The Burnsville Steam Compression Station

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View of one of the engines undergoing repair and its crank-pin replacement in summer of 1982.
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P. O. Box 3128 Deer Park, Maryland 21550-1028

High pressure side’ of the Nordberg duplex steam compression
engine used in compression station at Burnsville, W. Va. Note steam
line coming to the high pressure cylinder from separate boiler
house. Once steam powered this cylinder, it was exhausted for reuse
in the ‘low pressure side’ and the steam cylinder of a
larger bore across from the high pressure side of the engine. The
two sides of the Nordberg engines were separated by its single
flywheel.

View of the ‘low pressure side’ of the same engine, with
steam cylinder towards the right. The extended piston rod of the
steam cylinder which operated the gas compressing cylinder can be
seen in this view.

Burnsville, West Virginia, is located in Braxton County, and is
near what is regarded as the geographical center of the Mountain
State. It is a small town, situated in a limited flat area,
surrounded by nearby hills and streams, with only the constant
highway traffic on Interstate 79 to disturb its peaceful setting.
With no exotic tourist attractions, most travelers simply speed
through the town; they are there only because of the
Interstate’s routing. But, on the northwest edge of the town,
the Equitable Gas Company operated the state’s very last steam
compression station. Some of the company’s management personnel
also claimed this steam compression station was the last one on our
nation’s east coast to move natural gas through the pipelines.
For the station’s employees, and a few others aware of it,
Burnsville, West Virginia, was an exotic place. Lady Luck had
kindly permitted me to be at this steam compression station in 1982
and 1983, a time in my life I’ve greatly come to relish.

For the reader lacking the knowledge, a compression station is
also known as a compressor station, and called by a few people a
pumping station. Natural gas will normally flow out of a gas well
via naturally occurring pressure, the higher pressure within the
well pushing the gas to a lower pressure area. Natural gas is
transported via pipeline(s), but the well pressure is not
sufficient enough to flow the gas for extended distances through a
pipeline. Like air, natural gas is compressible. To deliver natural
gas from well-heads to the users of it, often several hundred miles
away, the gas is compressed at intervals along its transport, which
in creases its flow rate. This is the purpose of compression or
compressor stations to boost the flow of the gas by increasing the
occurring pressure of it at various intervals. This process can be
thought of like moving water through a pipeline for an extended
distance, as well as uphill and downhill, with the use of water
pumps, but gas is compressed, not pumped.

Originally, most gas compression stations were operated, or
powered, by stationary steam engines of various sizes, types, and
manufacturer. In time, steam engines were replaced by natural gas
fueled reciprocating engines, similar to gasoline or diesel engines
in their appearance but with a portion of the engine’s
cylinders being solely for gas compression purposes. Still later
came gas turbine powered compressors, and even, at some small
outdoor installations, electric motor driven compressors.

The switch away from steam compression usage allowed financial
savings to the gas companies. The need for steam generation boilers
was eliminated, as well as their operational and upkeep expenses.
The need for a boiler house building was also eliminated, which
saved on the station’s taxation costs. The manpower
requirements were lessened. Utilization and efficiency were greatly
increased, as gas flow could be instantly increased when required,
without having to delay until additional boilers were fired up to
meet increased steam demands. In some instances, the conversion
simply allowed modernization improvements to the transportation
network of the gas companies. Often two or three smaller steam
stations could be replaced with a single compressor station, yet
requirements for gas supply could still be met. Most steam
compression stations were replaced after World War II, when gas
supply demands greatly increased for the Atlantic Coast’s
metropolitan areas.

As other steam stations were being replaced, the Burnsville
station continued to survive, eventually becoming the very last
one. While old in age, and often regarded by some Equitable Gas
Company officials as ‘ancient’ or ‘outdated,’ the
station continued to serve the need. The Burnsville steam station
was still a well designed installation with sufficient capacity. It
continued to meet the demands imposed upon it, and did so in the
most efficient and cost-conscious manner possible by its staff. The
station’s crew were loyal to its operation, and to the
requirements of steam. Some of these crewmen had even requested
specific assignment to Burnsville, to be a part of this steam
operation. Out of this came a team loyalty and spirit that, more
than any other factor, allowed the steam operation to exist as long
as it did. Individual job performance, to these men, was a matter
of pride in and devotion to a day’s work.

