A gas engine adventure
Editor’s note: The following is Part 1 of a multi-part series about the purchase, retrieval and restoration of an Oil City Boiler Works/South Penn cross-breed engine purchased by the North Jersey Antique Engine and Machinery Club in 2006. This article was edited for length in the September 2009 issue of Gas Engine Magazine. Below is the unedited version:
The North Jersey Antique Engine and Machinery club celebrated its 26th anniversary in 2006, and the club officers wanted to kick off our 27th in a big way. Off and on, we had been looking for a BIG engine to display at our meeting place, the Sussex County Farm and Horse Show Grounds, in Augusta, N.J. Up to that point, the biggest engine on display was an 8 HP Lister diesel generator which the club purchased several years ago. I had always wanted to attend the Coolspring Power Museum show, in Coolspring Pa., and that year, the opportunity presented itself, with an added bonus. This is the story as it unfolded.
I have been reading and working with Harry Matthews’ SmokStak website for several years. The site has an abundance of followers, and is an excellent reference guide for engine enthusiasts who are looking for information as well as parts and engines themselves. In my particular case, I was cruising thru the Engineads section when I ran across an ad by Tom Schoolcraft. It read as follows: “FOR SALE: One half-breed engine, 15 HP, must go, best offer!” I e-mailed Tom, requesting details about the engine, and asking roughly what it weighed.
The next evening I had my answers. The engine was an Oil City Boiler Works/ South Penn half-breed engine. He wanted best offer over scrap value, and it had to be removed within three weeks, or it was going to be cut up, and be scrapped along with a junk car he had on the property. No cracks, breaks, or welds to be seen, guesstimate weight of about 3,000 pounds, and the engine was possibly lightly stuck. It was sitting on its flywheels, and there was no way to try and turn it over. I then asked if he would send me some pictures, which he did right away. He told me the oiler and hot tube were missing, as well as the intake check/gas valve disc, but otherwise, the engine was complete and original.
I then called Blace Flatt, our club president, and told him of my find. He advised me to bring the engine up before the membership to see if we wanted to proceed with obtaining it. In the mean time, I contacted Tom, and asked if he was going to the Coolspring show in June. He told me he wasn’t going to make it this year, but that he lived only six hours from the show grounds. We finalized a price, and I then brought it up before the club. The club members voted to buy the engine, and our club secretary, Joe Cook, offered to reimburse the club and purchase the engine from them to use as a lawn ornament in case we couldn’t get it running. This brought a lot of guffaws and remarks of, “We’ll take you up on that!” from the membership.
The next question to answer was how we were going to transport the engine. I had told Blace that since I was already going to Coolspring, it was only logical I go the rest of the way and retrieve the engine. My only problem was what to bring it back with, but Blace told me that I could use his trailer. I figured that couldn’t be too hard as my truck, a 1996 Dodge Ram 1500, was already equipped to tow a small trailer that I already own. I was in for a rude awakening when I went to Blace’s home to pick up his trailer.
The first problem came in retrieving the trailer from where Blace had it stored. It already had an engine on it - a Hardie spray rig on the trailer - and it had to be removed before I took the trailer. It took over an hour maneuvering the rig in order to dismount it.
Then it came time to hook the trailer up. We found that the trailer was set way higher than the two trailers I own, and the two, 2-inch, class-3 hitch mounts I had set the tongue of the trailer too low for my truck to tow it from the storage area. Blace and I had to decouple the trailer from my truck and hook it up to his truck in order to tow it out of the yard. As Blace’s truck is 4-wheel drive, it sits about 6-inches taller than my 2-wheel drive version, and it had plenty of clearance. We towed it to more level ground, and tried to switch it back over to my truck again, but again ran into clearance problems. We finally decided to use Blace’s hitch mount in my receiver to try and gain height to level the trailer deck. His hitch actually made the deck ride high to the front, but I told him that it wasn’t a problem, as I was going to take my Charter-Mietz engine to Coolspring, and the 1,500 pound engine would level out the trailer just fine. With one problem out of the way, another one immediately cropped up!
