THE SISTERSVILLE GAS ENGINE

Old pumping engines

Old pumping engines

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Union, West Virginia

For the past several years beginning in 1974, it has been my good fortune to attend the annual Oil & Gas Festivals held at Sistersville every September. My primary urge for going originally was that I had heard that part of the festival was to have a gas engine show in connection with the festival. As a hobby I have been interested in gas engines most of my life. My dad invented and built a gas engine in 1896, which I have exhibited at the show for the past two years. Also, since coming to West Virginia in the early 1940s to Ritchie County, I had grown to love the sound of the engines running in the oil fields, as I made my way up and down the hollows while attending the sick as a country doctor.

Little did I realize back then that I would ever be writing an article about these engines. In 1974 through the kindness of my friend, Jack Cunningham of Cairo, I was able to acquire a very fine old Bessemer engine which I rebuilt, and had exhibited at the show in 1977. This engine had been used to pump an oil well near Cairo for 75 years or so, but that is just another long story.

In attending these shows I had also noticed the largest engine of the show, a beautifully restored Reid engine of 20 HP owned by my friend, Carl Perkins of Pennsboro. It was in excellent condition. Also, another good friend of mine, Jack Kile, had a very beautiful small Reid engine of 8 HP, which he had restored and ran nicely. During the past year or so, I have also seen two very rare and unique little Reid engines of 5 HP, both running, one by my friend Harry Horner of Harrisville, and the other I believe owned by a gentleman from Ohio. They were both very definitely Reids, exactly like the larger ones, and each with its beautifully cast label, made of brass.

In 1976 I obtained a reprint of a catalog or list of parts for Reid engines republished by Stuart Hart-man of Wooster, Ohio, from which I have learned a whole lot and used as a basis for the information in this article. Here I found all the information I would ever want to know about Reid engines.

I had spent a week with my old friend, Dale Wolfe, in Ritchie County, trying to locate old engines that might be for sale. We probably looked at 40 to 50 old wells no longer being pumped in my quest for old engines, with no luck; I am still looking. As a result of this search, and in some wells still pumping, I found more wells using Reid engines than any other make, and they appear most popular in West Virginia. Other makes such as Bessemers are also used, but it was mostly Reids that were the workhorses of the early oil fields.

Now, over the years, very little or nothing has been written in the annual programs of the Oil & Gas Festivals about the engines used in the oil fields for pumping oil wells with a result of making many in this state wealthy and rich. My belief is that these engines are worthy of being brought to attention and their history recorded. I am pleased to be able to give a little of this information. I hope that others will do likewise.

From information found in the paragraphs as cited above, I was amazed to find that there was one, very special engine used in the oil fields known as the 'Sistersville type,' or the 'Sistersville engine.' I do not think that most of the Sistersville people in the oil business, or those engaged in writing the history of this region, have known or realized that there was a Sistersville engine. It is the purpose of this article to bring these facts to light. These engines were made by the Joseph Reid Gas Engine Company of Oil City, Pennsylvania. The company started business in 1894. Apparently, the first engine of this type was designed by people, either living in, or near Sistersville; or it may be that this engine was first used in Sistersville. We probably will never know for sure. Research may help to bring out the true facts. I hope someone will have enough interest to do it.

It just may be that the engine used for drilling the famous gas well, the Big Moses, at the farm of Moses Spencer out on Indian Creek in 1894, could have been a Reid engine, provided that they were not using steam. The feature which gave this engine the name Sistersville type was the large heavy clutch, bolted to the hub of the flywheel on the engine side, and the outer bearing resting on a large heavy pedestal to support the heavy weight, on the outer end. This clutch could be ordered to run in one direction only, or with a reverse gear, worked by a lever. This clutch was characteristic of all Reid engines used in the oil fields, and hence the name, the 'Sistersville type.'

