A Great Ohio Engine: The Story of the Lima Gas Engine

A look at the Lima and Swan gas engines manufactured by the Lima Gas Engine Co.

Lima Engine

The Coolspring Power Museum’s circa-1905 25 hp Lima engine.

Photo by Paul Harvey

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Lima, Ohio, is a city of 38,000 located in the northwestern part of the state. Although the prosperity of the early 1900s has passed, it still supports two major industries. First is the Ford Motor Company engine plant, recently expanded, that makes all the engines for their F-150 pickup trucks. Second is the Lima Army Tank Plant that builds and maintains all the M1 Abrams tanks and their successors.

The town of Lima was established in 1831, and soon became the county seat of Allen County. It was named in honor of Lima, Peru. Located on the Ottawa River, it soon became the crossroads to five major railroads, which spurred its industrial growth. Probably best known was the Lima Locomotive Works, which soon rose to be the third largest builder of locomotives in the nation. Lima built all of the famous Shay gear drive locomotives, as well as an extensive line of main line locomotives.

Its major contribution was William Woodward’s design of the super-power locomotive. This entailed a huge firebox, suspended over a large rear truck assembly, to provide the heat needed to make steam for very large and fast locomotives. These monsters found use pulling gigantic coal trains easily over the mountains of Virginia and West Virginia. The largest class was a 2-6-6-6 wheel configuration and weighed 389 tons. They produced 7,900 horsepower! They were the heaviest steam locomotives ever built, and one is on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

Lima saga

Oil was discovered near Lima in 1885, and for the next decade, the Lima field produced more crude oil than any other location in the world. The demand for locomotive equipment, oil field equipment, and all sorts of supply houses and machine shops certainly painted the picture of the environment we find the Lima gas engine entrenched in. This is the story of the short and hectic tale of that engine.

The Lima Daily News of Jan. 4, 1905, announced that the John Swan Co., builders of Swan engines, had brought suit to have its name changed to the Lima Gas Engine Co. There were new directors and John Swan, whose name adorned the company’s engines, was eliminated from the company.

The January 1905 issue of Gas Engine Magazine informs us that Lima Gas Engine Co. was making engines from 2-1/2 hp to 100 hp in a 4-cycle design with a crosshead. The 1906 edition of History of Allen County Ohio mentions that Lima is still building the Swan engine. It does not give design details; there is no information to tell or explain the slight differences between the Swan and the Lima and when the changes occurred.

The Oct. 20, 1906, edition of the Lima Times-Democrat states that the name of the Lima Gas Engine Co. had been changed to the Lima Engine & Mfg. Co. Four new investors had been added and now they would include the manufacture of portable sawmills. These would be sold at prices ranging from $300 to $1,000 each. Amos Herrold, formerly of the sawmill department of the Aultman & Taylor Co. in Mansfield, Ohio, would supervise the new venture. The factory remained at its original location on Greenlawn Avenue and C&E Railroad corner.

On the lighter side, the Lima Daily News of Sept. 1, 1908 mentions that a big Lima engine will be on display at the Labor Day celebration. Entered in the parade, it won second-prize in the float class. After the event, it was shipped to a Wisconsin buyer.

The March 23, 1908, edition of the Lima Daily News ran an article stating that P.J. Sult, an oil capitalist from Marietta, Ohio, had bought the Lima Engine and Mfg. Co., and had completely renovated the old plant. It would now employ 46 men, but many more were expected to be hired soon. He would build the Dempster oil-gas producer, which promised to “revolutionize the world’s lighting and heating.” This device apparently made gas from the abundant local crude oil. The article concluded by noting that, “Gas engines of every description are manufactured and the product goes all over the world.”

Photo 1 is an ad from an early 1908 Gas Power magazine showing the new Lima gas engines. Noted as built by the Lima Engine & Mfg. Co., they are a radical departure from the Swan-Lima engine. The ad notes the engines are “semi-automatic,” with “No gears and but few working parts.” This implies that the engine is 4-cycle and the exhaust valve is operated by cylinder pressure. This is the principle of the McVicker gas engine. No further mention of these engines can be found.

Mr. Sult’s new venture of the Dempster oil-gas producer was short lived, as noted in the Lima Daily News of Oct. 22, 1909. A mere 13 months after the producer was introduced, the Co. was in receivership! The Lima Trust Co. filed suit for an unpaid note of $1,973.90, and placed F.B. Closser in charge of the concern. The Lima Engine and Mfg. Co. was once again for sale, and the producer portion was to be closed.

