From the Ritz to the Sticks

Hotel to Oil Well this 21 HP 1895 Otto has Seen it All

| March/April 2004

Bruce Lawson and Dale Nickerson

Bruce Lawson (left) and Dale Nickerson remove the Otto from its concrete base inside the old engine powerhouse.

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.

First Sighting

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.