The Three Cousins

Exploring the McKinney oil field engine connection and trio at the Coolspring Power Museum.

The Three Cousins

The Three Cousins at the Coolspring Power Museum's new pavilion.

Photo by Paul Harvey

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I have long had a fascination with the large, heavy and sometimes crude oil field engines. Living at the eastern edge of the Pennsylvania oil field, they were the first large engines I saw. Being privileged to witness many in operation, I was even able to discover the factories where they were made.

Occasionally, I would find an interesting 4-cycle engine, but the main work force used to pump the oil wells was the 2-cycle design. These were both the “half-breeds,” which were steam engines converted to gas engines, as well as the factory-built 2-cycle engines. This design was produced by many different makers, and all seemed to be similar. The 2-cycle engines were simple, sturdy and dependable.

As time progressed, three 2-cycle engines stood apart from the others. I noted these to be similar in design, as well as being very heavy and rugged. They were able to be moved through the oil field by teams of horses for use on distant wells, and then operate it for long hours. They were not patented, and all three emerged in the 1905-1906 era. This was the time of the oil boom in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio, and the demand for engines was great. These “Three Cousins,” as I have called them, are the J.C., built in Titusville, Pennsylvania; the South Penn, built in Clarksburg, West Virginia; and the Ball, built in Butler, Pennsylvania. The opening photo (Photo 1) shows the museum’s three examples lined up in the new pavilion. The similarities are remarkable. There just had to be a link connecting these designs!

After some research, I found that the link was the McKinney brothers. They were born near Warren, Pennsylvania, and became wealthy in the oil business at an early age.

James Curtis McKinney moved to Titusville, Pennsylvania, and became president of the Titusville Iron Works; hence the name for the J.C. engine. John Luke McKinney became involved with South Penn Oil Co., and soon became president. Henry B. McKinney moved to Butler, Pennsylvania, and quickly became president and manager of the Butler Engine and Foundry Co., makers of the Ball engine. It was a family affair! 

The J.C. gas engine

The Titusville Iron Works developed into a large concern with the early oil frenzy in that area. Under the capable leadership of J.C. McKinney (Photo 2), the firm was a major manufacturer of the Olin 4-cycle gas engine, licensed from the Buffalo, New York, firm, who had patented it. All the majestic, octagonal South Penn powerhouses used Olin engines and Titusville pumping powers. The engines were on concrete foundations, which bore the initials SPOCO, or South Penn Oil Company, in large relief. This was further proof of a tie between Titusville Iron Works and South Penn.

Probably feeling the pressure from a major 2-cycle engine builder, the Bessemer Gas Engine Co., McKinney produced his own 2-cycle design, named the J.C. This engine was apparently designed “in house” by the Titusville Iron Works.

Appearing in 1906, these engines were built from 15 hp to 50 hp. Soon, many were found pumping oil wells in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio. They were very durable and could withstand the use and abuse of the oil field. A factory advertisement is shown in Photo 3.

While attending West Virginia University in the late 1960s, I became acquainted with an oil pumper, Les Neely. Skipping class, I spent many enjoyable days with him learning about the engines and the art of pumping oil. The first large engine he taught me to start, operate and care for was a J.C.! The next one was a South Penn.

The Ball engine

The Butler Engine and Foundry Co. was one of the earliest engine makers in that city. With the oil boom in that area, the firm licensed the design of the Ball steam engine, which was built in Erie, Pennsylvania. At that time, steam was very popular for drilling the wells, and, later, the engines could be easily converted to gas. Under the capable command of Henry B. McKinney (Photo 4), the firm was soon the leading manufacturer of gas engines in Butler, Pennsylvania. The foundry also made casting for many other engine producers. Soon, all of their engines, gas and steam, were named “Ball” – an easy name to remember. That name was soon well known throughout the oil field.

About 1906, the firm decided to produce its own design of 2-cycle gas engines. The Ball was built in sizes from 12 hp to 35 hp. A 25 hp version is shown in Photo 5. This engine is very similar to its two other cousins, but does bear features of being built in Butler. If nothing else, the horizontal mounted telegraph wheel throttle and flywheel design betrays its origin.