When I went to plug in the trailer accessory power plug, I found that Blace’s trailer used a completely different system than either of the two trailers I own. I would have to build an adapter to convert the plug on his trailer to the receptacle on my truck. And as I soon found out, that was not the only problem I would encounter with only three days until I left for the show: Blace’s trailer was about twice as long as my engine transport trailer, and also was larger in other ways, which I will later explain.
My first object was to get the trailer to my home, and get the Charter-Mietz on board. As I pulled out of Blace’s yard, two things became immediately evident.
First, besides being longer than my engine transport, the trailer was much wider! My trailer is a single-axle trailer, rated at 3,500 pounds. The deck is 7-feet wide, 12-feet long, and the wheel spread is 8-feet outside to outside. Blace’s trailer has an 8-foot-by-16-foot deck, and the outboard dimension of the twin-axle unit is 8-feet, 10-inches. This meant that just driving down a rural road was going to be an adventure, as rural routes usually only have 9-foot lanes - I only encounter 10-feet lanes on the interstate highways.
The second issue was that when I left Blace’s home, one set of tires was on the double-line center line, and the others were flirting with the edge of the pavement and the dirt shoulder! As I approached a local state highway, another motorist decided I was not going fast enough, and he decided to pass me in a no-passing zone. The only problem with that was that the lane was already occupied by an oncoming car. The passing jerk had to swerve in front of me to avoid being hit head on, and in the process, made me slam on my brakes to avoid ramming him. My Dodge wanted to stop, but the trailer wanted to keep going, and the trailer nearly won! So, besides having to re-wire the truck, I now had to buy and install a trailer brake system as well. It was a hairy ride home, as the trailer wanted to pass me up several times, and making turns was a new experience, as well.
The next morning was Saturday, and I spent all day buying materials, and installing the new braking mechanism. The wiring was explained to my by the salesman at the trailer supply, but even that job had its problems. After I installed the new wiring, and made up an adapter to utilize both trailer systems, when connected to Blace’s trailer I immediately blew the brake fuse in my truck. It let go with an audible “snap” when it blew. After I installed a new fuse, I again tried all the lights. Left signal - OK. Right signal - OK. Brake lights – OK. Running lights - OK. Good to go, I thought, until I stepped on the brakes again and “snap” went the fuse! I installed another fuse, tried the brakes again and “snap” went my last fuse. Now, it was five minutes to 9 p.m. I quickly drove to the auto parts store, only to find that they closed at 9 PM. I wasn’t able to finish the job that night.
Sunday morning, I did my usual rounds at my firehouse (I have been a Fireman - First Responder with the Rockaway Fire Department for over 16 years), and then went to the auto parts store to buy more fuses. I then went home, hooked up the trailer, and double-checked the wiring color codes. Everything looked OK, and everything checked OK too, until I tapped the brakes, with the running lights on. “Snap” went another fuse! I then took another look at Blace’s trailer wiring, and found the problem. Whoever wired the trailer, when it was built, transposed the trailer ground with the trailer brakes wiring. When the parking light switch was off, all power grounding was back-fed thru the trailer brakes. There was enough resistance, that all the lights would light without locking up the wheels. But when the running lights were lit, the trailer brakes were grounded through the running lights. When the brakes were applied, BLAM, short circuit, which would promptly blow the fuse. As Blace’s truck was wired to match the trailer, and he had no problems, I could not repair the trailer problem, without rewiring his truck as well. I had to rewire my adapter to meet the trailer requirements. This took half a day to sort out.
Finally, I was ready to put the Charter-Mietz on the trailer! Blace has a winch on a portable mount that he uses to pull his engines and tractors aboard with. I, however, did not have the hard-wire power system that he has in his truck, so the C-M had to be loaded manually. What a bear it was trying to get that heavy beast on the trailer! First, I had to tow it up the hill in my driveway with my Dodge truck. I also had to pull it out of the driveway and partly up the hill in front of my house. The engine cart wheels were then chocked, and then I had to hook up the trailer and face it down hill. This done, I tried to let the slope of the hill assist me to load the engine. It didn’t quite work out, and I ended up using a cable come-along, to pull the engine onto the trailer. Once on the wood deck though, the cable come-along was the least of my problems. As the trailer was now on a hill, and the deck was smooth, once the engine cleared the thresh hold it began to accelerate toward the front of the trailer. But I figured that the engine would do just that, and was prepared! I had two 4-inch-by-4-inch blocks to put in front of the cart wheels, in case such a thing should happen, and they did their job.
