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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


The sudden boom of the oil industry caught the steam people somewhat by surprise.  In fact, steam hadn't been used for drilling in the earlier salt well days until perhaps the 1840's (Brantly, 1971) and probably not much even then because the spring pole and the treadle were the main devices in use.

The 19th century was driven by steam.  The oil industry's need for steam power in the 1860's wasn't based solely on drilling or pumping oil wells but also for refineries and even for river vessels that transported oil and products from Oil Creek to Pittsburgh and returned with oilfield supplies. Steam locomotives of various railroads were bringing trains to the oil region and hauling away oil and refined product in wooden tanks mounted on flat cars beginning 1865 (and oil in barrels before that).  Pipelines commenced to use steam pumps in 1865.  Steam hammers made some of the fittings and parts of the drilling paraphernalia.  Even some of the coins in circulation in Drake's day were stamped at the mint by an automated steam press. 

Appropriately the first use of steam power in oil well drilling in America was by Edwin L. Drake in his famous 1859 well near Titusville.  Drake and his driller, Billy Smith, installed a 6 HP Long John engine and a stationary boiler in what became the engine house of the Drake cable-tool drilling operation.  The engine is thought to have been made by the Erie City Iron Works, Erie, Pennsylvania.  It cost $500.00 at the factory according to an August 16, 1858, letter by Drake. 

This working reproduction of the type of steam engine used by Col. Drake is present in the replica of the engine house on the grounds of the Drake Well Museum.

An early 4 HP portable model by A.N. Wood of Eaton, New York, was the first steam engine to be used in the Franklin, Pennsylvania, field, probably 1860.  That field was discovered in late 1859, a few months after Drake's first well on Oil Creek.

In 1865, F.W. Beers et al published the Atlas of the Oil Region of Pennsylvania.  The Atlas contains four illustrated advertisements of portable steam engines and boilers for oil drilling purposes.  One of the brands sold by agents was the Wood & Mann make.    They mounted their engine directly on top of the boiler, a style which had become customary.  This make of portable boiler and engine was used considerably in the first decade of the Pennsylvania boom.  

Advertised as a "celebrated" make, the firm of Wood & Mann was located in Utica, New York, and it was Enos D. Wood who was the partner with Mann.  His brother, Allen Nelson Wood, made steam engines in his own right (the A.N. Wood make) at Eaton, NY. 

The Wood & Mann steam engine apparatus made in Utica, New York, was among the first to be used in the Appalachian shallow oil region.  Unfortunately the company did not have the foresight to recognize that heavier capacity machines would eventually be needed and thus lost their initial advantage.  The combination engine and boiler would sit close to the rig and was said to be a fire hazard due to flying sparks.  Nevertheless, Wood & Mann enjoyed early popularity and many other companies made a similar model.
From Beers 1865 Atlas of the Oil Region of Pennsylvania
This posed (and contrived) photograph was taken by John A. Mather in the Pennsylvania oilfields, probably in 1866.  It was the year of a bust, a phenomenon that visits the industry from time to time.  The price of crude dipped too low for profits in 1866 and forced some operators to sell or even abandon their equipment.  This combination steam engine and boiler was made by Wood & Mann (compare to the illustrated advertisement of that make).

In the early 1860's A.N. Wood in Eaton took on two business partners, Loyal C. Taber (engineer) and Walter Morse (business manager).  By 1863 the company of Wood, Taber and Morse was making and quickly selling portable steam engines of 3 to 20 HP for $350 to $1500 (according to the 1995 Bicentennial booklet of Eaton) and turned out about three per day at the peak.  Some of these made their way to the oil regions. 

As with some of the other ads in the 1865 Atlas of the Oil Region of Pennsylvania, Woodbury, Booth & Co. emphasized that their steam engines and boilers were "built expressly for Oil Purposes".  Mentioning oil directly and solely put a better light on the product in the early oil years.  A few ads mixed in other uses such as for salt, furnaces and mills.  This rather distracted the oilmen.