The April 23, 1911, issue of the Lima Daily News ran a large article titled, “NEW INDUSTRY WITH FUTURE.” John M. Primm, owner of the Primm Oil Engine Co. of Van Buren, Indiana, purchased the old Swan-Lima plant and established the Power Mfg. Co. to continue building oil engines of Primm’s design. Again, the plant was remodeled and the machinery from Van Buren was moved to it. Mr. Primm would be vice president and general manager. Already, they were said to have a car load of oil engines ready to be shipped to Texas. They would also do pattern, machine and foundry work, as well as manufacture a line of oil field equipment. The article ends, “No one heretofore connected with the old companies is now identified with the new company; all litigation is ended, and the concern is in strong hands.” And, indeed, that was true and the new concern had a very successful future and prospered, staying in business until about 1935.

The Lima engines

The Lima and Swan engines have many similarities and many differences. The Coolspring Power Museum is very fortunate to display a 25 hp model of each. Photo 2 shows the Lima and Photo 3 is the Swan. Comparing the two brings out many interesting features.

Both engines have a long main frame with a crosshead, with a few minor differences in the main bearing section. The Lima has no provision for the patented exhaust box in the frame as does the Swan. They both have sideshafts.

Both engines share the typical western Ohio T-head design, with the intake on the near side (sideshaft side) and the exhaust on the off side. However, on the Lima the intake and exhaust valves are mounted horizontally, while on the Swan the valves are vertical. 

The Lima governor, mounted near the crankshaft, is nicely machined and operates hit-and-miss, while the Swan governor, mounted near the cylinder, is somewhat crude and is throttling. The Lima uses both igniter and hot tube ignition, while the Swan is hot tube only. For fueling, the Lima has a combination mixer that can use either gas or gasoline, while the Swan is gas only. The Lima at Coolspring still has a vestige of its fuel pump.

The Lima and Swan engines use identical flywheels with unique, riveted-on counter weights. The flywheels bolt onto a hub that is tightly keyed to the crankshaft, making removal much simpler. Presumably, the easy removal of the wheels facilitated transporting the engine.

There is one more interesting feature designed by John Swan and used on the Lima engine, and that is the unique compression release to aid starting. It has a movable lobe on the exhaust cam cluster, just opposite to the main exhaust cam. This is screwed into place with the hand-wheel for starting, and then, as the engine comes up to speed, it is withdrawn easily just by holding the hand-wheel. It functions quite nicely. Photo 4 shows John Swan’s 1904 patent drawing of his device. However, our Swan engine does not employ it, but our Lima does, as shown in Photo 5.

The Coolspring Lima

The museum’s Lima resides in the Founder’s Engine House, where it was originally installed when brought to the museum. It was found on an oil lease, just across the Allegheny River from Parker, Pennsylvania, where it drove a unique push-pull type of pumping power. Local information revealed that the original lease owner had moved from Ohio and brought the equipment with him. This was early autumn 1969. Unfortunately, no photos of that location exist. Photo 6 shows the Lima on my 1946 REO truck when it arrived in Coolspring. This was probably the REO’s biggest load so far; the REO sported a fresh paint job. As the Founder’s building was only 12 feet by 20 feet at that time, the engine was unloaded near its present location, as shown in Photo 7. The next weekend, I made another trip back to the lease to retrieve the original supporting timbers, on which the engine is still mounted.

Photo 8 is the Lima’s brass name plate. Note that it is serial number 547. The Swan does not have a brass plate, but has the serial information cast into the surface of the head. Its serial number is 151. I wonder if the engines were numbered consecutively or if Lima engines started at one after the John Swan Co. became the Lima Gas Engine Co. in 1905? From the information gathered, I am dating our Lima at 1905.

The cylinder detail of the Lima is shown in Photo 9. Note the plunger for a gasoline pump hanging from the sideshaft, with mounting holes for the pump on the frame. The small gasoline mixer can be seen just to the left of the gas pipe. The governor detent is shown on the right-hand side of the rock shaft operated by the exhaust cam. Evident on the exhaust cam cluster is the patented compression release. The rock shaft extends through the frame to move an arm that opens the exhaust valve. It governs with the exhaust open. Also seen is the latch mechanism that keeps the intake valve closed while idling. This is more complex and better machined that the Swan’s mechanism. 

Photo 10 shows the Lima’s beautifully machined governor head as seen through the flywheel spokes. Note the sideshaft spiral bevel gear, which also drives the governor. The T-head design, typical of so many engines built in western Ohio, is very evident in Photo 11. The exhaust chest is located on the left where the starting air pipe enters. The intake chest is on the right and shows the original hot tube chimney, as well as the electric igniter. Note the well finished rim of the head and the two jacking screws to aid in its removal, if needed. This design is both improved and better finished than the similar parts on the Swan. It displays the evolution of gas engine design.

Photo 12 was taken from the April 29, 1911, issue of the Lima Daily News. It announces a new life for an old plant and the prosperous future to come. Power Manufacturing Co. and the Primm Oil Engine Co. have an interesting story to tell and the tale will unfold in a future issue.

Contact the Coolspring Power Museum at P.O. Box 19, Coolspring, PA 15730 (814) 849-6883