80 HP Bessemer Air Plant at Coolspring Power Museum

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This month I would like to tell the reader of an amazing 80 HP Bessmer project that the Coolspring Museum Museum accomplished, and all within a year’s time. This feat was made possible by the ambitious and untiring work of so many of our volunteers, as well as the generosity of two individuals. The project included the disassembly of a vintage building, the moving of 30-plus tons of machinery, and the re-erection of all at the Coolspring Power Museum. Final details will be completed this spring and it will be operating by summer. 

During the autumn of 2009 while exploring some of the old oil fields south of Kane, PA, we found the air plant that the late Paul “Skip” McKenna operated still existed and was intact. The big 80 HP Bessemer engine-compressor was still there and looked as if it just shut down yesterday! I remembered knowing Skip and had seen him operate the engine to pump oil in the early 1980’s but had expected the installation to be long gone. But it was still there and complete to every detail so we thought that the entire installation could be moved to the museum and operate again for all to see and enjoy. After some inquiry, we found that it was owned by Mrs. Helen McKenna and Mike Batista and with some discussion, they readily agreed to donate it all to the museum provided we clean up the site. The project began!

The original site of the McKenna air plant as found in
November 2009.

First, I would like to give some history of the site and description of its use. During the 1880’s, the area south of Kane and near James City was a rich oil field with many wells closely spaced. These wells were drilled with steam engines and then the same engines were used to pump the oil from the ground. During that time, a central boiler was set up with pipes running to about one dozen wells each. After the turn of the twentieth century, the oil production decreased and it was no longer feasible to operate a big boiler. An alternative had to be found and this was the air plant.  This plan was quite common in northwestern Pennsylvania and had a gas engine to drive an air compressor and used the pressurized air to replace the steam.  So all the old steam engines still operated the wells with a central gas engine air plant supplying the power. A new era of oil production was born with this innovation. 

At the McKenna site, we found remnants of the  foundation of an earlier gas engine and compressor but could not determine what it was. The 80 HP Bessemer, a type 10, was installed in 1925 and was state of the art at that time. It must have been quite expensive as well as difficult to move to such a remote area. The Bessemer was a combination unit having the engine and compressor cylinders opposed on one common frame with the crank shaft and single 7-foot flywheel in the center. It served well for the next 60 years and is still in like new condition. We were also able to save the last six steam engines and they will again be operated from the air of the Bessemer. 

As we entered the building, it was a trip back into time with everything in place and ready for the next run. There was still oil in the oil cans ready to lube the engine. After securing the donation, we removed some of the small parts, and although anxious to start the project, decided it was best to leave all locked up for the coming winter and begin in the spring. Now we had time to choose a site at the Museum for its new home as well as plan the details of how this big project would be done. 

Chris Austin clearing the site for the Bessemer air plant by
pulling out tree stumps with a 1952 D8 Caterpillar.

With our relocation site chosen in a wooded area on high ground at the Museum, we began to clear the area of trees and brush with a 1952 D8 Caterpillar. It was pleasant to hear our old tractor work a bit! Soon after Mark Himes brought his Case backhoe and trucked in a borrowed excavator so we had a big hole in the ground in short order. The third photo from May, 2010 shows the foundation for the engine being formed and readied for concrete. 

The foundation for the engine being formed and readied for

Museum member, Ben Egloff from Albion, NY headed the project and spent every weekend in Coolspring from April thru November. While the site was being prepared, he disassembled everything at the Kane location and oversaw loading it onto our trucks. 

Ken Uplinger on the forklift and Chris Austin directing as one
half of the flywheel is unloaded.

The Bessemer main frame arrives at Coolspring.

In June 2010, the main frame of Bessemer was brought home on the old faithful Museum truck. At this time, we had to pause for the June engine show, then turn our attention to putting it all back together again!

The Bessemer placed on the foundation and grouted in place.

Pat Colby using a shovel as the pit is filled in.

The project was now taking shape and we were all enthused to see completion before snowfall. In September, 2010 photo seven shows Pat Colby using a shovel as the pit is filled in. Note the engine is more complete and the flywheel is in place. Next came the re-erection of the building. The roof had to be dismantled but the four walls were brought home in entire sections and we were able to use our crane to set them into place. Finally, photo eight shows a smiling Ben as the installation is essentially complete by the time of the fall engine show. 

Before any snowfall, the building was completed with all doors and windows in place and secured until the final details can be completed this spring. The Museum thanks all those who have worked to hard to make this project possible. It will be here for all to enjoy and to interpret as an important part of oil field heritage. 

For more information about Coolspring Power Museum, please visit www.coolspringpowermuseum.org or call (814) 849-6883.

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