Little House on the Oil Field

A Look Inside Yesterday's Power Houses


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Although Gas Engine Magazine focuses mainly on the engines themselves, many readers are fascinated by the buildings that housed them. This article will discuss the octagon power houses of the South Penn Oil Co., the predecessor of today's Pennzoil Corp.

Why South Penn designed these power houses remains a mystery, even to this day. In 1994, the Allegheny National Forest's Heritage Resources Program did an archeological study of the petroleum industry that is located within the boundaries of what is now the Allegheny National Forest located in northwestern Pennsylvania. Phillip Ross, an industrial archeologist, was hired by the U.S. Forest Service to do the study. One of the items he was interested in was the octagon power house. Phil and I have collaborated on several occasions, but in the end, no answers to the mystery have been found. Perhaps South Penn wanted to make a statement to show just how big and important they were, as they were the largest oil producer in the area.

The octagon power houses were used on the leases of the South Penn Oil Co. in Warren, McKean and Forest counties of northwest Pennsylvania and Cattaraugus County in western New York. There were two styles of these buildings: The first, and most plentiful, was the three-section design, which consisted of an engine house, a belt hall and the octagon power house. These were built in two sizes: The most common - and larger - was usually equipped with a 35 HP Olin gas engine manufactured by the Titusville Iron Co. of Titusville, Pa. A slightly smaller size was equipped with the 20 HP Olin gas engine. Both sizes used single-disc geared powers to pump the wells. Also, a stand-alone octagon building style was constructed using a 15 HP Olin combination engine and power similar to a Superior combination engine and power. An octagonal gasometer house was located about 20 feet from the main building to prevent fires from the hot tube ignition. The design did offer about 330 degrees of unobstructed pull for the rod lines.

These buildings were quite impressive for their intended use. They were sheeted in corrugated steel with the exception of the belt hall and octagon roof, which was covered with cedar shingles. The engine room was totally finished with flat steel on the walls and ceiling, and they had concrete floors. A front porch was provided, which included a roof. One example even sported cupolas and weather vanes.

A larger and different example once existed in the Allegheny National Forest. This building was constructed mostly of wood, except for the engine house. The power itself was a three-eccentric affair mounted on a framework of 24-inch-square timbers. The top and bottom longitudinal timbers were over 20 feet long. It was powered by a 35 HP Olin gas engine. The engine house was interesting in that it contained living quarters for the pumper. There were two extra rooms: One was used for the kitchen and the other for the bunk room. This installation was probably constructed around 1900, and because of its remote location for the time, the only mode of transportation was the horse. It was probably easier for the pumper to live in the power house during the week and go home on the weekends. Could this have been the prototype for the buildings to follow? Unfortunately, this building no longer exists, but I did manage to photograph it.

Photo 1 (large photo, opposite page) shows one of the larger styles. Note the front porch and general construction features previously discussed. The cooling tank appears to be larger than normal. Also note the "stroke posts" on the rod lines next to the octagon, which were used to increase the stroke.

The birds-eye view of Photo 2 (inset, page 22) is of the smaller design building. Note the cedar shingles and weather vane, which was also used to sight the rod lines from the wells to the power house to keep them straight. Also note the "straddle bug" rod line supports. The tents in the upper right hand corner of the picture housed the construction workers, many of whom were immigrants. The locations shown in these photos are unknown.

The engine shown in Photo 3 (below) is a brand spanking new 35 HP Olin gas engine. This engine featured a 12-1/2-by-20-inch bore and stroke, hit-and-miss governor, coaxial intake and exhaust valves, hot tube ignition and 72-inch flywheels. These engines weighed approximately 10,000 pounds. The intake and exhaust pipes went overhead and exited out over the porch roof. Air starting was a standard feature. In the photo, an inverted air compressor is located just inside the belt hall. The belt pulley on the flywheel drove the compressor. Before starting, the pumper would place the belt on the pulley and compressor. Once the engine was running and the tank was fully charged, the belt was removed and it was hoped that the air system didn't leak down before the next startup. Occasionally, the belt would foul up in the flywheel and yank the compressor off of its base. I have seen several broken compressors as proof of this.

Photo 4 (above) is very unusual in that it shows a J.C. gas engine built by the Titusville Iron Co. This was their 2-stroke design. The J.C. was built in four sizes from 15 to 30 HP. I am assuming this is the 30 HP size. Unfortunately, I do not have any specifications for these engines. All I have is a parts list, which doesn't give any dimensions. I personally have never seen an octagon installation using this model of engine, but the picture proves that at least one existed. Overhead exhaust and intake pipes, air start and hot tube ignition were featured. Note the letters "S.P.O.Co." (South Penn Oil Co.) on the front of the engine block.

Unfortunately, only a handful of these once magnificent octagon buildings survive, and in deplorable condition. The most accessible one for the public sits on the south side of U.S. Route 6 in the village of Tiona, Pa., which is located between the villages of Clarendon and Sheffield, both of which are in Warren County. The engine was removed and saved. Due to its deteriorating condition, its days are numbered.

I wish to thank the Penn Brad Oil Museum, Bradford, Pa., for copying the photos from the original negatives in their collection.

Additional Information:

Also worth reading is Allegheny Oil by Phillip W. Ross, April 1996, USDA Forest Service Eastern Region, Allegheny National Forest Heritage Publication No. 1. The book describes the petroleum industry in the Allegheny National Forest and mentions the octagon power houses, along with photos.

The Historic American Buildings Survey/ Historic American Engineering Record did a great deal of research on the octagon power houses. Go to the Library of Congress HABS/HAER website and look for survey numbers: HAER PA-438 and HAER PA-439. You can also go to and link to Oil Heritage Artifacts. There you will find many photos and some neat drawings.

Contact gas engine enthusiast Michael Fuoco at: 656 W. Washington St., Bradford, PA 16701; (814) 362-0040.