The History of the B.D. Tillinghast Machine Shop

| January/February 2002

  • B.D. Tillinghast and his employees

  • Old Tillinghast shop
    The old Tillinghast shop in McDonald, Pa., sometime around 1900.
  • Tillinghast Machine Shop

  • Tillinghast Compressor
    Tillinghast was also well-known for its line of industrial compressors.
  • Tillinghast gas cylinders

  • B.D. Tillinghast and his employees
  • Old Tillinghast shop
  • Tillinghast Machine Shop
  • Tillinghast Compressor
  • Tillinghast gas cylinders

A rare Picture of B.D. Tillinghast and his employees in front of the machine shop, circa 1905. Tillinghast is the man wearing the Derby (third from left).

Historians tell us that in terms of the quality of light, whale oil was superior to petroleum-based lamp oil. However, petroleum-based lamp oil was much cheaper. After Drake drilled the first well, there was an oil boom in and around Oil City, Pa., driven by the huge demand for this new and cheaper lamp oil. Derricks mushroomed all over that part of Pennsylvania, but the drills for the well and pumps for the oil were almost always powered by a steam engine, which were bought by the thousands to operate these wells.

In 1882 the first commercial gas well came on line in Washington County, Pa., and oil was later discovered in the same area in 1885. Thousands of new gas and oil wells were drilled and operated using steam engines in and around the Washington County area during the 1880s-1890s, and by the turn of the century, the McDonald Oil Field in Washington County was the second largest oil field in the world.

Steam engines had two major drawbacks when used in the oil field, however. First, they posed a real fire hazard when the well came in. Oil gushing out from the ground was ignited sometimes by the fire in the boiler, and if this happened, the whole operation would burn to the ground. The second was much more important. After a while the well required pumping only part of a day. So with a steam engine, the boiler had to be lit, brought up to temperature, and then used to pump for only a while, which could be as short as a few hours. This was a time consuming and expensive method to pump crude.

When Otto's gas engine patent ran out, firms started to make oil field engines, engines that would not ignite a gusher and were relatively easy to start and shut down. Best yet, there was an easy and cheap supply of fuel at each of the wells. Natural gas - a byproduct of oil production - could be capped and used to fuel a gas engine.

There are many similarities between steam engines and oil field gas engines of that day. Both were about the same size, both had a crankshaft and piston, and both had a large cast iron base. In fact, it was possible to make a gas engine out of a steam engine by simply changing the 'top' of the engine. By adding a gas engine cylinder, some sort of carburetion and a governor, a steam engine could be converted into a gas engine, which could then run off of the waste natural gas that came with the crude oil. Several firms started making these conversions, which came to be known as half-breed engines. The Bessemer Gas Engine Company is generally considered to be the first to produce half-breed engines. Misters Fithian and Carruthers were the founders of Bessemer, but much of the credit for using gas engines in the oil fields has to go to Fithian. Although steam engines can start under load, gas engines cannot. The clutch was therefore necessary to adopt gas engines for this kind of work, and Fithian invented the clutch used on oil field engines, thus allowing them to be substituted for steam engines. However, many firms produced oil field engines, and among these was the Tillinghast Machine Shop.

The End

B.D. Tillinghast, who was 11 when President Lincoln was assassinated, died in 1945 at the age of 89. At that time Tillinghast's middle grandson, Donal Galbraith, was on a supply aircraft carrier in the Pacific fighting the Japanese. While Donal Galbraith was serving in WW II, relatives of B.D. Tillinghast convinced him to shut down the machine shop and use the building to house a frozen food warehouse. When the machinery was removed from the old shop, almost all of the papers, accounting records, and photographs of the Tillinghast Machine Shop were thrown away. When Donal Galbraith came home after the war, he was able to find only a few of the old records at what had become the frozen food warehouse. These consist of 20 or so letters, and less than two dozen pictures, some still on glass plates.

Donal still has memories of growing up with his grandfather, and he spoke with us in length about his memories, which, he admits, are from the perspective of a boy toward his grandfather. Because he was a child when B.D. Tillinghast was still alive, the business aspects of Tillinghast's business are pretty well lost to the past. Regardless, Donal did spend a short time working at his grandfather's side prior to going into the service.