After the engine was loaded, I chocked the wheels on the trailer, and disconnected it so I could go to work the next day. The next evening was spent setting up the new trailer brake switch, so the trailer wheels would not lock up. After this chore was finished, it was time to load the accessories that I would need to run the C-M, such as the SAE 50 oil, the starting torch, and kerosene, as well as other various items. The truck and trailer were finally ready to go.
I emailed Tom for specific directions to his home, and at 4 a.m. on Thursday morning I was off. I drove through town and in a few minutes was traveling west on Interstate 80 At first it took some time getting used to the drag and the rolling characteristics of the trailer. The hardest part was trying to find the “sweet spot” in the mirrors that would center the trailer in lane behind the truck. As the trailer was over a foot wider than the truck, this took no little effort, I can tell you! Due to the larger trailer and its load, my fuel mileage went down to about 13 MPG. Considering the truck only got about 14.8 MPG tops, I did not feel that this was excessive. Little did I realize what was to come!
The Pennsylvania border was only 50 minutes away, and at this time in the morning, there was little traffic. All went well for the first leg of the trip, AND I passed the exit for Coolspring at approximately 2 p.m. that afternoon. I had averaged 65 to 70 MPH so far, and had maintained the 13 MPG I expected. Some of the longer hills (mountains) needed a drop out of overdrive, and a few even needed second gear to maintain speed. Some construction zones limited speed to 50 MPH, but that didn’t seem to faze the Dodge any. I figured I was ahead of schedule, and ought to make it to Tom’s by possibly 5:30 or 6 p.m. at the latest. There was just one little problem though.
Tom’s directions seemed to be pretty straight forward: “I-80 West to I-73 South, about three hours from Coolspring exit; Go to PA 50 West, about another two hours drive, and get on to it - it is a four-lane highway; Go 50 miles, look for my road on the left, turn and go 8 miles. You can’t miss it - there are engines on both sides of the road.”
Things went well at first - I-80 to I-73 was a no brainer. Another two hours past Coolspring, and I was on the ramp. I-73 South to PA 50 West was another story. I got onto PA 50 West, all right, and started driving. After about 5-1/2 miles, it turned into a two-lane rural looking road, but kept going west. Eventually, the road came to a T-type intersection and I had only gone about 48 miles. I didn’t see Tom’s road, but I did see, right in front of me, a big sign saying “Welcome to West Virginia!” “Oh, boy!” I thought. I tried calling Tom on my cell phone, but had no reception. Thinking I had missed his turn, I tried back tracking, but to no avail. I eventually got to an area that had cell reception, and I reached Tom. At first he did not realize what I was talking about, and I didn’t get what he was saying either. As he explained it, his PA Route 50 was a four-lane highway all the way. I told him, “No way,” that the PA 50 I was on turned into a two-lane after about 5 miles. By this time I had backtracked all the way to the four-lane and drove the 5-1/2 miles to I-73. I again called Tom, and he finally figured out the problem. I was still about 50 Miles from his PA 50; the Route 50 I was on was an old road, now called an alternate. How nice of the Pennsylvania road commission to change the signage! Getting back onto I-73 was an adventure, and it took 45 due to road construction. Now, instead of being two hours ahead of schedule, I was one hour behind, with another 100+ miles to go! Man was I mad.
