From the Ritz to the Sticks

Hotel to Oil Well this 21 HP 1895 Otto has Seen it All

Bruce Lawson and Dale Nickerson

Bruce Lawson (left) and Dale Nickerson remove the Otto from its concrete base inside the old engine powerhouse.

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Some time about 1895, the Otto Gas Engine Works of Philadelphia, Pa., shipped a brand new 21 HP Otto horizontal stationary engine, serial no. 5514, to the Exchange Hotel in Warren, Pa. The engine was set up in the basement, coupled to a generator and put to work producing electricity for the hotel's patrons. There was, apparently, no municipal power available, but natural gas was cheap and readily available. The Otto lived a tranquil life in this arrangement for many years, until about World War I. At that time the value of the Otto's cast iron must have exceeded the value of the kilowatts it produced, as the Otto found itself cast into the scrap heap at a local junk yard. Somehow the old engine escaped the wrecker's sledgehammer, and in 1918 an enterprising oil producer from the area rescued the Otto.

Adopted Otto Engine

The Otto's rescuer was J.L. Billstone, an oil man who presided over oil territory on the east side of Warren, Pa., and also near Kinzua, Pa. (now located under the waters of Kinzua Lake, formed by the Allegheny River dam in the early 1960s). Billstone was looking for a suitable oil field engine, and the old Otto fit the bill. Billstone belted the Otto to an oil power, and for the next 60 years the engine toiled in the oil fields, day after day. The years certainly took their toll on the engine.

Oil field engines were usually started once in the morning and then left to run the rest of the day, with the operator listening to the sound of the exhaust from a distance for any sign of trouble. This engine ran into trouble when the rod-bearing brasses worked loose, knocking out two half-moon chunks of iron from the bottom of the piston skirt.

During that same mishap the crank guard tore off the engine base (a problem I still haven't fixed), and in a separate incident the engine took a wild ride out through the front wall of the powerhouse while it was being re-anchored to the floor. It must have been quite a job getting the Otto back in place, since the whole rig was located on quite a slope.

First Sighting

When I first saw this Otto in the early 1980s, it was still on the lease, still running and still pumping oil. It was pretty worn out, and it had received its share of field fixes to keep it running. For instance, a long spring from an old-style window shade had been attached to the igniter trip arm to keep it from jumping off the igniter. Another case, perhaps, of 'We'll pump oil today and fix that tomorrow.'

Probably the only reason I was lucky enough to get the engine was because of an operator mishap: While starting the Otto, he had one foot on the flywheel spoke when the igniter tripped off early. Well, you can guess what happened next when that big flywheel pushed back against his foot. It could have been worse since he was alone and a couple miles away from the nearest person.

The Restoration Begins

I bought the Otto in 1990, and with the help of my good friend Dale Mickerson I removed the Otto from its old home. Other projects kept the Otto on the back burner, but finally a few years ago I gave it my full attention and the work it deserved.

Looking at the igniter, I discovered the cast iron sleeve guide for the moveable point arm was broken, resulting in an inexact point contact. I made a new sleeve guide from brass, which fixed the problem nicely. This engine was a bit of an oddity, as it still used a battery, coil and igniter for ignition. One observer has noted that the Otto's former owner, J. L. Billstone, converted almost all his engines to hot tube ignition. 'The only two engines he owned that didn't run on a hot tube were his Otto and his Jeep,' the observer said.

During a cold winter long ago, water froze in the engine, opening the side of the water jacket. To fix this problem, I just stuffed a length of rope in the crack and wrapped a couple of steel bands around the whole thing to hold it tight. I preheated the water jacket before welding, and it now holds water, but paint doesn't stick very well on the welded area.

Turning my attention to the damaged piston skirt, I cut a couple sections from an old Reid piston of approximately the same diameter and welded them into the broken areas. To finish this part of the restoration, I spun the Otto's piston on my lathe, and now the patches I made are hardly noticeable. The cylinder bore was quite tapered, but with a new set of rings it runs fine. The compression isn't high, but that's not an issue for slow-running show engines.

The camshafts on the sideshaft were almost completely worn away, so I built them back up with weld. After some spinning and grinding on the lathe, they're back to about the right profile. 1 also made a new exhaust valve, but luckily the original intake valves only needed some grinding and lapping to get them to seat properly.

An interesting item on the engine was how the flat-belt clutch had been installed. The Otto's crankshaft is 3-1/2 inches in diameter, and on each end it has extensions 5-1/2 inches long and 2-3/4 inches in diameter. Apparently, the drive pulleys to power generators at its original installation were mounted on the extensions. When the engine was installed in the oil field, the offside flywheel was removed and the flat-belt clutch pulley was installed on the crankshaft extension. The inside of the clutch pulley, however, only had a bore of 3 inches.

The powerhouse must have had a good supply of old coffee cans, as someone wrapped some around the smaller part of the shaft to take up the slack between the shaft and the pulley. Then, to make sure the clutch pulley didn't wiggle off, it was welded to the crankshaft at the shoulder and also inside the bore of the pulley. Uncovering these kinds of repairs is part of what makes our hobby so much fun.

I painted the Otto what I call 'Geezer Gold,' which was a feeble attempt to match the color of the Otto that sits just inside the powerhouse at Coolspring Power Museum in Coolspring, Pa.

This Otto's restoration was quite interesting, to say the least. I was a little perplexed by all the hammer marks on the old engine. The best I can figure is the majority of repairs were done with a big pipe wrench and a hammer.

Considering its history, this engine is lucky to still be around. The Otto's now on its third life, this time as a display engine - and what a relaxing life that is! Considering its storied life as a hotel power plant and oil field engine, I can't think of a better way to reward an old 21 HP 1895 Otto engine for working so hard and so long. It certainly deserves a good home after all these years.

Contact engine enthusiast Bruce A. Lawson at 3249 Sprague Hill Road, Falconer, NY 14733; (716) 665-3199.