Little House on the Oil Field

A Look Inside Yesterday's Power Houses

| July 2005

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    Examples representative of power house structures found on the oil leases of the South Penn Oil Co. in northwest Pennsylvania and western New York.
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    A brand new 35 HP Olin gas engine, complete with hit-and-miss governor, coaxial intake and exhaust valves and hot tube ignition. What would an NOS 35 HP Olin be worth today?
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    A Titusville Iron Co. model J.C., aptly named so after James C. McKinney, president of the company at the time. Many of these engines had a 1909 date stamped on the blocks.

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Although Gas Engine Magazine focuses mainly on the engines themselves, many readers are fascinated by the buildings that housed them. This article will discuss the octagon power houses of the South Penn Oil Co., the predecessor of today's Pennzoil Corp.

Why South Penn designed these power houses remains a mystery, even to this day. In 1994, the Allegheny National Forest's Heritage Resources Program did an archeological study of the petroleum industry that is located within the boundaries of what is now the Allegheny National Forest located in northwestern Pennsylvania. Phillip Ross, an industrial archeologist, was hired by the U.S. Forest Service to do the study. One of the items he was interested in was the octagon power house. Phil and I have collaborated on several occasions, but in the end, no answers to the mystery have been found. Perhaps South Penn wanted to make a statement to show just how big and important they were, as they were the largest oil producer in the area.

The octagon power houses were used on the leases of the South Penn Oil Co. in Warren, McKean and Forest counties of northwest Pennsylvania and Cattaraugus County in western New York. There were two styles of these buildings: The first, and most plentiful, was the three-section design, which consisted of an engine house, a belt hall and the octagon power house. These were built in two sizes: The most common - and larger - was usually equipped with a 35 HP Olin gas engine manufactured by the Titusville Iron Co. of Titusville, Pa. A slightly smaller size was equipped with the 20 HP Olin gas engine. Both sizes used single-disc geared powers to pump the wells. Also, a stand-alone octagon building style was constructed using a 15 HP Olin combination engine and power similar to a Superior combination engine and power. An octagonal gasometer house was located about 20 feet from the main building to prevent fires from the hot tube ignition. The design did offer about 330 degrees of unobstructed pull for the rod lines.

These buildings were quite impressive for their intended use. They were sheeted in corrugated steel with the exception of the belt hall and octagon roof, which was covered with cedar shingles. The engine room was totally finished with flat steel on the walls and ceiling, and they had concrete floors. A front porch was provided, which included a roof. One example even sported cupolas and weather vanes.

A larger and different example once existed in the Allegheny National Forest. This building was constructed mostly of wood, except for the engine house. The power itself was a three-eccentric affair mounted on a framework of 24-inch-square timbers. The top and bottom longitudinal timbers were over 20 feet long. It was powered by a 35 HP Olin gas engine. The engine house was interesting in that it contained living quarters for the pumper. There were two extra rooms: One was used for the kitchen and the other for the bunk room. This installation was probably constructed around 1900, and because of its remote location for the time, the only mode of transportation was the horse. It was probably easier for the pumper to live in the power house during the week and go home on the weekends. Could this have been the prototype for the buildings to follow? Unfortunately, this building no longer exists, but I did manage to photograph it.

Photo 1 (large photo, opposite page) shows one of the larger styles. Note the front porch and general construction features previously discussed. The cooling tank appears to be larger than normal. Also note the "stroke posts" on the rod lines next to the octagon, which were used to increase the stroke.


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