The search for new technologies for pumping oil from wells – pump jacks – began soon after America’s first commercial discovery in 1859 near Titusville, Pennsylvania. For that well, Edwin Drake used a common water-well hand pump from a nearby kitchen.
By the turn of the century, a wide variety of methods, including pumping multiple wells from a single power source, helped meet growing demand for petroleum.
In 1992, photographer Patrice Gilbert discovered an abandoned circa 1910 pumping machinery in the lush Pennsylvania countryside southeast of Youngstown. The heavy iron equipment must have been too difficult or expensive to move from the site when the well was capped decades ago, according to the National Park Service.
A park service historian noted the remarkably preserved pump’s advanced design was “technologically significant as representing an early gear-driven pumping jack, designed during a period of great pumping jack experimentation in the early 1900s.”
Gilbert’s photograph is among 12 from the Library of Congress collection featured in the 2015 “Today in American Petroleum History” calender published by the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. The annual calendar features industry milestones, including oilfield discoveries, inventions, pioneers, and more. Sales (order here) support the society’s energy education mission.
Powder Mill Oil Well
The rusting pump jack near Powder Mill Creek and Connoquenessing Creek recalls one of many Pennsylvania petroleum booms.
The Bald Ridge field in Butler County was one of the state’s top three oil-producing counties from 1889 into the 1920s. Prolific discoveries beginning as early as 1872 eventually brought hundreds of steam-powered, cable-tool drilling rigs.
On this site circa 1914, on land owned by a man named Heckert, a Bream Oil Company drilling rig reached 1,566 feet – and struck an oil-producing “pay sand” six feet thick.
The well’s derrick was removed and production began with a pump jack powered by a single cylinder, two-cycle, 15 horsepower engine.
The engine – built in 1910 by the T.W. Phillips Manufacturing Company of Butler – was a model equipped to run on “casing head gas,” which was readily available at the well.
This producing oil well and others were carefully watched over by a skilled “pumper,” who cleaned and oiled the high-tech equipment.
“In many pumping oilfields, these engines could be heard with a chug, chug, rattle, rattle, rattle, chug, chug, chug…and then there was a sort of a wheeze, a gasp and a cough, as though the last breath had been taken,” explains historian J. E. Brantly.
“At this instant, the kinetics of the flywheels took over and momentarily restored complete and serene composure,” notes the author of History of Oil Well Drilling. “Then the clamorous cycle was started over again.”
The noise was a melody to the oil well pumper’s ears – and to the producer who was producing inexpensive oil for the market, says Brantly. Casing-head fueled engines usually were sturdy and needed less attention or repair.
The Bream Oil Company well’s mechanical gear-driven apparatus was special, according to the National Park Service. The circa 1900 pump design incorporated many elements of modern counter-balanced pump units.
The well’s Phillips Manufacturing Company engine worked into the 1980s. After the oil well was sealed and capped, the antique equipment – too heavy to be economically removed – was left as a rusting monument to Pennsylvania petroleum heritage.
Today, the most common types of oil well pumps are pumping jacks, the “horse heads” often seen bobbing up and down in America’s oilfields.
The modern counter-balanced pump jack, invented in Lufkin, Texas, in 1925 by Walter Trout, works on the same principle as the old jacks of yesteryear. See All Pumped Up – Oilfield Technology.
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