A life on the oil lease
Don Griffin had just purchased a clutch plate for his Allis-Chalmers W226 power unit from Sandy Lake Implement in Sandy Lake, Pa., and handed me a check from the Summit Oil Co. account.
When I questioned him about the job the power unit did he replied that it pumped some oil wells. I was curious about his operation but, in the midst of a hectic day for both of us, we had little time for further chatting. He headed back to the lease and I returned to the daily press of business as owner of the dealership. He struck me as an interesting fellow during our brief encounter and I hoped our paths would cross again someday.
We meet again!
Fast forward more than a year. Thanksgiving Day 2006 found me riding as passenger on my son-in-law’s ATV heading out to inspect an old oilfield engine he had discovered rusting away under the last remaining boards of a shed. We were on frequently traveled ATV club trails so my hopes of finding anything real special weren’t exceedingly high. I was delighted when our excursion ended beside a 12 HP Reid engine that lacked only the oilers to make it 100 percent complete! My quest for the owner began right then and there and came to fruition several weeks later with me knocking on the door of the house on Porter Road with the Summit Oil Co. name on the mailbox. There was no one home at the time so I jotted down the address and left my business card in the door.
When I called a couple days later, Don Griffin came to the phone and our paths intersected once more. My dealings with Mr. Griffin resulted in me purchasing the Reid and becoming convinced that this was a man who had led an interesting life in an admirable and honest way. I was enthused when he asked if I remembered the Allis-Chalmers power unit he had bought the clutch for and invited me to come with him on his rounds some Saturday morning to see it working. That was in the spring of 2007, so we must leap ahead again to late fall of that year when business had slowed enough to allow me to take some time off from the dealership.
A modern oil lease
I met Don and his nephew, Clinton, several hundred yards off the blacktop road on an access road that is used to reach the main crude oil storage tank. Clinton is Don’s apprentice and right-hand man and is the intended third-generation successor to Summit Oil Co.
I waited there while the two of them took off on their ATVs to begin their six-day a week routine of pumping the various wells. Don went on ahead to check over the machinery at the powerhouse on the far side of the lease and fire up the Allis, while Clinton started up several of the 8 HP Briggs & Stratton engines that powered the many individual wells throughout that section of the 470 acre property. Clinton then came back for me and I enjoyed another ride through some of God’s beautiful creation, which was made even more special by the fresh dusting of snow that had fallen the night before.
We crossed Scrubgrass Creek at one of the points where it flows fifty feet wide over smooth bedrock as far up and downstream as the eye can see. After going alongside and under various moving rod lines we arrived in a clearing on the valley floor at the old powerhouse. It had been constructed from rough lumber many decades before and had been faced with a layer of tarpaper, much of which had fallen off over the years revealing the honey colored boards underneath. The rod lines reaching out to the various wells danced methodically back and forth as they had for thousands of days before. They reminded me of an immense musical instrument creating a rhythm in tune with the sound of the engine and eccentric power working away unseen within the walls of the building.
Don was outside checking the lines with an expert’s eye to determine which wells had pumped off and which ones were still bringing up the amazing substance that had formed eons ago and lay waiting in the sandrock below at a depth of 800 to 1,200 feet. He invited me into the powerhouse where the only light was what sunlight shone through the open door and through the rod slots in the walls.
The heart of the operation
Near the center of the building sat the Allis-Chalmers W226 power unit humming away like it has for 10 to 12 hours a week for the past 25 years. Doing the math reveals total running hours of 13,000 to 15,000. It has never needed any internal repairs – not even a valve job – and Don says it uses, at most, a quart of oil in six months.
This kind of longevity is noteworthy even if the Griffins had purchased the engine new, but they had not. Don’s uncle had bought it in the 1960s from a construction outfit that used it to run large fans. The Griffins first installed it in a powerhouse on the hillside in sight of where we had parked our vehicles near the storage tank. It replaced a Bob White single-cylinder flywheel engine and worked 15 wells. When the eccentric power it was belted to self-destructed, the engine was moved to its current site in the valley powerhouse where it replaced a 50 HP Waukesha 4-cylinder engine that had thrown a connecting rod out through the cylinder block. The Waukesha had been installed to replace a worn out Bessemer “half-breed” conversion engine.
A clean running AC
The thousands of hours of repair-free use are due in no small part to the use of natural gas as fuel. It burns so cleanly that soot and other carbon residues are nearly non-existent. The oil does not get fouled with these residues so friction surfaces are not subjected to the wear that such particles produce. I actually found the unit’s original flat fuel tank and underhood starting tank, identical to the ones used on unstyled WC tractors, in pristine condition where they had been set aside in the first powerhouse on the hillside. The natural gas is collected through a network of pipes from around 50 oil wells that create a natural pressure of 6 PSI at the regulator where it is stepped down to just a few ounces to feed the engine. Spark is provided by magneto and starting is accomplished with a hand crank.
