Some time about 1895, the Otto Gas Engine Works of Philadelphia,
Pa., shipped a brand new 21 HP Otto horizontal stationary engine,
serial no. 5514, to the Exchange Hotel in Warren, Pa. The engine
was set up in the basement, coupled to a generator and put to work
producing electricity for the hotel’s patrons. There was,
apparently, no municipal power available, but natural gas was cheap
and readily available. The Otto lived a tranquil life in this
arrangement for many years, until about World War I. At that time
the value of the Otto’s cast iron must have exceeded the value
of the kilowatts it produced, as the Otto found itself cast into
the scrap heap at a local junk yard. Somehow the old engine escaped
the wrecker’s sledgehammer, and in 1918 an enterprising oil
producer from the area rescued the Otto.
Adopted Otto Engine
The Otto’s rescuer was J.L. Billstone, an oil man who
presided over oil territory on the east side of Warren, Pa., and
also near Kinzua, Pa. (now located under the waters of Kinzua Lake,
formed by the Allegheny River dam in the early 1960s). Billstone
was looking for a suitable oil field engine, and the old Otto fit
the bill. Billstone belted the Otto to an oil power, and for the
next 60 years the engine toiled in the oil fields, day after day.
The years certainly took their toll on the engine.
Oil field engines were usually started once in the morning and
then left to run the rest of the day, with the operator listening
to the sound of the exhaust from a distance for any sign of
trouble. This engine ran into trouble when the rod-bearing brasses
worked loose, knocking out two half-moon chunks of iron from the
bottom of the piston skirt.
During that same mishap the crank guard tore off the engine base
(a problem I still haven’t fixed), and in a separate incident
the engine took a wild ride out through the front wall of the
powerhouse while it was being re-anchored to the floor. It must
have been quite a job getting the Otto back in place, since the
whole rig was located on quite a slope.
When I first saw this Otto in the early 1980s, it was still on
the lease, still running and still pumping oil. It was pretty worn
out, and it had received its share of field fixes to keep it
running. For instance, a long spring from an old-style window shade
had been attached to the igniter trip arm to keep it from jumping
off the igniter. Another case, perhaps, of ‘We’ll pump oil
today and fix that tomorrow.’
Probably the only reason I was lucky enough to get the engine
was because of an operator mishap: While starting the Otto, he had
one foot on the flywheel spoke when the igniter tripped off early.
Well, you can guess what happened next when that big flywheel
pushed back against his foot. It could have been worse since he was
alone and a couple miles away from the nearest person.
The Restoration Begins
I bought the Otto in 1990, and with the help of my good friend
Dale Mickerson I removed the Otto from its old home. Other projects
kept the Otto on the back burner, but finally a few years ago I
gave it my full attention and the work it deserved.
Looking at the igniter, I discovered the cast iron sleeve guide
for the moveable point arm was broken, resulting in an inexact
point contact. I made a new sleeve guide from brass, which fixed
the problem nicely. This engine was a bit of an oddity, as it still
used a battery, coil and igniter for ignition. One observer has
noted that the Otto’s former owner, J. L. Billstone, converted
almost all his engines to hot tube ignition. ‘The only two
engines he owned that didn’t run on a hot tube were his Otto
and his Jeep,’ the observer said.
During a cold winter long ago, water froze in the engine,
opening the side of the water jacket. To fix this problem, I just
stuffed a length of rope in the crack and wrapped a couple of steel
bands around the whole thing to hold it tight. I preheated the
water jacket before welding, and it now holds water, but paint
doesn’t stick very well on the welded area.
Turning my attention to the damaged piston skirt, I cut a couple
sections from an old Reid piston of approximately the same diameter
and welded them into the broken areas. To finish this part of the
restoration, I spun the Otto’s piston on my lathe, and now the
patches I made are hardly noticeable. The cylinder bore was quite
tapered, but with a new set of rings it runs fine. The compression
isn’t high, but that’s not an issue for slow-running show
The camshafts on the sideshaft were almost completely worn away,
so I built them back up with weld. After some spinning and grinding
on the lathe, they’re back to about the right profile. 1 also
made a new exhaust valve, but luckily the original intake valves
only needed some grinding and lapping to get them to seat
An interesting item on the engine was how the flat-belt clutch
had been installed. The Otto’s crankshaft is 3-1/2 inches in
diameter, and on each end it has extensions 5-1/2 inches long and
2-3/4 inches in diameter. Apparently, the drive pulleys to power
generators at its original installation were mounted on the
extensions. When the engine was installed in the oil field, the
offside flywheel was removed and the flat-belt clutch pulley was
installed on the crankshaft extension. The inside of the clutch
pulley, however, only had a bore of 3 inches.
The powerhouse must have had a good supply of old coffee cans,
as someone wrapped some around the smaller part of the shaft to
take up the slack between the shaft and the pulley. Then, to make
sure the clutch pulley didn’t wiggle off, it was welded to the
crankshaft at the shoulder and also inside the bore of the pulley.
Uncovering these kinds of repairs is part of what makes our hobby
so much fun.
I painted the Otto what I call ‘Geezer Gold,’ which was
a feeble attempt to match the color of the Otto that sits just
inside the powerhouse at Coolspring Power Museum in Coolspring,
This Otto’s restoration was quite interesting, to say the
least. I was a little perplexed by all the hammer marks on the old
engine. The best I can figure is the majority of repairs were done
with a big pipe wrench and a hammer.
Considering its history, this engine is lucky to still be
around. The Otto’s now on its third life, this time as a
display engine – and what a relaxing life that is! Considering its
storied life as a hotel power plant and oil field engine, I
can’t think of a better way to reward an old 21 HP 1895 Otto
engine for working so hard and so long. It certainly deserves a
good home after all these years.
Contact engine enthusiast Bruce A. Lawson at 3249 Sprague Hill
Road, Falconer, NY 14733; (716) 665-3199.