Besides Wood & Mann, the illustrated ads and numerous business-cards in the Atlas spoke for more than a dozen manufacturers who stated that they built boilers and engines for oil wells.  Thus, already by 1865, there was competition among companies making portable steam drilling engines for the oilfields.  Some of these plants at that time were as near to the early oil region as Pittsburgh, Washington, and Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, and Buffalo and Rochester in New York.  River transportation and newly laid railroad tracks provided connections to the oil centers.

A few of the 1865 ads in the Atlas point out that the agents or the manufacturers also had  second-hand engines and boilers in their inventory.  Used and repaired engines would have had an appeal to operators down on their luck and forced to proceed on a shoestring.  Certain ads also stressed that the engine builders would give particular attention to repairing machinery.  That statement was probably persuasive too.

Although plants and machine shops were anticipating a rise in demand for steam engines in the oilfields, the spring pole and treadles still held sway for some of the footage drilled in those earliest years of oil.  Manufacturers carried out technological advancements and began serious output of  competent oilfield steam engines in the 1870's and 80's.  These newly-hatched plants were located directly in the oilfields in cities such as Titusville, Oil City, Franklin, Bradford and more.  The market for the engines was at the plants' gates.

This 1865 advertisement does not mention the manufacturer of the pictured steam engine.  It has minor differences from the Wood & Mann make.  Although still considered portable, the boiler is shown mounted on a brick and timber foundation from which it could be picked up and moved to the next site (unless it was intended to be the prime mover for a pumping station).
From Beers 1865 Atlas of the Oil Region of Pennsylvania.
A typical 1860's oilfield boiler with mounted engine sits along a siding of the Oil Creek (Farmer's) Railroad at Tarr Farm, Oil Creek Valley, 1868.  The well in the foreground appears to be a pumper apparently powered by a steam engine in the engine house.  Note cut wood stacked at left and the smoke stack coming out of the far side of the roof.

These first steam engines made expressly for use in shallow oilfields were of the horizontal, single-cylinder, reversible slide valve type.  Most had horsepower of 10, 12 and 15 HP.  Cylinder diameters generally ranged from 8" to 12" and the stroke length was usually 12 inches.  Engines of this type persevered into the 1900's and were still offered in manufacturing and supply catalogs through the first half of the century.  There was little change except for size in order to provide greater horse power. 

This 1878 precursor of the Keystone steam drill was partly a relic of earlier times.  It still used a spring-pole and a simple tripod derrick.  Other steam drills with more advanced design were in operation before this one.  However, Keystone soon adapted their steam rig to fit oilfield needs.

It is interesting to note the struggle which one company underwent in making a portable steam-driven drilling machine.  In 1878, the Keystone Driller Co. which later settled in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, made a wagon-mounted steam-powered drilling device using a vertical boiler set at the back end of the wagon.  This arrangement was not new at that time.  However, this company of water well drillers and coal prospectors still clung to the spring pole which they anchored to the ground behind the boiler end of the wagon.  That was retrograde progress, and they were also late in the game as far as oil drilling machines were concerned.  However, within four years, in 1882, they were turning out portable steam drills with walking beams, the common instrument then in use on the standard derricks.  The Keystone Driller Co. was beginning to catch up.  By the late 1880's and 90's they had become a very important builder of portable cable tool drilling rigs using steam engines.

As time went on, more and more engines and boilers for cable tool drilling were sold as separate items (not mounted), and the layout was to have the steam engine fairly close to the derrick and the boiler farther behind.  Both the mounted and the separated layouts were in use in the oilfields at the same time.

Among the many companies that built steam engines for oilfield use from the 1860's (or beginning later in the 1800's) into the 1900's were Wood & Mann (Utica, N.Y.), Wood. Taber and Morse (Eaton, N.Y.), Nagle Engine and Boiler Works (Erie, Pa.), Leidecker Tool Company (Marietta, Ohio), Oil Well Supply Co. (Oil City and Pittsburgh, Pa.), Ajax Iron Works (Corry, Pa.), Titusville Iron Works (Titusville, Pa.,), Farrar & Trefts (Buffalo, N.Y.), and Bovaird & Seyfang (Bradford, Pa.), to name only a few.

