Farm Collector

The Ohio Oil Boom: 1885-95

The Ohio oil boom of the late 1800s is more than a historical footnote in an encyclopedia listing. Portrayed through an actual oil-drilling rig, the subject is a fascinating museum display at the Wood County Historical Center & Museum, Bowling Green, Ohio. It tells multiple stories: The great need for fuel for increasing mechanization on the farm and in industry, the rapidly expanding use of steam and gas engines, and the mobility of a workforce in boom times.

“Thousands of oil wells were drilled in Wood County and surrounding counties during the 1885-1895 Ohio oil boom,” says Steve Cox, a Wood County Historical Center volunteer who maintains the oil drilling/powerhouse equipment. “In 1896, 6,456 wells were completed and Ohio led the nation in oil production.”

The museum’s oil-drilling rig came to life as part of a Bicentennial exhibit assembled by the Lima (Ohio) Historical Society in 1976. On July 4, 1976, volunteers actually pumped oil out of the well they had drilled.

In 1997, the Wood County museum acquired the display and relocated it to its grounds. Reconstruction started in 1999. Using a National Oil Supply Co. catalog from the late 1880s as a guide (the catalog contains dimensions, material, set-up and working actions for every phase of oil drilling/pumping operations), museum staffers restored the oil drilling rig and powerhouse. Everything in the display is salvaged from the local area, with the exception of a derrick from West Virginia.

The display is an accurate representation of an oil-drilling operation more than 100 years ago. “This is the general way the oil rig would have been constructed at each and every oil well,” Steve says. “Once they hit gas, oil or nothing, they would disassemble it and move about 500 feet to a new location, where they would reassemble the equipment and start drilling again.” Moves like that were made more than 38,000 times during the Ohio oil boom. Researchers believe a crew of 20 to 30 men was kept busy with assembly and disassembly, moving oil rigs from site to site.

Workers were not hard to find. “A small town within 4 miles of here had a population of about 20 people at the start of the boom,” Steve says. “Four months later, the town register showed population of more than 6,000 people.” Those who followed the boom all over northwest Ohio were called “boomers.”

Today, more than 150 active wells are still being pumped in Wood County, and perhaps 400 more in Sandusky County (the next county east). A small percentage of those oil wells still use rod lines and pump jacks installed 100 years ago, and for a few, pumping power still comes from their original engines … the very equipment that’s preserved and on the job at the Wood County display.

The powerhouse: heart of the operation

Home to the central power for pumping the oil wells, the powerhouse contains the heart of the operation: a wooden band wheel 16 feet in diameter dating to the 1880s that transmits power from the engine to the walking beam. “The band wheel provides the back-and-forth motion needed to operate the pump jack on oil wells,” Steve says. “That kind of equipment was very prevalent in early oil production in northwest Ohio.”

The Wood County band wheel weighs about 6,000 pounds (including the cast iron center assembly). The National Oil Supply catalog shows one like it in pieces, partially assembled. “Wheels used in this region would have been in pieces small enough to be brought in by a bobsled pulled by oxen,” Steve explains. In moving the band wheel to the museum, a large boom truck was used to lift the wheel in one piece and put it on a semi trailer. The next challenge? Finding back roads with 16-foot intervals between mailboxes, allowing the truck to pass through with clearance on both sides.

With advancing technology, the push-pull wheel replaced the large wooden band wheel. The portable (if you had a big enough team of oxen) wheel was mounted on two large wooden runners for transport. Power and reduction came from engine-driven gearing and provided a push-pull motion to the eccentric where the steel rod lines connected. That generated 18-24 inches of “throw” for action at the oil well pump jack. By 1900, the power wheel had been improved. Much smaller (though not lighter), it gave the same gear reduction as earlier models by using gearing.

Acme engine on the job

The museum’s band wheel is powered by an 1897 16 hp Acme Sucker Rod Co. engine. Manufactured in Toledo, Acme engines were common in northwest Ohio, largely due to the proximity to the factory. The Acme engine at the Wood County display originally ran on natural gas from the wellhead. “Today we run it on propane, as a lot of collectors do, rather than run all the pipes required for natural gas,” Steve says. “The larger oil leases of the time would have used a steam engine and boiler if there were natural gas available.”

A water tank hidden in an old oil tank outside is used for cooling; water is pumped through the engine and back to the tank. Historically, there were three options for cooling the powerhouse engine. In one option, a pipe could be run to a nearby stream, circulating water through the engine by the piston pump located on the side of the engine. If there was no stream nearby, drillers could use the salt water that came out with the oil after it was allowed time to separate. It would be pumped through the engine, then back underground or perhaps into a nearby ditch. “Of course the salt water would eventually destroy the engine by corroding the cylinders,” Steve notes. “The engine would not survive after 20 or 30 years of salt.”

