P.O. Box 62032 San Angelo, Texas 76906-2032
Having spent some time in the oil patch in years past, I try to
visit the biennial Permian Basin Oil Show in Odessa, Texas, every
few years. Along with acres of shiny, glittering, freshly painted
new oil field equipment, there is an area set aside for the early
day tools of the trade. Among other things, there is a humongous
ditching machine, pulling units, production equipment and a
full-scale wooden drilling derrick complete with all drilling
tools. The derrick is powered by an ancient Ajax steam engine. The
Ajax is over one hundred years old and is driven by a gas fired
boiler. It quietly keeps the walking beam walking throughout the
three day show.
While visiting the show in October of 1994, I saw what was left
of an old one lung engine in the 20 to 30 HP range, eternally
resting over in a corner. It was lacking many parts, and so
thoroughly rusted that restoration seemed unlikely.
A little light flicked on.
During the summer of 1996, I called the Oil Show office in
Odessa and asked if they would like to have a working, running
exhibit of an old engine for the October show. They would.
I first saw ‘Big Red’ several years ago in Santa Anna,
Texas. Bill Helwig, of Miles, Texas, had restored the engine some
years earlier and was running it in the farm equipment exhibition
during the ‘Funtier Days’ celebration. Everything else at
the show was immediately forgotten as I stood there slobbering and
drooling, watching and listening to the big 25 HP Fairbanks-Morse
semi-diesel run. Bill took the engine to several following shows,
most of which I attended too, looking for smaller, much smaller,
engines. I got much too brave one day and told Bill that if he ever
decided to sell the engine, to please let me know I wanted to be
first in line. I popped off even more and made a tentative offer.
Some time later, we agreed on a deal for the engine, but neither of
us are talking about itI don’t want anybody to know how much I
paid for the engine, and Bill doesn’t want anyone to know how
little he got for it. Does that make sense?
So with that, Big Red, JoAn (my navigator) and I are off to
Odessa and the Permian Basin Oil Show. Mr. Clark, who had
overhauled the Ajax steam engine and was in charge of the old
equipment display, had us set up very near the old wooden
Out of the dozens of pieces of old equipment, only Big Red and
the Ajax were running. Big Red ran most of the hours of the three
day show. I shut down for two brief periods each day in order to do
my share of the gawking at all the new equipment. Rough necking
isn’t what it used to be.
There were always people around to watch the re-starts on the
hot tube engine. Lots of old pampers came by to look at the running
engine then cock an ear towards the exhaust and, almost to a man,
say, ‘That engine doesn’t sound right not noisy
enough.’ (Bill Helwig did a great job on the muffler relatively
quiet but authoritative exhaust.)
Many of the pampers, mostly retired now, related their own
experiences starting a hot ball engine. I do it the easy way and
use air for starting.
Since this story is about engines, let’s take a stroll
around the grounds and look at a few more that were on display.
Photo #4 shows a Witte generator used by Admiral Richard E.
Byrd. Photo #5 is the plaque attached to the generator base. In the
same display was a beautifully restored 2 HP Witte farm engine,
Large engines are still used in the oil patch, and Photo #7
shows a few of these.
About 100 feet from where Big Red was set up was the ultimate
side shaft engine, twin sideshafts. The El Paso Natural Gas Company
has one of its retired compressor engines on permanent display in
its own building. This compressor went into use on October 1, 1931,
and served until 1969. The engine, a Cooper-Bessemer Type 19, is an
800 HP horizontal tandem reciprocating compressor engine equipped
with two 10 x 24 inch gas compressor cylinders, and it weighs about
173,000 pounds. It served under load for 152,064 hours, compressing
more than 144 billion cubic feet of natural gas in its working
Even my wide angle lens couldn’t get it all. This engine has
four pistons and eight cylinders. There is a firing chamber on each
side of each piston. The engine is rated at 800 horse -power at 180
rpm. The white rectangular pipes going into the floor are exhaust
pipes. The white box between the cylinders contains an electric
motor and reduction gears to turn the engine at about 10 rpm. All
the parts move as they are supposed to. Notice that the flywheel is
in two pieces.
We all enjoyed a good time at the Oil Show, including Big
I have been wanting a good sideshaft engine and thought about
trying to work up a trade with the El Paso guys, but I couldn’t
figure out how to stuff all that in the back of the pickup, and
Joan (my navigator, remember ?) was getting a bit grumpy over the
thought of holding the flywheel in her lap all the way home.
I plan to return to the Permian Basin Oil Show.