Home Drake Well Foundation About OilHistory.com The Author Contact
Introduction to Oil History
The Drake Chapters
The Central Power
Knock Knock
Gathering Oil
Cable Tool Drilling
Steam Engines
Peruvian Anaconda
The Drill String
Portable Cable Tool Drilling Machines
Rig Tales
Oil Barrels
A Cooperage and the Heisman Trophy
Oilfield Engines Collectors – Restorers (Franklin Valveless)
The Diamond Drill
Whale Oil
Early Oil Pipelines, USA
Tank Cars
The Shot
Tank Wagons and Trucks
Dispensing Gasoline
The First Oil Barges
Andrew Carnegie and the Columbia Oil Farm
The Wild Side of Early Oil


They are big and unmistakable.  They "own" their piece of the lease.  This is a head on view of a locomotive type boiler abandoned in the oilfield.  The oval door opens to the fire box.  This boiler was made by the Boiler Department of Oil Well Supply Co. in Oswego, New York.

The locomotive type boiler was common among the standard oil country boilers.  It resembled that of an early train engine and, in fact, was based on the famous Stephenson design in his 1833 locomotive from which other components of oil field steam engines were also derived including the link valve gear.

Obvious characteristics of this locomotive type boiler are the contracted waist and the dome over the crown.  The longitudinal seams are double riveted.  It was built by Jarecki Manufacturing Co. in Erie, Pa., probably shortly after the Great War.  A 25 HP boiler of this type would weigh 6,800 lbs. and a 50 HP boiler would weigh 11,400 lbs.
This locomotive type boiler was made by National Supply Company in 25 to 50 HP models and advertised in 1921.  It has a straight throat.  The dome is over the barrel.  The chain mounting with wheels and all parts was extra.

The main components of these large locomotive boilers bore the following names and dimensions (approximate average for 25 HP boilers of the 1880's):

overall length

14 ft

barrel (dia.)


fire box (length)         



7 sq. ft.

fire door

16" dia.

dome (height)


tubes (dia.)


tubes (length)


 tubes (number)



25 ft.

The boiler specified above would weigh about 6,800-7,600 lbs.  It would come with fittings such as guy rods, hand hole plates, bonnet, gauges, siphon, cocks, check valve, globe valve and pop safety valve.  Prior to leaving the factory, it would have been tested at high pressures to check for steam leaks.  The maximum steam working pressure would be about 100 psi.

This locomotive-type was located in a field on the east side of Carter Road in Cherrytree Township, Venango County, PA.  The site was fairly high on the west flank of the Benninghoff Run system, part of Oil Creek Valley.  It probably is a "Sunday" picture since the man doesn't seem to be in appropriate work clothes and not much is going on.  The boiler closely resembles the ACME make.  It is putting out some steam (see connection at right).  One guess is that the boiler operated a drilling rig engine.  The alternative would be a pump, but the photo doesn't give much evidence of either.  The farm buildings and houses in the background would be on the Bryner parcel.  This area is deeply forested today.  Photo date probably late 1800's.

The companion type layout would consist of a locomotive boiler at a distance, then the steam engine in a roofed space, followed by the belt way to the walking beam unit in the standard derrick.  This was considered the safest arrangement and was commonly set up that way for drilling from the mid 1870's into the 1900's.  The mounted combination boiler and engine (like the Wood & Mann make) declined in favor of the locomotive boiler and separate engine in the 1870's -80's. 

This layout was considered ideal in 1892 (and before).  The locomotive type boiler was considerably removed from the rig so that sparks wouldn't fly to the other operations and the oil tanks.  The latter were placed as far away from the boiler and steam engine as possible.  This well is being pumped (singly) which is a rather elaborate use for the steam set-up.

The locomotive type boiler carried the same outward look into the 1920's and perhaps later.  There were internal improvements.  Beginning with Spindletop in 1901, the boilers were being used for the newly applied rotary drilling system that reached greater depths.  This brought about more improvements such as super heater tubes in the upper flues, stronger plates, and other benefits resulting in higher horse power (up to 125 HP).  These improved boilers were on the market in the 1930's, maybe before, but were not much in evidence in the Appalachian oil region.

This boiler found in a ravine is 14  feet long overall.  The 36 tubes are 96 inches long.  It has double rivets longitudinally in the waist section.  The diameter of the barrel is about 34 inches.  The dome is positioned on the fire box and was found to be partly buried and overgrown by a birch tree trunk and roots. The longest dimension of the elliptical smoke stack is 20 inches as observed by the hole near the end of the boiler.
A youngster, here looking out of the fire box, explored this old locomotive type boiler which had come to rest in the bottom of a deep ravine. 

The number and length of tubes seem to be an identifier of the power and efficiency of the locomotive boiler.  They can usually be seen and measured even in old, damaged, abandoned boilers.  In general, the greater number of tubes and greater lengths of the tubes imply greater boiler horse power.  Locomotive type boiler tubes (also called flues) as seen by the author in the field and in catalogs ranged from 19 to 80 in number.  A 25 HP locomotive type boiler in the late 1800's and early 1900's usually had 48 tubes having a length of 96 inches (8 feet).  A 20 HP boiler as made by Oil Well Supply Co. had 36 tubes, 8 feet long.