The Simplex eccentric
The AC drives a Simplex brand eccentric power via a trio of V belts. The action of the Simplex makes a pleasant rumbling sound as it pulls rod lines up to a 1/4-mile long for ten wells with a total combined production of about one barrel per day. It has powered as many as 13 wells in the past.
The lines are connected to the eccentric rings of the Simplex in a balanced fashion, attached to opposite sides of the ring. As a line running to one well is being pulled in, the opposite line is traveling out, thereby reducing the engine horsepower required. The load still varies, however, and the governor of the AC applies a surge of power on a regular basis, which adds to the interesting cacophony of sounds. This is the only central power set up that Don still uses. The remainder of his wells are driven individually by the 8 HP Briggs & Stratton engines mentioned previously.
Don has drilled 34 wells himself over the years with the last being No. 58 in the early 1990s. His log notes that it was fractured by Otto Cupler Torpedo Co. utilizing approximately 30 quarts of nitroglycerin. Don has drilled 13 dry holes, but is quick to explain that a marginal well is even worse than a dry hole. He says you can pull your pipe and plug a dry hole then move on, but when a well produces marginally you keep putting time and money into it hoping to make it profitable, often with poor results. The oldest producing well on the lease is No. 4, which was drilled in 1897 and still brings forth about 1/10th barrel per day. That is the average output for wells throughout Pennsylvania in recent times.
Just over the top of the hill to the west on a neighboring lease was one of the most famous wells in the entire oil region. The Big Injun was completed in June 1877 and flowed 3,600 barrels of crude in the first 24 hours! Discoveries like the Big Injun were what created boom towns like Summit City, where the first house was erected in December 1876. The town boasted 180 buildings and 1,000 residents by the following June when the Big Injun came in. This landmark well was plugged in the late 1960s with production still at a very respectable two barrels per day. Today, what remains of Summit City is located between Clintonville and Kennerdell, and includes several dozen acres of woods with scores of hand-dug, rock-lined water cisterns and abandoned oil wells flagged for safety by the Pa. Game Commission.
Origins of Summit Oil Co. Summit Oil Co. came into existence in 1948 when Don’s father, Park Griffin, left the employ of Quaker State Oil Co. and struck out on his own.
He had worked for Forest Oil Co. based in Bradford, Pa., until they sold out to Quaker State, at which time he took a transfer to the Bullion area. He remained with Quaker State for just one year before deciding the time was right to start his own company.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Park employed 10 men and had crews in the field 24 hours a day drilling oil wells for him and others in the area. Don first worked for the company in 1946 when he was 12 years old. That summer he helped lay two miles of 2-inch pipe from the gas fields west of their Summit City area lease to the new compressor station they had erected. The volume of gas needed surpassed what came off their own wells because they were injecting it back into the sandrock through what is known as a five-spot pattern. Four wells are drilled in a square layout then a fifth well is drilled in the center and is pressurized with the natural gas piped to it from the compressor at 35 PSI. The idea is that the pressure in the center well will push the oil through the sand out to the surrounding four where it is then collected. The process saw widespread use after the natural pressure on the substrate had been depleted or was nonexistent.
Don remembers this particular pressure station was powered by a 50 HP Bessemer engine that ran around the clock for more than 20 years! He could hear the engine from his home at the time and could tell by its sound when a gas line had plugged – where condensation had accumulated in a low spot and froze. That meant a search in frigid weather and often darkness to locate and thaw the blockage.
The owner of the adjoining lease decided to save money by using compressed air in his system instead of natural gas. His savings were short-lived however because the continual supply of oxygen in the compressed air greatly accelerated corrosion and soon the entire network of pipes, including the ones in each injection well, had rusted through. The entire operation closed down because the outlay for new pipe could not be justified. I have visited the two pressure stations on that lease. Both buildings and engines are in surprisingly good condition. One has a 50 HP Bovaird & Seyfang and the other has a Ball engine still belted up to an Ingersoll-Rand compressor.
At age 15, Don worked summers when school was out as a tool dresser for his father’s drilling crews. By age 17 he was working for him full-time.
He has seen oil sell at a low of $4 per barrel in the 1950s and a high of $138 in the fall of 2008, shortly before I interviewed him for this story. The $4 price in the 1950s was actually profitable considering the cost of producing and drilling at the time. An average well could be drilled for around $3,000 then. A well to the same depth would cost $75,000 today. The worst period was as recently as 2001 when oil was bringing only $8.50 a barrel.
Don Griffin observed his 74th birthday in 2008 and has worked the leases of Summit Oil Co. full time for 57 of them. The Allis-Chalmers W226 has been an integral part of the operation for a majority of those years and continues to serve faithfully day after day. Perhaps his nephew Clinton will be able to demonstrate it to a member of yet another generation of AC admirers in the future.
Contact Bill Klein at 726 Klein Rd., Sandy Lake, PA 16145 • firstname.lastname@example.org.