In the third option, a well was drilled close to the powerhouse, providing fresh water for cooling. Alternatively, one or two barrels were sometimes placed underground (deep enough to keep them from freezing in the winter) and water circulated through the barrels.

The boom multiplied every aspect of the drilling operation, including the demand for powerful equipment. A 12-well oil lease, for instance, required a 20 hp engine. The furthest distance from the power source to the oil well might have been as much as three-quarter of a mile. The furthest oil well in the opposite direction would be about one-quarter of a mile. “That gives you an idea of how much area this equipment would cover,” Steve says. “Can you imagine a pump rod three-quarter of a mile long lying on the ground, hooked to the pumping mechanism on the oil well, and making the pump jack move up and down to pump the oil?”

Steam-powered drilling

The rig’s 50 hp Oil Well Supply Co. locomotive-style boiler was manufactured in the 1880s in Pennsylvania. Members of the Five Points Steam Threshers Association, Perrysburg, Ohio, assisted with cleaning, checking and testing the boiler, and worked with the state inspector to attain boiler certification.

Power for drilling comes from a 20 hp Ajax steam engine built in the mid-1880s. Drilling demonstrations require only 20 pounds of pressure, and that can come from the steam boiler, if it is operating, or from a large air compressor in one of the sheds. “Our plan is to use the boiler only on special shows,” Steve says.

During actual oil drilling, a crew would gather all the wood and brush they could find around the oil lease to use as fuel for the steam engine’s boiler. They would run the engine 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It would take 25-30 days of drilling to reach oil in the Trenton Limestone layer, about 1,300 feet down.

Drilling to the core

The one item in the rig that’s not from Ohio is the steel derrick, which came from West Virginia. The original wooden derrick had deteriorated beyond use. “We dismantled the steel derrick, put the pieces on trailers and reconstructed it here using the National Oil Supply catalog instructions,” Steve says.

The rig’s walking beam is set up with one end over the wellhead. The vertical post in the center – the Samson post – supports the horizontal walking beam. The Ajax steam engine drives a 10-foot power wheel. The shaft goes through the tunnel to a crank arm and powers the beam, providing the up-and-down and twist motion needed by the bit to do the drilling operation.

For every 3-5 feet drilled, the bit must be pulled from the well. That’s done by a power winch driven from the steam engine. After the bit is removed, a baler (a pipe with a valve in the bottom end that opens when it reaches the bottom of the hole) is lowered into the hole by a second power winch. That allows liquid to enter. When the baler is lifted, the valve closes and brings up the drillings, which are placed in a trough for inspection. Water is introduced into the hole during the drilling operation to make slurry of the drillings so the baler pipe can remove them.

If the oil doesn’t free-flow, pipes with pump mechanisms at the bottom would be lowered into the well. Sucker rods (wooden rods with metal ends that screw together) are connected to the pump and go to the top of the well, where they are hooked to a pump jack, which provides the pumping action.

The drilling rig’s well casing was usually 5-6 inches in diameter. It would go down until the drill hit bedrock, from 2-20 feet. “It’s about 5 feet deep in this area,” Steve says. If the well were to be pumped, the pipe would go inside the casing and down the full depth of the well.

The slight rotating action of the drilling is a result of the way cable is wound. The spiral wrap causes a slight rotation when the weight of the bit is picked up by the cable and then dropped again in the hole. Picking up the weight of the drill causes a rotation of about three degrees, enough to complete the drilling action. “At first I couldn’t figure out what was making the bit turn until I watched it a few hours when it was operating,” Steve says. “The bit keeps chipping around the hole as it goes deeper into the ground.”

End of the boom

By 1900, oil production in northwest Ohio had trickled off. Big gushers had been hit in Oklahoma and Texas, where some wells were producing 10 times the amount in free flow. Later, when the price of oil rose above $50 a barrel, oil production in Ohio became more economically feasible. “Oil from this region is thin and similar to WD-40 in appearance,” Steve says. “It also has high sulfur content and requires additional refining to get to a pure grade.” Because Ohio oil is so thin, some of it is shipped north, where it is mixed with heavy crude, making it thinner and easier to move through the pipelines.

Most Ohio oil wells today use an electric motor for pumping. A lease with six or more good producing wells and no natural gas might have a propane tank to fuel the central power engine. During the 1890s boom, natural gas was thought of as available in limitless supply, and was either burned off or used in high volume in nearby factories. Accordingly, the field’s underground gas pressure (needed to force the oil through layers of limestone) was prematurely depleted before all the oil was removed. Today, industry estimates suggest that 70 percent of the field’s oil is still available but no economically viable means exists to capture it. FC

For more information, Wood County Historical Center & Museum, Adam Phillips Park, 13660 County Home Road, Bowling Green, OH 43402; (419) 352-0967; email:;

Don Voelker is a freelance photographer and writer in Fort Wayne, Ind. View his work at

  • Published on Dec 1, 2007
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