Hard water caused a lot of problems in boilers, but the operators had to take whatever water the supply offered.  They usually used stream or spring water.  Minerals would precipitate and coat the flues (tubes) gradually restricting the steam flow.  All boiler companies offered cleaners, brushes and scrapers which bore names (some from patents) like Freeman's Flue Scraper, Ingall's, Abram's expansion brushes and the Engineer's Favorite.  Some were rather complicated in design while others were simple wire brushes.

The boiler tubes required periodic cleaning so that scale would not build up.

The locomotive type boiler was at work in the oilfields since the early days of oil all over the world.  The manufacturers built special boilers to meet the requirements and regulations of the Canadian Provinces, Burma and of the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia).  Specially built California type boilers were rugged and would operate an engine from one site to drill a considerable number of wells spaced around it.

Beginning about 1910 the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (A.S.M.E.) developed a code of boiler specifications which was followed by the manufacturers.  Then in 1926 the American Petroleum Institute (A.P.I.) issued detailed standards for boilers but still worked within the A.S.M.E. code.

Richard Moon of Franklin, PA, stands by his 15 HP portable ACME boiler made by The Titusville Iron Works. Co.  It is 14 feet long overall.  This locomotive type boiler was last used by Quaker State Oil Refining Corp. in the 1940's, but it surely had a long and active history before then.  Three teams of horses pulled it along oil pipe lines in the winter so that steam could be applied to frozen spots where water had collected in the pipe.  The steam was also used to rid wells of paraffin masses in the tubing.  This boiler consumed a cord of green wood per working day.
The topography was hilly and steep.  To cope with this the operators fastened a heavy logging chain to the rear end of the boiler (probably on the hind wheels) and used it as a "rough lock."  The chain would smack the ground, even dig into it, thus acting as a drag and preventing the boiler from overtaking the teams when descending steep slopes (verbal communication, Richard Moon).  This was a case of oilmen "making do" in adverse circumstances.
The name plate for this ACME locomotive type boiler is seen on the face of the fire box at the crown.  Most manufacturers of oilfield boilers placed their name plate in the same spot, others would paint the company name on the dome.

Radical departures from the portable horizontal locomotive type boiler were to be seen in a number of styles that were used in the oilfields, even from the 1870's, but more noticeable later in that century and in the 1900's.  Among these were the vertical boiler, T-shaped, semipermanent (California), tubular boiler and others.  According to one manufacturer (STAR Drilling Machine Co., Akron, Ohio) the T-shaped boiler and steam engine on their traction drilling machine allowed it to be driven 3 MPH on level roads and 1 1/2 MPH in hilly terrain (it had cleats on the wheel rims).

We thought it was worth a picture.  This 10 foot abandoned vertical boiler in Oil Creek Valley has 72 tubes.  It was made by the Nagle Engine and Boiler Works in Erie, Pennsylvania, early 1900's.  Samuel T. Pees (left) and Robert Karns (Cherrytree, Pa.).
Star No. 2 or 800 foot drilling machine with traction attachment.  It has a T shaped boiler.  The vertical steam engine is at the front.  The machine has a mast and a walking beam.  Circa 1910.
T shaped portable boiler made by Star Drilling Machine Co., Akron, Ohio.  This boiler was pulled along with a drilling machine outfitted with a steam engine.  Circa 1910.

Besides indicating the oil production rate, well completion reports in the Pennsylvania oilfields in the 1860's (and on) gave the amount of natural gas produced by estimating how many boilers it would fire.  The latter was usually expressed as "gas sufficient to fire 3 boilers" (or whatever number).  Fuel used in the boilers varied due to circumstance.  It could be wood, coal, natural gas from the lease and, later in time, fuel oil.

A few locomotive type boilers are still to be found where abandoned long ago in the oilfields, but they are very rare.  They are great sights and have a commanding presence due to their bulk.  The author together with Robert Karns found an old oilfield boiler caught in a sand bar in a deep ravine where it had been washed by floods.  Others were removed from the well sites and just dumped wherever, presumably out of sight or out of the way at the time.  Most went to the scrap pile.  Anyway it is doubtful if the tools still exist to work on these discarded giants.  The steam engines and boilers were replaced in the oilfields by internal combustion engines.

After the cable tool days were largely over in most oil basins, steam became the power plant for rotary drilling and hung on for years in the 1900's.  The author remembers the rows of steam boilers set up at the drilling rigs in 1954 in Eastern Venezuela.

A 15,000 foot Mata field well being drilled by Texas Petroleum Company in the llanos of Anzoategui, Eastern Venezuela, 1954.  Note row of boilers.  This is a rotary well.

© 2004, Samuel T. Pees
all rights reserved