The Beginning

B.D. Tillinghast started out his career in Oil City, Pa. A graduate of Grove City College majoring in mathematics, he and his partner ran a machine shop servicing the oil industry there in 1883. In 1892, he came to McDonald, Pa., to setup his own machine shop. At that time the oil field in Washington/McDonald was the second largest oil field in the world. His 'shop' (by 19th century standards it was really a small factory) specialized in servicing the oil fields in and around the Washington/McDonald area. As his business expanded, his shop started building half-breed engines, compressors and some mining equipment for the coal industry. His shop also 'repaired mine, mill and oil well machinery,' and it handled 'new and secondhand machinery and engine fittings of all kinds,' according to a history of Washington County. Even so, B.D. Tillinghast became famous mainly for half-breed engines and compressors, and the firm's market eventually grew to include the entire nation, reaching to markets in Texas and California.

The Productive Years

Although company records are all but missing, we have put together what information we can, and it appears that the Tillinghast Machine Shop produced two different kinds of half-breed engines. One was of B.D. Tillinghast's own design and the other he built for D.C. & U. Although no accounting records are left, most of the photographs of the shop that are left show the production of D.C. & U. engines. The Tillinghast Machine Shop was the principal partner of D.C. & U.

D.C. & U. are the initials of three men, Gustave Dahlberg, Jacob Clicquennoi and Ernest Uhlin. These three men held two 1899 patents (patent numbers 633338 and 633339) on their engine. The engine was of a very unusual design as it could run either on natural gas or steam. They were half-breed engines, which maximized flexibility for the operator of the well. As it turned out, gas at the wellhead was not always a dependable source of power - sometimes there was not enough natural gas built up to run a gas engine. In that case the operator could fire up the boiler and use steam to power the well. Furthermore, according to a Tillinghast advertisement, there were some things that a steam engine could do better than a gas engine. These were, 'pulling tubing and rods and for cleaning out.'

Looking inside the Tillinghast Machine Shop, circa 1900. D.C. & U. cylinders prepped for fabrication can be seen to the left, with cylinders and cylinder heads also visible in the background.

The D.C. & U. half-bread was mounted on the front of a steam engine, and B.D. Tillinghast advertisements said of them: 'The D.C. & U. Convertible Cylinder can be attached directly to the bed plate of any standard oil company steam engine. It is installed by simply removing the steam cylinder and putting the D.C. & U. in its place. The engine pulley is replaced with a one-way clutch.'

Because of the lack of company records, it is impossible to tell how many of these engines were produced by the Tillinghast Machine Shop. However, we do know that in the surviving pictures many of the engines shown are D.C. & Us. We also know that the shop was very busy. From a 1900 article in the local paper, we know that the shop was producing at or near capacity. For example, the article states that 'a carload has been ordered to be shipped to Indian Territory.' We also know that B.D. Tillinghast had 14 full-time employees in 1908, and we also know (from a Tillinghast advertisement) that the Tillinghast Machine Shop produced D.C. & U.s for over 20 years. Given all of this, we estimate it is likely that thousands of D.C. & U.s were produced. It is interesting to note here that in viewing the surviving engines in the Washington/McDonald area oil field, neither of the authors has ever seen a D.C. & U. engine in the field. However, there is a surviving D.C. & U. engine at the Cool spring, Pa., Power Museum.

The Tillinghast Machine Shop also produced its own brand of half-breed engine. It was, of course, the B.D. Tillinghast engine. Although there are many remaining examples of this engine, little is known concerning how many of these engines were made. No production records remain for the Tillinghast Company, and Donal has no knowledge (he was not even born when most of the production took place) of how many engines of either type were produced. This information, like many other facets of the company, is simply lost to the past. However, we can tell from the remaining sales literature that these engines had many practical uses and many satisfied customers.

Tillinghast compressors were also known in the oil field, as a photo from an advertisement shows.

In order to be successful in that era, an owner of an engine company had to be a smart businessman, a creative craftsman and an engineer. B.D. Tillinghast was all of these. He specialized in the production, repair and sales of oil, gas and coal equipment. Of the many things his machine shop produced, he is most famous for engines and compressors, although he produced many other devices for the oil, gas and coal industries. What type of equipment and how much was made is not known. We believe he made thousands upon thousands of engines, some of which were D. C. & U.s, and some of which were the Tillinghast gas cylinders of his own design.


