80 HP Bessemer Air Plant at Coolspring Power Museum

| 3/21/2011 9:57:29 AM

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This month I would like to tell the reader of an amazing 80 HP Bessmer project that the Coolspring Museum Museum accomplished, and all within a year’s time. This feat was made possible by the ambitious and untiring work of so many of our volunteers, as well as the generosity of two individuals. The project included the disassembly of a vintage building, the moving of 30-plus tons of machinery, and the re-erection of all at the Coolspring Power Museum. Final details will be completed this spring and it will be operating by summer. 

During the autumn of 2009 while exploring some of the old oil fields south of Kane, PA, we found the air plant that the late Paul “Skip” McKenna operated still existed and was intact. The big 80 HP Bessemer engine-compressor was still there and looked as if it just shut down yesterday! I remembered knowing Skip and had seen him operate the engine to pump oil in the early 1980’s but had expected the installation to be long gone. But it was still there and complete to every detail so we thought that the entire installation could be moved to the museum and operate again for all to see and enjoy. After some inquiry, we found that it was owned by Mrs. Helen McKenna and Mike Batista and with some discussion, they readily agreed to donate it all to the museum provided we clean up the site. The project began!

bessemer building 
The original site of the McKenna air plant as found in
November 2009.

First, I would like to give some history of the site and description of its use. During the 1880’s, the area south of Kane and near James City was a rich oil field with many wells closely spaced. These wells were drilled with steam engines and then the same engines were used to pump the oil from the ground. During that time, a central boiler was set up with pipes running to about one dozen wells each. After the turn of the twentieth century, the oil production decreased and it was no longer feasible to operate a big boiler. An alternative had to be found and this was the air plant.  This plan was quite common in northwestern Pennsylvania and had a gas engine to drive an air compressor and used the pressurized air to replace the steam.  So all the old steam engines still operated the wells with a central gas engine air plant supplying the power. A new era of oil production was born with this innovation. 

At the McKenna site, we found remnants of the  foundation of an earlier gas engine and compressor but could not determine what it was. The 80 HP Bessemer, a type 10, was installed in 1925 and was state of the art at that time. It must have been quite expensive as well as difficult to move to such a remote area. The Bessemer was a combination unit having the engine and compressor cylinders opposed on one common frame with the crank shaft and single 7-foot flywheel in the center. It served well for the next 60 years and is still in like new condition. We were also able to save the last six steam engines and they will again be operated from the air of the Bessemer. 


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