Permian Basin Oil Show


Big Red Engine

Photo #1: Big Red happily chuffing away at the Permian Basin Oil Show, October 1996.

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P.O. Box 62032 San Angelo, Texas 76906-2032

Having spent some time in the oil patch in years past, I try to visit the biennial Permian Basin Oil Show in Odessa, Texas, every few years. Along with acres of shiny, glittering, freshly painted new oil field equipment, there is an area set aside for the early day tools of the trade. Among other things, there is a humongous ditching machine, pulling units, production equipment and a full-scale wooden drilling derrick complete with all drilling tools. The derrick is powered by an ancient Ajax steam engine. The Ajax is over one hundred years old and is driven by a gas fired boiler. It quietly keeps the walking beam walking throughout the three day show.

While visiting the show in October of 1994, I saw what was left of an old one lung engine in the 20 to 30 HP range, eternally resting over in a corner. It was lacking many parts, and so thoroughly rusted that restoration seemed unlikely.

A little light flicked on.

During the summer of 1996, I called the Oil Show office in Odessa and asked if they would like to have a working, running exhibit of an old engine for the October show. They would.

I first saw 'Big Red' several years ago in Santa Anna, Texas. Bill Helwig, of Miles, Texas, had restored the engine some years earlier and was running it in the farm equipment exhibition during the 'Funtier Days' celebration. Everything else at the show was immediately forgotten as I stood there slobbering and drooling, watching and listening to the big 25 HP Fairbanks-Morse semi-diesel run. Bill took the engine to several following shows, most of which I attended too, looking for smaller, much smaller, engines. I got much too brave one day and told Bill that if he ever decided to sell the engine, to please let me know I wanted to be first in line. I popped off even more and made a tentative offer. Some time later, we agreed on a deal for the engine, but neither of us are talking about itI don't want anybody to know how much I paid for the engine, and Bill doesn't want anyone to know how little he got for it. Does that make sense?

So with that, Big Red, JoAn (my navigator) and I are off to Odessa and the Permian Basin Oil Show. Mr. Clark, who had overhauled the Ajax steam engine and was in charge of the old equipment display, had us set up very near the old wooden derrick.

Out of the dozens of pieces of old equipment, only Big Red and the Ajax were running. Big Red ran most of the hours of the three day show. I shut down for two brief periods each day in order to do my share of the gawking at all the new equipment. Rough necking isn't what it used to be.

There were always people around to watch the re-starts on the hot tube engine. Lots of old pampers came by to look at the running engine then cock an ear towards the exhaust and, almost to a man, say, 'That engine doesn't sound right not noisy enough.' (Bill Helwig did a great job on the muffler relatively quiet but authoritative exhaust.)

Many of the pampers, mostly retired now, related their own experiences starting a hot ball engine. I do it the easy way and use air for starting.

Since this story is about engines, let's take a stroll around the grounds and look at a few more that were on display.

Photo #4 shows a Witte generator used by Admiral Richard E. Byrd. Photo #5 is the plaque attached to the generator base. In the same display was a beautifully restored 2 HP Witte farm engine, Photo #6.

Large engines are still used in the oil patch, and Photo #7 shows a few of these.

About 100 feet from where Big Red was set up was the ultimate side shaft engine, twin sideshafts. The El Paso Natural Gas Company has one of its retired compressor engines on permanent display in its own building. This compressor went into use on October 1, 1931, and served until 1969. The engine, a Cooper-Bessemer Type 19, is an 800 HP horizontal tandem reciprocating compressor engine equipped with two 10 x 24 inch gas compressor cylinders, and it weighs about 173,000 pounds. It served under load for 152,064 hours, compressing more than 144 billion cubic feet of natural gas in its working lifetime.

Even my wide angle lens couldn't get it all. This engine has four pistons and eight cylinders. There is a firing chamber on each side of each piston. The engine is rated at 800 horse -power at 180 rpm. The white rectangular pipes going into the floor are exhaust pipes. The white box between the cylinders contains an electric motor and reduction gears to turn the engine at about 10 rpm. All the parts move as they are supposed to. Notice that the flywheel is in two pieces.

We all enjoyed a good time at the Oil Show, including Big Red.

I have been wanting a good sideshaft engine and thought about trying to work up a trade with the El Paso guys, but I couldn't figure out how to stuff all that in the back of the pickup, and Joan (my navigator, remember ?) was getting a bit grumpy over the thought of holding the flywheel in her lap all the way home.

I plan to return to the Permian Basin Oil Show.