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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.