From the same information I found that Reid engines were made in many sizes: 8-12-15-20-25-30 and 40 HP. And although not listed in the old information I have, or otherwise listed, we also know these engines were made in 5 HP, as proven by the engines exhibited this past year by Harry Horner and the man from Ohio. Reid engines were made in two styles: a right hand or a left hand, depending which side the clutch was on as one looked from the cylinder head back towards the flywheels. Engines used for well drilling were usually a lot more powerful than pumping engines, and were usually moved to a new site when the well had been drilled; Reid engines for pumping purposes, of a 15 HP average, could be bought and bolted down to the same foundation from which the drilling engine had been removed. Most Reid engines were ignited by hot tubes, as most wells had natural gas as well as oil. Later engines were equipped with Wico magnetos and electric spark, but for practical purposes they ran just as well with the old hot tubes. Among many of the older men who had worked in the oil fields, it was a common practice to use burnt out, or discarded hot tubes for making jewelry, and I have seen several beautiful rings (one a Masonic ring) which had been made from this material.

Most all engines in the oil fields were 2 cycle engines, giving a power stroke with each revolution of the flywheel. These were better because with 4 cycle engines, they would only give a power stroke with every other revolution of the flywheel. And for the same power, 4 cycle engines had to have much heavier flywheels and had to run faster and wore out sooner and had a much more complicated valve system. The 2-stroke cycle engines were cheaper to operate, ran slower, and performed more satisfactorily. All Reid engines were made of the best materials, carefully made and tested before leaving the factory, with a record kept of each engine. They were thoroughly guaranteed by the manufacturers. Finally, one of these old Sistersville type engines has been restored in the past year, and can be seen running and pumping oil on the river bank adjacent to the city park during the gas and oil festival.

I do not want to give the impression in this article that only Reid or Bessemer engines were used in the oil fields. This would be erroneous. Many other makes were also used. Through a friend of mine, Mr. J. H. Hill, who worked in the oil fields of West Virginia and Oklahoma in the 1920s until the time of the great Depression, I find the following makes were also used, and comments on these engines were made by Mr. Hill, who had experience in using them.

SuperiorsBest, had brass bearings. Eriesmade in Pennsylvania.

Franklins25 HP engines good, 35 HP engines no good.

TitansMfgd. by International Harvester. Whitesnot too good.

WaynesFair. Bessemersmfgd. Grove City, PA. Fine engines all around.

FoosNot worth a damn, cylinders too heavy.

Wicosgave trouble, hard to start.

Westinghousemostly 500 HP engines, used in compressor stations.

ReidsGood, the best.

Bovaird & SefrangTitusGood, made in Pennsylvania.

St. MarysJ.C'sPoor bearings, burned out easily.

Olinsbad. BallsGood engines. PattinsMfgd. Marietta, Ohio, very heavy made.

Fairbanks MorseGood engines, used in later years. (My notes on this last engine, not Mr. Hill's.)

OttoOver 35 years ago on my way from Parkersburg to the hospital at Marietta while driving through Boaz, I heard a real loud gas engine. I got out of my car to see this engine run, and found it was an Otto, at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at a date unknown. It was one of the oldest engines I had ever seen running. Ignition was by an open flame to a sliding bar crosswise the cylinder head, activated by gears off the cam rod. It had no hot tube, and of course, nothing electric. It was the most interesting old engine I have ever seen. I thought of August Otto, who invented the Otto cycle of the modern gas engine. And here was one operating, right under my nose. Principles of this engine are very nicely explained in a book entitled, 'Internal Fire' by C. L. Cummings, Jr., son of the man who makes diesel engines. I tried to locate this old engine again this past summer but found the old well was abandoned, and the engine scrapped shortly after World War II. This old engine should have been preserved and put into a museum.

In the preparation of this article either directly or indirectly, many have helped me with valuable information, and I would especially like to thank the following: Jack M. Cunningham, Carl D. Perkins, Dale Wolfe and Harry Horner, all of Ritchie County; Jack Kile and Lee Howell of Sistersville; Stuart Hartman, the late Dave Taylor, and the late P. I. Spence, all of Ohio; Dr. Paul Price, retired state geologist of Morgantown.

Also, I would especially like to thank Stewart Bradfield of Sistersville who encouraged me to write this article when I casually mentioned to him this past summer the information I had found out about the Sistersville engine. It has been a most pleasant task gathering material and writing this article. I hope that others may enjoy it.