Donal Galbraith's recollections of his grandfather as a man are most revealing, and he remembers B.D. Tillinghast as a man of honor. He tells one story of an accountant for the Tillinghast Machine Shop stealing $40,000. B.D. Tillinghast fired the man, did not report this incident to the police, and never told anyone outside of the family what had happened. When asked about the ex-accountant, B.D. Tillinghast would say, 'he is a good man, but you need to watch over him.' He also remembers his grandfather as a man of humor, something that does not show up in his photograph. Galbraith said that when it came time to take a picture, they would be sitting around laughing and when the photographer said he was going to snap the picture, all their faces would go dour. But finally, and perhaps most importantly for him, Donal remembers B.D. Tillinghast as a loving grandfather.

Often times when we view our engines we see only the engineering, but there is much more to it than that. There were the men who made them, their ideas and their businesses. In going from the 19th to the 20th Century, we see in B.D. Tillinghast much of what the 19th century held as a successful businessman, a man who primarily thinks of himself as a craftsman and all that entails. As B.D. Tillinghast moved into the 20th Century he adopted more of an engineering approach, an approach we all accept as common today. B.D. Tillinghast was an exceptional man who made a real and positive impact on our hobby. It is truly a shame that so much of what he did is forgotten, and will remain forever lost in the past.

Contact engine enthusiast Bill Tremel at: 90 Newman Hill Rd., Claysville, PA 15323, (724) 484-0311, or e-mail at: Contact engine enthusiast Joe Prinzinger at: 1415 Prophet Rd., Goode, VA 24556, or e-mail at:


Forrest, Earle R. History of Washington County Pennsylvania, Clarke Publishing Company, Chicago, 1926.

McFarland, Joseph. Twentieth Century History of the City of Washington and Washington County Pennsylvania and Representative Citizens, Richmond-Arnold Publishing Company, Chicago, 1910.

Excerpts From an Early Ad Extolling the Virtues of Tillinghast Gas Cylinders

Tillinghast gas cylinders for steam engine bed plates are made to meet the real need for an economical oil country gas engine. They are built for use on bed plates of any standard oil country steam engine. One of these cylinders allows an operator, at a small cost, to quickly and easily convert and old steam engine into a strong, dependable gas engine. With the addition of the Tilinghast reversible pulley, he can make the old steam engine a reverse geared gas engine.

In replacing the old steam engine the Tillinghast Gas Cylinder eliminates coal bills and boiler repairs, and saves considerable of the investment in line pipe. There are no shut-downs because of scarcity of water. It keeps the well pumping. It is an economical, successful, convenient method of operating the well.

The Tillinghast Gas Cylinder and a Reversible pulley attached to a steam engine bed plate performs every necessary operation in connection with a producing well. It pumps, pulls tubing and rods, it is used for cleaning out and pulling casing when necessary. It does its work just as efficiently as any reverse geared gas engine, no matter what it costs.

When installing a Tillinghast outfit it is necessary only to take off the steam cylinder and replace it with the gas cylinder; remove the belt pulley and put on the Reversible Pulley. The engine block is not disturbed.

Tillinghast gas cylinders are made in sizes of 10 to 25 HP. When installing these cylinders the bed plate is trussed by two rods extending from the front end of the bed plate to the lugs cast on the flange of the cylinder, as shown in the illustration. These truss rods permit the use of high-powered gas cylinders, as they strengthen the bed plate far beyond any possibility of breaking. They make Tillinghast Gas Cylinders suitable for wells of all depths. In fact, they are meeting with unqualified success on wells 3,600 feet deep. They are a practical, common sense equipment for any lease.

These cylinders are of the popular two-cycle type, having a power impulse at each revolution. In most two-cycle engines the metal between the intake and exhaust ports, known as the 'bridges,' cut out rapidly and makes reboring frequently necessary. In Tillinghast Gas Cylinders these bridges are so pro-ported that they wear no faster than the rest of the cylinder wall. Reboring because of worn or cut bridges is unknown in a Tillinghast Cylinder, a feature that helps make these cylinders the most economical and durable in the operation of your lease.

Throughout all Tillinghast Gas Cylinders you will find a durability of construction that gives strength and stability. They are made of a special hard, close mixture of iron that assures long wear. They are free from all complicated parts, and give unfailing service with but little care or attention. The use of jigs and special fixtures in machining insures the absolute interchangeability of every part.

Either Hot Tube or Electrical Ignition is furnished, as ordered.


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