We Need A BIG Engine!

50 HP Superior

A 50 HP Superior used to generate power in the oil field. This engine hasn't run for at least 35 years; as you can see, it is in exceptional condition.

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12353-212 St. Maple Ridge, British Columbia, Canada V3Z 1G3

My story started on one hot summer day in June of 1988. I was sitting with an old school buddy, Ron Norrie, a fellow engine collector who I got hooked into the hobby. We were discussing what a pain small engines are. You are always wrestling with them, in and out of the truck at meets and back home again. They may be small in size but not in weight. We both agreed what we really needed was a BIG engine on a tandem trailer. We then formed a 50/50 partnership. The search was on.

There are not very many big engines in our area of British Columbia. In Vancouver, B.C. I knew there was a 40 HP Fairbanks, Model N. After checking it out we discovered it was too big. What we really wanted was an engine of 15-25 HP, so that we could tow it around. Weeks went by and many phone calls later we came up empty-handed. Nothing! I then phoned an old friend, Lee Hetterly, in Everson, Washington to find out if he knew of any engines for sale and he did.

Off we went to see Lee. Lee has been an engine collector for years. We arrived to find him working on his 1947 Diamond T truck, on which he has mounted his 1?, 6 and 10 HP McCormick Deering engines.

How about the engine? Lee tells us he has a 25 HP Superior side shaft engine. Can we see it? Well, not really... the engine is still in the Sunburst Oil Fields, near Shelby, Montana. 800 miles away!

The engine is still sitting in the engine house where it was installed in 1925. The engine was used to pump oil from 10 wells until the mid-1930's when power came to the fields. The original owners of the engine took off a flywheel and replaced it with a v-belt pulley and removed the rod and piston. They ran it with an electric motor still using the rod line and pumps. Lee assures us that this is a good engine. So, we decide to take it. A price is agreed upon. Now when can we get it? Lee says we should wait until late summer, early fall when the weather cools down a bit. We decided to go on the Labour Day weekend, which turned out to be the hottest time of the year. Three months of planning our trip and wondering, how do we get that flywheel back on? How are we going to get the engine out of the engine house? What condition is the engine really in? Time will tell.

August 3, the Puget Sound Antique Threshing Association Annual Threshing Bee. We meet Lee and finalize our plans and figure out what we need for the job ahead.

Before we know it September is here and Ron and I are on our way to Everson. Montana next stop!

About sixteen hours later we arrive in Shelby, a small town about twenty miles from the oil field. We get a motel, have some breakfast and change into our work clothes. We then head for Sunburst to meet Frank. He once owned the engine and will go to the oil fields with us. Frank was also the owner of Lee's Diamond T truck. After introductions, we follow Frank. When we pull off the highway I spot a tin shed about a hundred yards off the highway with a stack sticking out of the roof. Sure enough, Frank headed straight for that tin building. This is it! Finally after sixteen hours driving and three months of planning, we're there! The first thing we see when we pull up is the flywheel lying out front. I couldn't get the door open fast enough. There it was. Nobody had been in the shed for a very long time. Looking around the building we see the engine is still as it was when it was installed some sixty years ago.

There are spare parts laying all over the place. Just at a glance I see two magnetos, two pistons and rods, three governors, piles of rings, gaskets, a new exhaust cage and a set of side shaft gears. Frank says we can have anything in the shed. We don't have enough room!!! But now we have to get to work and get the engine out. Ron and Lee discuss how we are going to do it. They have a plan, sounds easy. We'll see!

The first thing we have to do is get off the 5' v-belt pulley and put the flywheel on. The pulley came off easy but now we have to lift up the flywheel and roll it back into the engine house. Well, I'll tell you that that flywheel is heavy. It was all the four of us could do to lift it.