The manufacture of steam engines for rotary drilling extended beyond that of the steam cable tool engines, even appearing in catalogs of the 1960's.

Oil Well Supply Co., although mentioning Pittsburgh (the corporate office) in the name plate, manufactured this "OILWELL" steam engine at their Imperial Works in Oil City, Pa.  The cut was taken from their catalog no. 32 and was labeled "double eccentric".  This model was in common use in the oilfields, particularly since it was made right in the early oil belt.


The Nagle Engine and Boiler Works on East 16th Street in Erie, Pennsylvania, began producing steam engines in the late 1870's.  By 1883 the company produced 400 engines of 8-50 HP, mostly the portable type.  By 1889 the Nagle firm was turning out 2,400 engines and boilers per year.  By 1898 Nagle had built 12,000 engines and 15,000 boilers (PHMC Industrial Resource Survey, 1993).  The pictured Nagle steam engine appeared in catalog #50, of the Jarecki Manufacturing Company, Erie, Pa. (now gone).  Jarecki, an oilfield manufacturing and supply company, began making brass specialties in 1852 and went into oilfield equipment soon after Drake's strike in 1859.  They opened a branch office in Pithole in 1867 with more to come in the big fields of Pennsylvania, Illinois, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.


Ajax steam engines of Corry, PA gained world-wide popularity.  The company pointed out that many parts of one size or model of an Ajax engine would interchange with a larger or smaller size, a feature that they thought would help to make them saleable.  Indeed they did sell, but other manufacturers made some of their engine parts interchangeable too so this wasn't the main reason that put Ajax on the market.  However, Ajax's strong niche was recognized.  Nagle advertised that the parts of their Erie-made engines would interchange with Ajax and other engines.  Standardization was coming to be.  Ajax engines were sold by the prestigious National Supply Companies and various other dealers.  This 12"x12"(cylinder) engine pictured in the cut appeared in a 1921 catalog of the National Supply Companies.
Leidecker, a tool company headquartered in Marietta, Ohio, put out the steam drilling engine shown above.  The company slogan was ' "Leidecker" another word for satisfaction.'  This cut appeared in the Leidecker Tool Company catalog K, believed published in 1923.

Steam saw as much use (maybe more) in agriculture as it did in the oilfields.  There were many ways a portable mounted steam engine could be used on the farm, especially at harvest time (e.g. threshing).  Those portable engines were usually lighter than their equivalents in the oilfields.  It seems that some farm models could have been pressed into service for drilling or redesigned to do so, but the author does not know this for a fact. 

Brightly painted farm engines are a pleasure to see.  Photographs of vintage steam models are reproduced here to give the reader a glimpse of the gala decor of these rather elegant portable engine-boiler machines as displayed in an equipment show.  The early oilfield drillers and roustabouts would have laughed at this. 

This 10 HP engine and boiler was made for agriculture use by Case & Co., Racine, Wisconsin, in 1887.  It was exhibited at the Pennsylvania Pioneer Steam and Gas Engine Society field meet in July, 1999, near Saegertown, Pa.  It was on loan from the Estate of Morgan Hill, Linesville, Pa.
Three views of a portable boiler with mounted steam engine made for farm use by Birdsall Engine Co., Auburn, N.Y.  It is owned by the Pennsylvania Pioneer Steam and Gas Engine Society and exhibited at the front gate of their grounds near Saegertown, Pa.
This 6 HP portable engine and boiler was made by Russell & Co.  It was on loan from the Estate of Morgan Hill, Linesville, Pa.  for exhibit at the Pioneer Steam and Gas Engine Society show in July, 1999, near Saegertown, Pa.

© 2004, Samuel T. Pees
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