The Ball engine sported a crosshead operated water pump, which the J.C. also used. This was very unusual in gas engines. Another interesting feature was the “star wheel” electric igniter. Similar to Bessemer’s igniter, this one was patented by Arthur Clark, who also designed the unusual uniflow cylinder for the T. W. Phillips engine. The proliferation of ideas is truly amazing. The Ball 2-cycle gas engines, heavy and durable, soon were used in the oil fields of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio. They proved to be very dependable.

South Penn gas engine

The South Penn Oil Co. was organized by Standard Oil in 1889 to be its sole crude oil production facility in the Appalachian oil fields. The headquarters were located in Oil City, Pennsylvania. Through mergers and newly discovered oil fields, by 1898 South Penn became the largest producer of crude oil in the U.S. After the breakup of Standard Oil in 1911, South Penn was organized as an independent oil-producing firm and continued to grow. Soon the headquarters were moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

In the early 1900s, large oil deposits were discovered in West Virginia, and South Penn, in competition with Hope Oil and Gas Co., leased thousands of acres to drill and develop. While Hope drilled its wells sporadically, South Penn meticulously laid out 600-foot squares and drilled their wells at each corner, no matter what the terrain was like. Hope used Pattin Brothers and Reid engines, while South Penn decided to use their own.

At this time, John Luke McKinney (Photo 6), was president of South Penn. It seems that he could have used either the J.C. or the Ball that his brothers manufactured, but transportation was difficult and expensive then. Although details are sketchy, it seems he decided to make a similar design locally. I have been unable to find engine details or shop photos, so some of the comments are my own conjecture.

Some records suggest the first South Penn shops were located in Mannington, West Virginia, where they produced a convertible gas and steam engine. The example displayed at Coolspring is shown in Photo 7 and has the Mannington location stamped on the engine.

It seems that the Mannington shops were phased out in the early 1900s, and new, huge, brick shops were built near Clarksburg, West Virginia. Here, they manufactured engines, boilers and all kinds of oil field equipment to be used in the oil boom nearby. Presumably, the South Penn 2-cycle gas engine was designed and produced at this location. It was built in only two sizes; a 20 hp and a 25 hp. The larger size had a cylinder bore 1 inch wider than the smaller.

Unable to find a factory photo of the South Penn, I’ve included a photograph of the Coolspring’s South Penn engine shortly after it arrived here (Photo 8). This engine arrived new in 1916 to Dutchtown, West Virginia, to drill and pump the well named Haught #10. This meant it was the 10th well that South Penn drilled on the Peter Haught farm. Haught was an immigrant from Holland. It spent 99 years on that steep hillside! Photo 9 shows the Haught 10 well, engine still inside, when I was guided to it in the spring of 2013.

The last mystery is the South Penn Special, which could have been either a “half breed” or a factory-built engine, using the South Penn cylinder with their own heavy flywheel on the clutch side and installing these parts onto a new steam engine frame. The demand for engines was very urgent, and by choosing the very heavy Oil City Boiler Works frames they could quickly make more engines. Photo 10 shows the Coolspring’s South Penn Special on my trailer, ready to come home. This engine now runs beautifully!

Although this is not supported by available information, it is my opinion that the South Penn shops were overwhelmed with the demand for engines. The production could be increased by purchasing new Oil City Boiler Works steam engines without the cylinder. South Penn, by adding their own cylinder, heavy flywheel, and clutch, would have another source of new gas engines! Any comments or information on the subject will be appreciated by the author.

I hope the reader has enjoyed this introduction to the “Three Cousins,” which can be seen at the Coolspring Power Museum. Perhaps someday I will find enough information to write a complete article on the South Penn engine.


Paul Harvey is the founder of the Coolspring Power Museum in Coolspring, Pennsylvania. Contact the museum at PO Box 19, Coolspring, PA 15730 • (814) 849-6883

www.coolspringpowermuseum.org