It took another two hours to get to Toms’ road, and trying to get across 4 lanes of traffic with an oversize trailer was a real challenge. Getting to Tom’s house was even worse! It turns out that Tom’s access road is actually a public road, which is only one lane wide at most points. It was a real experience trying to navigate the hills and turns, not knowing whether I was going to meet one of his neighbors the hard way. Thankfully, on the way in, there were no problems. Finding Tom’s place, was just as described! There were engines all over! Some had flywheels over 6-feet in diameter! I saw the ones in his yard right away, but the ones across the street took a little time to sort out. Tom was in his front yard, when I pulled up, and said “I guess you’re Andy - glad to see you finally made it!” It was almost 7:30 p.m. Tom gave me a quick tour of the engines he had, and when I asked how many he had, he had to think a minute. “Well I guess somewhere about 20 or so,” he said. The smallest was a 6 HP Fairbanks-Morse, and the largest - a 40 HP engine - that was in the midst of restoration. Then he showed me the engine I had come to see: the Oil City Boiler Works/South Penn half-breed with serial number 4827 stamped into the cylinder.
According to Tom, it had a sister engine, and started life as an Oil City steam engine, built in the late 1880s. Originally, it had been supplied by a portable boiler, and was used to drill five or six oil wells, in the town of McFarland, W. Va. The engine was later used to pump the oil. The boiler was fed by wood to make the steam. After a while, all the trees were gone, and another source of fuel was needed. As coal was an impractical alternative, it was decided to convert the engine into an internal combustion engine. The boiler and the steam cylinder, as well as the steam chest, were removed from the engine. A gas engine cylinder, piston, and intake assembly, made by South Penn, was installed on the steam engine bed frame, and an extra heavy flywheel was added to the crankshaft. This new flywheel also had a drilled flange mounted on the outboard side, with which to mount a clutch and pulley set up. Tom had the pulley, and said it was also for sale. It weighs 1,000 pounds! At some time in the past, the original steam engine flywheel must have worked loose, as the entire hub was gas welded directly to the crankshaft, for its entire circumference - no mean feat for field work in the early 1900s. This must be a common fault with the Oil City engine conversions, as nearly every one I have seen has had this done to it. The new internal combustion engine got its fuel from the natural gas formally wasted at the oil well heads, which was free fuel! In the next three days at the Coolspring show, I saw five of these engine conversions, four of which had welded steam side flywheels! My thoughts were that the steam flywheel was not meant to take the sudden rapid acceleration and decelerations generated by the action of the gas engine cylinder. In any case, the heavy flywheel was needed to carry the crankshaft over the compression stroke.
The engines pumped oil for most of their lives, but the wells apparently ran dry of oil, and the leases were abandoned sometime in the 1960s. Now, 45 years later, with the price of crude oil what it is, a new company has purchased these old leases, and is drilling even deeper, and is using new technology to bring the oil out of the ground. Tom purchased both of the engines, and brought them home.
After looking the engine over briefly, and finding it as described, I paid Tom for the engine, and he went to get his flatbed truck, to help me get the old engine loaded onto Blace’s trailer. At this time, I noted that the exhaust stack had been burned off to about 2 feet from the end of the pipe, and that the intake valve assembly had been removed from the engine at some point. The valve itself was missing, and the seat was heavily rusted and pitted. The cooling system return piping coming off the top of the cylinder, was heavily corroded, and would have to be replaced as well. I moved the Charter-Mietz engine to the side, and rear of the trailer, both for easy access at the show, and to help balance the load of the engines. Tom then winched the oil field engine onto the tail of the flat-bed truck, and we jockeyed both vehicles in order to help center the load. Tom tipped the flat bed of the truck, and the engine slid right to the edge of the trailer, where it came to a quick halt. It seemed that the engine was stuck harder than we first thought! We ended up setting up a relay pulley to gain mechanical advantage and used it to pull the engine fully onto the trailer. We stopped when the engine was about 2/3 up the trailer, with the weight bias to the front of the trailer. The C-M was then rolled toward the front, until all four trailer tires seemed equally loaded, and when it was securely strapped down, I was ready to go. I asked Tom if it was alright if I took pictures of the engines in his yards, and he graciously gave me permission. When I was done, we said our good byes, and I pulled away.
