Little House on the Oil Field

By Staff
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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.

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.

The birds-eye view of Photo 2 (inset, page 22) is of the smaller
design building. Note the cedar shingles and weather vane, which
was also used to sight the rod lines from the wells to the power
house to keep them straight. Also note the “straddle bug” rod line
supports. The tents in the upper right hand corner of the picture
housed the construction workers, many of whom were immigrants. The
locations shown in these photos are unknown.

The engine shown in Photo 3 (below) is a brand spanking new 35
HP Olin gas engine. This engine featured a 12-1/2-by-20-inch bore
and stroke, hit-and-miss governor, coaxial intake and exhaust
valves, hot tube ignition and 72-inch flywheels. These engines
weighed approximately 10,000 pounds. The intake and exhaust pipes
went overhead and exited out over the porch roof. Air starting was
a standard feature. In the photo, an inverted air compressor is
located just inside the belt hall. The belt pulley on the flywheel
drove the compressor. Before starting, the pumper would place the
belt on the pulley and compressor. Once the engine was running and
the tank was fully charged, the belt was removed and it was hoped
that the air system didn’t leak down before the next startup.
Occasionally, the belt would foul up in the flywheel and yank the
compressor off of its base. I have seen several broken compressors
as proof of this.

Photo 4 (above) is very unusual in that it shows a J.C. gas
engine built by the Titusville Iron Co. This was their 2-stroke
design. The J.C. was built in four sizes from 15 to 30 HP. I am
assuming this is the 30 HP size. Unfortunately, I do not have any
specifications for these engines. All I have is a parts list, which
doesn’t give any dimensions. I personally have never seen an
octagon installation using this model of engine, but the picture
proves that at least one existed. Overhead exhaust and intake
pipes, air start and hot tube ignition were featured. Note the
letters “S.P.O.Co.” (South Penn Oil Co.) on the front of the engine
block.

Unfortunately, only a handful of these once magnificent octagon
buildings survive, and in deplorable condition. The most accessible
one for the public sits on the south side of U.S. Route 6 in the
village of Tiona, Pa., which is located between the villages of
Clarendon and Sheffield, both of which are in Warren County. The
engine was removed and saved. Due to its deteriorating condition,
its days are numbered.

I wish to thank the Penn Brad Oil Museum, Bradford, Pa., for
copying the photos from the original negatives in their
collection.

Additional Information:

Also worth reading is Allegheny Oil by Phillip W. Ross, April
1996, USDA Forest Service Eastern Region, Allegheny National Forest
Heritage Publication No. 1. The book describes the petroleum
industry in the Allegheny National Forest and mentions the octagon
power houses, along with photos.

The Historic American Buildings Survey/ Historic American
Engineering Record did a great deal of research on the octagon
power houses. Go to the Library of Congress HABS/HAER website and
look for survey numbers: HAER PA-438 and HAER PA-439. You can also
go to www.venangoil.com and link to Oil Heritage
Artifacts. There you will find many photos and some neat
drawings.

Contact gas engine enthusiast Michael Fuoco at: 656 W.
Washington St., Bradford, PA 16701; (814) 362-0040.

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