railway Hotel/Pub. After being in the heat, the beer was most welcome. The taste test of the kangaroo also proved to be great as it turns out the hotel is a good place to try the local cuisine.

Back in the US, the pleasant sound of the Fairmont RO-C still hums in my ears and I am anxious to find the radiator I need to complete my engine. Nic gave me the web address of several sources of engine parts, and thanks to Nic I will soon be running my own engine! If you're a railroad enthusiast, be sure to look him up!

Update - the railway is long gone, even the pub is no longer the Art and Coffee Palace, and the car is now in Queensland.

My Runs | The Section Car Page

© Nic Doncaster 2004

This article was originally published in the Winter 1998 edition of The Partyline, the magazine of the now defunct Steamtown, Peterborough Railway Preservation Society Inc. It has been edited for the Web.

Reproduced with permission of the Authors.

Page developed and uploaded August 30, 2004 Updated December 13, 2021