The Three Cousins

Exploring the McKinney oil field engine connection and trio at the Coolspring Power Museum.

| August/September 2017

I have long had a fascination with the large, heavy and sometimes crude oil field engines. Living at the eastern edge of the Pennsylvania oil field, they were the first large engines I saw. Being privileged to witness many in operation, I was even able to discover the factories where they were made.

Occasionally, I would find an interesting 4-cycle engine, but the main work force used to pump the oil wells was the 2-cycle design. These were both the “half-breeds,” which were steam engines converted to gas engines, as well as the factory-built 2-cycle engines. This design was produced by many different makers, and all seemed to be similar. The 2-cycle engines were simple, sturdy and dependable.

As time progressed, three 2-cycle engines stood apart from the others. I noted these to be similar in design, as well as being very heavy and rugged. They were able to be moved through the oil field by teams of horses for use on distant wells, and then operate it for long hours. They were not patented, and all three emerged in the 1905-1906 era. This was the time of the oil boom in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio, and the demand for engines was great. These “Three Cousins,” as I have called them, are the J.C., built in Titusville, Pennsylvania; the South Penn, built in Clarksburg, West Virginia; and the Ball, built in Butler, Pennsylvania. The opening photo (Photo 1) shows the museum’s three examples lined up in the new pavilion. The similarities are remarkable. There just had to be a link connecting these designs!

After some research, I found that the link was the McKinney brothers. They were born near Warren, Pennsylvania, and became wealthy in the oil business at an early age.

James Curtis McKinney moved to Titusville, Pennsylvania, and became president of the Titusville Iron Works; hence the name for the J.C. engine. John Luke McKinney became involved with South Penn Oil Co., and soon became president. Henry B. McKinney moved to Butler, Pennsylvania, and quickly became president and manager of the Butler Engine and Foundry Co., makers of the Ball engine. It was a family affair! 

The J.C. gas engine

The Titusville Iron Works developed into a large concern with the early oil frenzy in that area. Under the capable leadership of J.C. McKinney (Photo 2), the firm was a major manufacturer of the Olin 4-cycle gas engine, licensed from the Buffalo, New York, firm, who had patented it. All the majestic, octagonal South Penn powerhouses used Olin engines and Titusville pumping powers. The engines were on concrete foundations, which bore the initials SPOCO, or South Penn Oil Company, in large relief. This was further proof of a tie between Titusville Iron Works and South Penn.