I decided to test the trailer braking system independently from the truck brakes and it’s a good thing I did. I had to bring up the braking aggressiveness to 7 on a scale of 10, and braking power load was set at 95 percent without locking up the trailer wheels! I no sooner had them set, when I came to a narrow section of the road. Wouldn’t you know, a small sedan came barreling over a slight hill, and attempted to pass by, without even bothering to slow down. I figured he would get by the truck, but I knew he wouldn’t get by the wide trailer. At the last second, the trailer gave a huge lurch, and began to tip onto its right side. I locked up all the brakes, and skidded to a stop in about eight feet! When all the mud and dust cleared, I got out of the truck, and went to see what had happened. The oncoming car was long gone. When I got to the rear of the trailer, what had happened became rapidly apparent. Unseen by me, because of heavy overgrowth, there was a drainage ditch about 2-feet deep along the shoulder of the road. The truck tires were right at the edge of the asphalt, but the trailer, being 10 inches wider, had broken the edge of the pavement, for about 10 feet, and then the road finally had given way, dropping the right side trailer wheels off into the ditch. Luckily, the tires were undamaged, but the only thing keeping the trailer from tipping on its side, was the fact that the two axles and the rear of the trailer frame were now resting on the pavement, where it had broken off. I tried to move the truck forward and backwards, in order to bring the trailer back onto the road, but all I succeeded in doing was setting the right rear truck tire dangerously close to joining the trailer wheels in the ditch! I just sat there frustrated and helpless to do anything. There was a farm house nearby, with an old oil lease and pump jack in the side yard across the street from where the truck was stranded but no one was home. My cell phone had no reception, so I couldn’t call for help either, and it was now getting dark to boot. While I was waiting for someone to come by, I figured I would take a few pictures of the old oil lease.
A few minutes later, the farm owner drove by, and pulled into his driveway. As I started walking toward him, he turned the car around and asked if I needed help. I said “Looks like it!” He told me he knew a buddy who drove a tow truck, and that he would give him a call. About 10 minutes later, who shows up, but Tom, with the flatbed truck we had loaded the engine with! “Looks like a mess,” he said. “Yup” was my reply. At first we thought of de-coupling the trailer, and then using the flat bed to pull it out, but the more we looked at it, we were thinking that the trailer may tip further into the ditch, as the back end of the truck was the only thing keeping the trailer fairly stable. Tom decided to go around and try to pull the truck and trailer as a unit down the road. But the problem was that he couldn’t pass the truck, as there was not enough road! He ended up going out to PA-50 by another route, and then had to back in to where I was stuck, in reverse (about 2 miles, I reckoned). That was some driving job, I’ll tell you! It only took us about two minutes to hook up, and with me idling in 1st gear, and the flat bed in granny low, we inched forward. It took about 25-feet to get the trailer back on pavement and was a hair-raising experience! I thanked Tom and his neighbor and again got under way, now with Tom in the lead. No one was going to mess with the big flatbed truck! When we got to the highway, I gave Tom a gratuity, thanked him for his help and assistance, and we again parted ways. I was now under way back to Coolspring, with the big engine in tow. I figured that I now had about a 5 hour run back to the hotel I had booked for visiting the show. This would put me at Coolspring at about midnight. WRONG!!!
My first sign of trouble was that the truck virtually refused to run in 3rd gear, much less overdrive, even on the flat! As soon as you tried to put any pressure on the throttle, it would go to second gear, all the way to 75 MPH. Up shifts were brief, and the truck would quickly lose speed. After about an hour on PA-50, the truck suddenly lost power, going down hill, and the engine quit. I was ready to tear my hair out, as I had just seen a sign that said “Next gas - 25 miles.” I saw an exit ramp about 1/4 mile ahead, gauged my distance and load, and decided to try for it. As I entered the ramp, across the intersection, I saw a gas station. Thank heavens, I ended up with a green light at the last second, and I coasted to a stop - no brakes, right next to the regular gas pump. I told the attendant to fill it, and waited for the tank to fill. The buzzard took 35 gallons! It took about three tries, and four more re-starts, in order to get the air out of the fuel pump, and the injectors, and to get the engine running smoothly. I stopped inside the station, to pay the fuel bill, and got something quick to eat. There were a couple of Pennsylvania State Troopers inside, as well, and we chatted about an accident I had heard about on the radio. I was underway in a few minutes, and quickly got back onto PA-50. After about an hour, I reached I-73, and headed back north toward I-80. After 173 miles, I noticed that the fuel gauge was reading low, and I stopped at a service station, and got gas. The truck took 32 gallons, which meant I was only getting about 5.4 MPG! “This is nuts,” I thought, as I re-entered the highway.