View of one of the Nordberg duplex compression engine’s
‘high pressure’ side. Note how the moving parts of the
steam engine were shielded to prevent injury to the crewmen, as
well as to prevent the ‘slinging’ of the oil lubricants
used in the engine’s operation. Flywheel partially revolved in
a floor pit, below floor level of the engine house.

Closeup view of the high pressure steam cylinder, and the gas
compressing cylinder it operated, just to the right of I beam in
the photo. The Burnsville station had four of the Nordberg duplex
steam engines.

Looking across the line of steam cylinders from the side of the
Nordberg compression engines, showing the governor of the nearest
engine.

The Burnsville station had been built in 1916, and when
originally constructed, it was entirely self-sufficient. Not only
did it compress the gas, but it furnished its own water supply and
electricity. Later, the electric power would be purchased from the
local power company, but an emergency electric generator was
maintained within the station. Often, while storms would darken the
rest of town, the compressor station would remain brightly aglow in
the darkness.

The ‘business end’ of the compression station was housed
in the engine house. This was where the station’s steam engines
were housed and the compression process took place. Burnsville held
onto the old name usage of ‘engine-house.’ At other
stations, where gas fueled engines were used for compression, their
shelter was generally called the ‘compressor building,’ a
reflection of modernization. The Burnsville engine house structure
was constructed of a steel framework, covered with steel sheathing.
It was a large size building with a high ceiling that allowed a
bright and airy interior. In it were located the steam compression
engines and the other required equipment for their needs and
operations. The building’s interior, the steam engines, and all
the other equipment was kept well maintained and very clean.
Everything was regularly cleaned, wiped or shined. Some station
visitors were often very surprised to discover the floor in a much
cleaner state than the floors of restaurants that they had just
earlier eaten in, at Clarksburg, West Virginia, where the company
had its area office building. While it’s a common rule to
maintain all gas compression stations in a clean state of order,
the Burnsville staff strived for that ‘extra mile.’ They
desired that this last bastion of steam operation be a true
showcase, and their efforts reflected very positively.

Steam powered washing machine at the Burnsville station. It
cleaned the station’s many wiping rags that kept the steam
machinery so clean.

Across the engine house’s front area sat the station’s
four Nordberg duplex steam compression engines, painted a pleasing
green hue. Situated side by side in a single row, they were an
impressive sight to behold. Each of these engines was composed of
two steam engine cylinders, two gas compressing cylinders, and a
single flywheel. These Nordberg engines were two-sided, each side
having one steam cylinder and one gas compressing cylinder. The two
sides were split by the large diameter flywheel, that partially
revolved within a pit below floor level, with the engine’s two
sides joined with connection to the single flywheel.

Steam was delivered to the Nord-bergs via an overhead piping
system from a separate boiler house. The steamline then dropped
towards the floor, to enter the first side of the engine and its
steam cylinder, the ‘high pressure’ side. Once steam was
used to power this cylinder (or side), the steam was exhausted
through a piping arrangement that made connection of the other, or
second, side of the Nordberg engine. Here, this steam entered the
other steam cylinder, which was of a larger bore (or size), known
as the ‘low pressure’ side.

Once the steam was used to power the second cylinder, it was
exhausted into the atmosphere. This use of steam twice, in separate
cylinders, is known as ‘compounding.’

Both the high and low pressure steam cylinders had an extended
piston rod that exited the front of their respective cylinders.
This piston rod, in turn, operated by direct action the natural gas
compression cylinder. This compression cylinder was located
directly in front of the steam cylinder, and was a part of the
overall Nordberg engine assembly. These gas compressors were not
driven by a belt-drive arrangement from the engine’s flywheel.
Some readers might envision this occurring from observations where
belting was, and is, used to power equipment and machinery, but
this was not so with the Burnsville compressors.

As this compression station was a major one, and its machinery a
bit rare with some age, the maintenance and repair of it was of
great concern to the company. The station’s personnel would
pre-plan any such required work, scheduling it for the year’s
summer months when the demand for gas was at its lowest. During the
summer, the station usually needed to operate only two of the
Nordberg compression engines, and they could be run at a lower RPM
speed.