We cleaned the crankshaft, filed out the flywheel hub, but there was no way it would go on. When they originally took off the flywheel they beat it off. They beat on it so hard there was a flat spot on the hub. We filed and filed but not really making much progress. Out comes the 20 pound hammer, Ron's favorite tool. We blocked the flywheel until it was lined up. Ron got it started, I held a block of wood on the hub while Frank and Lee steadied the wheel, and Ron beat it on! It went on ? inch and stopped. Now what? Lee put the bolt back in and tightened it up. They say it won't fall off. Boy, I hope they are right. It's scary rolling the engine out on those flywheels. Now we disconnect the natural gas line, the cooling lines, take off the clutch pulley and anchor bolts. We have to jack the engine up high enough to get the pipes under the base and get it over the anchor studs. The engine would not break loose! We started digging around in the dirt and grease and found that they had cemented over the base of the engine. The cement has to be broken away from the base. Then it comes easy. We get the pipes underneath and the engine starts to roll easily. Lee backed the trailer to the door and we blocked the ramps on the trailer, hooked up the winch, and out it came. It rolled easily on those big flywheels. It only took about three hours from the time we arrived until we were loaded. Not bad. After loading up the spare parts we headed out for a cold beer.

While we were sitting in the tavern, Frank told us the story of how the field got started. Gordon Campbell drilled the first well in northern Montana. It took eighteen months until completion, but on March 14, 1922 at 4:00 a.m., oil and gas gushed forth and the Kevin Sunburst Field was born. Sixty years, 4,000 wells and 73 million barrels of oil later the Sunburst field is still going strong.

It was pretty wild in the early days. Some wells yielded 5,000 barrels a day. Frank remembers one gusher that got away from the crew and flowed over the road off the lease where a neighbor hastily put up a dam and sold several thousand barrels out of the pond. Frank recalls in the 1920's when crude was 65 cents a barrel and you couldn't sell all you had. He says, 'We thought we were lucky when it went up to a dollar a barrel in 1936.' The Kevin Sunburst Field shows no signs of dying, just slowing down a bit, like anything does when it gets older.

Now, if you get eight to ten barrels a day you are doing well. Frank says this field is the closest thing to a functioning oil museum one will find. Even today some of the technology of the 1920's is in use in the form of rod pump houses powering a circle of well heads. Some of them still use 12 HP Fairbanks Model ZC's running on natural gas, which they have used for over sixty years.

Well, it's time to go. We thank Frank and head back to Shelby for supper and much needed sleep. We have been up now for 33 hours.

Sunday morning, bright and early we have a good breakfast, drop off the trailer and head back out to the field at Oil mount which is in between Sunburst and Shelby.

The first thing we see is a 50 HP Superior. Lee climbs up on the flywheel and it turns over easily after all these years. We went through about thirty engine houses. We found only one complete 25 HP Superior (not for sale) and another 50 HP still in beautiful shape. This engine looks like it was hardly ever run. In some of the engine houses you could see where they just dragged the engine right out through the wall. Pieces of engines lying all over the claim. There are still quite a few Fairbanks ZC's in the field, some still in use. Well, it's time to head back, pick up the trailer and head home.

After a long slow trip, we arrive back at Lee's. Now we have one more obstacle. We have to clear customs to get back into Canada. Lee offers to pressure wash, sand blast and primer the engine for us. We decide to take the engine to customs first and Lee can take the engine back with him to the United States. He will bring the engine to us the next weekend. At customs, I tell them our plan. They are more interested in the engine than us. What is it? Where did you get it? What did it do and so on? The customs officer who helped us get the engine cleared was great. He looked through his book until he found a listing... no duty. What a relief. He tells us because the engine was used for pumping oil and exploration, it was duty free.

We went home and Lee headed back to Everson. On the following Saturday, Lee showed up right on time. We rolled the engine off the trailer on the flywheels using the winch for a brake. The engine now sits on a couple of 14 inch timbers in my garage.

We now have the engine completely stripped. The only problems we have encountered are a stuck exhaust valve and finding someone to hone that 12 inch cylinder. We hope to have the engine restored and mounted on a trailer for our first meet in the new year. I would also like to hear from anyone who has any information on Superior Gas Engines.