Right after the stop, I got onto I-80, and figured I would be in bed by about 1 a.m. as it was taking slightly longer with the heavy load on the trailer. About 2-1/2 hours later, I was just cresting a hill on I-80, when the engine began to sputter. I glanced at the gas gauge, and it was pinned on empty and a quick glance at the odometer told me why. It read 197 miles. The engine regained rhythm as I topped the hill, and I then saw a sign, “Gas - 2 miles ahead.” “Should just make it,” I thought, and went up the next rise on the highway. How wrong I was! As the truck crested the hill, the engine again sputtered to a stop, and the check engine light came on, as well as all the other instrument warning lights. The truck and trailer coasted to a stop - there weren’t even fumes left in the tank. I could see the next exit, about 1/2 mile ahead, and toyed with the idea of walking to the exit. I had a gas can in the bed of the truck, but it had 2-cycle gas in it, and I didn’t want to put that into the tank. I couldn’t get cell reception, so I decided to walk to the exit. I set out several flares, and then started off.
About 1/2 way to the exit, I again tried the cell phone, dialing 911. This time I got a dispatcher for the Pennsylvania State Police. I explained to the officer what had happened, and he told me to stay with the truck, as he was sending a car to assist me. I thought about it for a few minutes - the exit seemed so close - but reason prevailed and I returned to the truck.
It was now about 1 a.m. Half-an-hour later, the Pennsylvania State Police finally showed up, and in the car, were the two officers that I had talked to at the last gas station. I told them what I had thought I was going to do, and they told me it was a good thing I had returned to the truck. “You see,” one of the officers said, “the station you were going walk to closed at midnight.” I would have walked all that way for nothing! The officers called a road assistance dispatcher, and they then set out some flares, as mine had burned out. The officers were very kind and courteous, and I wish I had taken the time to get their names. They surely deserve some recognition for their assistance to a stranded motorist. They stayed with me until the road side assistance truck arrived, and then went on their way. The service truck gave me 2-1/2 gallons of gas, and directed me to get off at the next exit, go straight for 8 miles, and go to the Quick-Way gas station. I paid for the gas and the service, played the game, getting the engine to fire on all cylinders, and made off for the exit. I followed the instructions to the letter, but found the Quick-Way closed! I shut off the engine, in the station parking lot, and stopped to collect my thoughts. At 5 MPG, I figured I only had about another 5 miles left in the tank, if that! I then made another 911 call, and happened to get the same dispatcher as before. I told him what had transpired, and I heard another officer tell him that this station closes at 2 a.m. After a few minutes, he gave me directions to a station that was open 24 hours, but it was about four miles away. I told the dispatcher that I may be giving him another call, as I did not know if the truck had that much gas left in it! I fired up the truck, made a left turn out of the station, and up the road I went. As the truck crested yet another rise, the engine just flat quit. Thankfully, as I crested the hill, I could see the open gas station. The decline down the road to the gas station was slight, and I had a red light facing me. The truck and trailer kept going slower and slower but fortunately, the light turned green just before I would have had to have used the brakes. The truck just made it over the hump in the road, at the service station entrance, but the trailer did not want to follow. The truck had nearly stopped with the trailer at the top of the hump. As I was trying to figure what to do, the truck began to inch toward the gas pump, coasting ever so slowly, in silence. The truck and trailer finally stopped, so that the station attendant had to stretch the pump hose as far as it would go, in order to reach the fill pipe on the truck. The truck again took 35 gallons! I finally made my way back to I-80, and continued on my trip. I eventually reached the Coolspring exit, and pulled into the hotel parking lot at 4 a.m. Friday morning. I had been on the road 24 hours!