At this time, repair or major maintenance work could be
performed on a shut down engine, with the shutdown period rotated
among the four engines. Any needed replacement parts could not be
obtained off-the-shelf from any equipment or machinery dealer. A
major repair could require both foundry and extensive machine shop
work to create such needed parts.

During the winter months, when the gas demand was at its peak,
any breakdown of the four engines became critical. If such a
breakdown did occur, it meant overtime hours for the crew, with the
work pushed to its completion. However, regular attentive
maintenance, careful inspection, experienced personnel, and the
summertime rotation shutdown of the engines, caused unexpected
breakdowns to be almost nonexistent.

One observation of mine about the use of steam compression
engines should be mentioned, and this is about their noise level.
Even with all four of the Nordberg engines running together at
their maximum compressing capacity, their noise level was
relatively quiet. It was not unpleasant to be about them. While
demand for increased capacity required the speed of the engines to
be increased, their noise level did not increase all that much. The
most noticeable difference with their increased speed was that the
faster RPMs of their flywheels created more air movement about
them. These steam engines were pleasant to be near.

On the other hand, the gas fueled reciprocating compression
engines were noisier. While their exhaust was muffled, its
‘chant’ could get to a person over time or at least to me.
With their multi-cylinders, their exhaust sound was more strident
in nature. These gas engines, at certain workload speeds, also
seemed to cause vibrations that could get on a person’s nerves,
too. At times these vibrations could cause small, loose items to
move about, such as on tool chests. And to me it also often seemed
to pulsate the station’s window glass. Most of the ‘young
bucks’ about these gas fuel reciprocation stations would laugh
at my observations of this, claiming it as only my imagination, but
I don’t think it was.

Overall view of the station in November 1982. The front center
structure is the engine house, with a Nordberg Duplex engine under
each of the four roof peaks. Behind this building was the
station’s boiler house with its eight smokestacks. The house to
the left served as a dweUing for the station’s superintendent
and his family.

Interior of the boiler house. Six of the twelve natural gas
fired steam boilers can be seen in this view. Note cleanliness of
this building. Water glasses can be seen to the left of boiler
doors, with steam gauges on right.

One of the Ingersoll-Rand single steam cylinder air compressors
located in the rear portion of the Burnsville engine house in 1982.
The air compressing cylinder was operated by an extended piston rod
of the steam engine. The steam cylinder sits under oil can and its
speed governor, the air cylinder to the right.

Located elsewhere in the Burnsville engine house were various
other pieces of equipment and machinery that supported the steam
station’s operation. Most of these were located in the rear
portion of the building. Among the more interesting were two
Ingersoll-Rand single steam engine powered air compressors. Each of
these also used an extended steam piston rod to operate the air
compressing cylinder. Compressed air was necessary for several
reasons, but its main use was to operate air-powered tools used in
repair and maintenance work about the station. Because of possible
spark hazard, portable power tools were driven by small air motors,
rather than the small electric motors normally found on such
items.

The most unique piece of ‘support equipment’ in this
building was a home-built steam washing machine of substantial
construction. It was used to wash the station’s wiping rags,
and occasionally employee overalls. Its agitator was propelled by a
small steam turbine, with the wash water coming from the boilers.
Oddly, the washer’s wringer was a hand operated one. Perhaps
its creators didn’t have access to a suitable small steam
engine with which to power the machine’s wringer? The washed
rags were dried on a clothesline, located out of the way, near the
steam pipes. Also in the building were various appliances as found
in many other stationary steam engine-houses elsewhere, such as to
recover lubrication oil from the exhaust steam, prior to its
exhaust into the atmosphere.

Directly behind the engine house, separated by a distance of
open space, was the station’s boiler house. Here, twelve
boilers were available to generate required steam. This building
was a large, lofty structure that, with its high roof, made a more
pleasant environment to toil in on hot, humid summer days. Its
construction was also metal sheathing over a steel framework, and
like the other buildings of the station’s complex, it was white
in exterior color. Eight smokestacks, twice as high as the
building, poked skyward through the metal roofing. There were four
smaller diameter smokestacks that served a boiler apiece, and four
larger diameter stacks that served two boilers each. Like the
engine house, the boiler house was kept cleaned and shined. Even
the boiler tops were regularly cleaned of dust. The twelve boilers,
all in a row, made as impressive a sight as the Nordberg engines in
the engine house.

Back when the Burnsville station began its operation, bituminous
coal was used to fuel the boilers. It then was less expensive to
use than the natural gas the company moved through its pipeline. A
spur track from the nearby railroad delivered the coal into the
station. Also at that time, two different railroad companies
operated through Burnsville, and a good grade of steam coal could
be readily obtained from nearby mining districts.

I was told that to fire the boilers with coal was not that
difficult a task. What was dreaded though, by the firemen, was the
removal of the ashes. It seems an extensive pathway of wood planks
once extended from the boiler house to various far reaches of the
station’s boundaries. Over this would travel the ashes, in
wheelbarrows, to wherever the dumping site was designated. If wet,
these boards became slick to walk over and cold temperatures made
it more taxing. However, if it was to snow enough this pathway also
required shoveling. Over time the various ground depressions about
the station were filled in, then earth placed atop the ashes, and
grass planted. The station’s appearance became greatly improved
as a result.

At a later date, a more extensive supply of natural gas became
available and, with prices increasing for suitable coal, the
station boilers were converted over to use natural gas for their
fuel. The use of gas also allowed a cleaner operation of the
station. Any boiler repair work would be arranged for summer months
when boilers could be shutdown for this work, in conjunction with
the partial shutdown of the steam compression engines.

The rest of the station’s complex was open space, known as
the yard area. It was here that the underground gas pipeline
entered and exited the compression station. Valves on the pipeline
in this area could route the gas flow about and through the station
as needed. At some locations the underground pipe would emerge to
the earth’s surface for short distances. This exposed pipe
allowed interior access into the pipe and its periodic inspection.
Also in this same area were various appliances to serve the gas
flow in the pipeline, such as heaters to warm the natural gas.
Also, extra valves and sections of pipe were stored about for
possible emergency nature replacement use by the company.

By 1982, Equitable Gas Company had already announced its intent
to replace the Burnsville steam compression station with a new one.
This replacement station would be built on a site just north of the
existing enginehouse. It would be powered by a single gas fueled
reciprocating engine of capacity to replace the four Nordberg steam
compression engines. Helping to achieve this were improvements made
elsewhere in the company’s gas distribution system. Once the
new station was completed and tested, the steam station would be
dismantled and removed.

Since this was the very last steam compression station, it was
hoped that it, or a portion of it, might be somehow preserved as an
exhibit of its technology and time. Reportedly, the gas company did
permit recognized, and suitable, historical interest organizations,
including representatives of the Smithsonian Institution, to view
and examine the steam station. Unfortunately, none of these groups
could, or wanted, to undertake the humongous project of acquiring
the station, removing it from its site and then reconstructing it
at some other acquired location. As such, it seemed the steam
station and its contents would be scrapped for its steel and metal
content.

Another interior view of the boiler house at Burnsville, showing
the top portion of several boilers and their steam lines that
delivered the steam to the station’s steam compression engines.
Stairway, on the right front, leads to the roof.

Surprisingly, the construction schedule for the new replacement
station got delayed, and the Nordberg engines continued to serve
the company’s needs a while longer. Once the construction work
did get under way, it progressed swiftly and was soon completed.
Not long afterwards, the Burnsville steam compression station was
retired.

I regret I cannot provide the reader with the date of the steam
power cessation. I was not back to the Burnsville, West Virginia,
area from late 1983, the last time I saw the Nordberg engines in
operation, until November 1988, at which time I found the new
station completed and in operation, with the former steam station
removed. At this time I was able to talk briefly with one of the
old steam crewmen who provided me with the date of the steam’s
last usage. However, I failed to write the date down, and today
I’m no longer sure of it in my mind, but I believe it was in
1985. He also informed me that the entire steam station had been
acquired by South American interests, for operation there in a
developing natural gas field. It was also his understanding that
this project had gone sour in some way, prior to all of the steam
equipment being shipped from the Burnsville area.

Today, I still do not know how much of this equipment ever got
to South America. Nevertheless, there is a strong possibility that
a portion of the old Burnsville steam compression station remains
in service today. I’d like to think so, but does any reader
know for sure?

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