Sep 22, 2008 | Posted in Essays, Technology


David L. Weber, 1987
Revised, 1990 and 2008

“There also has been considerable negotiation going on recently in the Tidioute district for the purchase outright of gasoline - making leases, especially in the gas - pump territory whose gases and oil vapors are richest for gasoline making purposes. Several properties are said to be under option at this time, at what, but a relatively short time ago would have been considered very stiff prices.” - The Petroleum Gazette, March, 1916.

Drake Well Museum, Titusville’s major tourist / historical attraction, has undergone many changes since 1980. Many new displays have been added (including a Transportation Exhibit building), the Drake Well Replica has been rebuilt, and the Oil Creek & Titusville Railroad now runs excursion trains to the Museum.

One exhibit at the Museum has proven to be extremely popular with tourists and schoolchildren - a working re - creation of a 1920s Pennsylvania oil producing operation. The signs at the Oil Lease Exhibit do not tell the full story of how the Sand Hill Lease (and three other properties) originated and how the machinery got to Drake Well Museum and Park.

Tidioute, Pennsylvania, located fifteen miles from Titusville, underwent a renewal of oil drilling activity prior to World War I. Old wells were cleaned out, new ones were drilled, and plants were built to remove under vacuum natural gas from the oil wells and condense it into gasoline. “Casing Head” gasoline was then used for powering a new invention - the automobile.

A group of Tidioute area oil producers and business men pooled their resources and purchased the former Grandin property at Sand Hill, Triumph Township, southwest of Tidioute. This tract had seen much drilling activity during the 1860s oil boom.

Four experienced oilmen - George and A. Vern Clinger, along with Harry and Fred Jennings - were part of the group that had nine oil wells drilled and a central pumping power installed in the fall of 1916. Three local drilling contractors put down wells into the Third Stray sand - the main Tidioute field oil formation.

Other investors in this venture were Guy B. Grandin, James K. Bell (former salesman for the Union Razor Company / Union Cutlery Company, Tidioute, PA and Olean, NY; plant manager of the Baldwin Cutlery Company, Tidioute, PA), Louis Schwab (Ford automobile dealer) and J. Howard Pew (of the Sun Oil Company, Philadelphia, PA, whose wife was a niece of Harry and Fred Jennings).

The Natural Gasoline Company, operator of the first pipe line system for collecting casing head gasoline near Tidioute, was another A.V. Clinger operation (in partnership with Thomas C. Hawkey).

A Tidioute News item, September 1, 1916, announced the beginning of Sand Hill oil operations:

“Drilling will be commenced soon on the property at Sand Hill adjoining the Triumph Oil Co. lease. Several local parties are interested in the proposition. It is planned to drill the lease up and put in a gasoline [extraction] compressor.”

Central powers had been used for pumping wells ever since the end of the first oil boom in the 1870s and 1880s. These units could pump from 2 to 50 oil wells at once (in theory, if not always in actual practice) with an engine - powered (steam until the 1890s, then internal combustion engine) eccentric connected by iron rods to jacks at each well. This system enabled one man to economically pump marginal “stripper” oil wells in the Pennsylvania oil fields.

Equipment installed at Sand Hill was similar to what the Clinger Brothers were already using to pump oil and extract gasoline on three other Tidioute area properties. A 20 H.P. Olin gas engine, built by the Titusville Iron Works Company, Titusville, PA; operated a set of Grettenberger vacuum pumps (manufactured in Tidioute by the Grettenberger & Sons Machine Shop), and a Simplex eccentric power, made by the Oil Well Supply Company, Oil City, PA; that pulled and pushed the iron rods connected to wooden jacks at each producing well.

The Grettenberger vacuum pumps increased oil production through removal of natural gas from the wells and forcing it through sets of pipe coils laid in a pond of cold water. This process was used to condense gas into natural (casing head) gasoline, which fueled many early 20th Century automobiles. (A. Vern Clinger and the Tompsett brothers pioneered this process in the Tidioute area. It was later introduced into Oil Creek Valley by Bayliss & Emery lease foreman Anthony “Andy” Fasenmyer, 1905.)

Sand Hill Oil Company’s lease, and the Norton & Jackson property near West Hickory, Forest County, were the first gasoline plants equipped with Grettenberger vacuum pumps (there is some disagreement as to which of these properties was actually the first).

The Tidioute News, November 24, 1916, indicated that the Norton & Jackson lease had the first set of Grettenberger vacuum pumps, Sand Hill Oil Company the second:

“The E.E. Norton company recently finished another well on their lease at Fleming Hill, near West Hickory. Their gasoline rig is now in full operation. In the Tidioute district the Sand Hill Oil Company is the most active, rigging up the old Sand Hill lease for gasoline purposes.”

A second gasoline plant - central power (equipped with a 20 H.P. Olin gas engine, a set of Grettenberger vacuum pumps with a third compressor cylinder, and a Titusville Iron Works eccentric power) was installed at Sand Hill after more wells were drilled, 1919. This lease was producing 500 gallons of gasoline per day during the early 1930s. Vacuum pumps in the two power houses were later converted into compressors for extracting gasoline and injecting / cycling “dry” gas into four pressure wells for increasing oil production, c. 1938.

A pipeline system operated by the Atlantic Refining Company, later sold to the Tidioute Refining Company, gathered gasoline from the Sand Hill Lease and neighboring properties, c. 1916 - 1926. Tank trucks later carried the gasoline to service stations in the Warren and Fryburg areas. Oil from Sand Hill was refined by the American Oil Works, Tidioute Refining Company (in which A. V. Clinger was a shareholder / official) and the Wolf’s Head Oil Refining Company.

The Petroleum Gazette, March, 1916, made reference to the Tidioute gasoline pipe line system:

“In connection with the storage tanks it has put in, the Atlantic is running pipe lines through the region for the purpose of gathering gasoline in that way from the various leases on which it is made - if the producers will sell it in this manner, and it appears to be taken for granted by the Atlantic that they will do so, if offered sufficient price inducements. “

Karl “Tow” Johnson (1905 - 1978), an employee of the Jennings Brothers (Jennings & Pew) oil lease opposite Tidioute, became the pumper on the Sand Hill Oil Company - Grandin, Clinger, Bell & Jennings lease, 1944. Karl and his wife, Doris bought the lease from Winifred Clinger (George Clinger’s daughter, a staff editor for the Reader’s Digest magazine), July 2, 1952. The Johnsons, who lived on the lease, were constantly oiling the engines, repairing machinery and maintaining the 20 oil wells.

“Tow” Johnson abandoned the 1919 power house - gasoline plant, 1960s. All 20 wells were then connected to the original 1916 power house. Constant problems with log trucks accidentally pulling down the overhead highway rodline crossings forced the installation of an American Railway Appliance direct connected power. This 6 H.P. unit pumped five wells on the opposite side of the Tidioute - Enterprise road, c. 1970.

The Johnsons gave tours of their oil lease to visitors during the 1960s and 1970s. This came about because of questions about oil production (some actually stupid or ignorant) asked by hunters and vacationers!

Karl “Tow” Johnson died, March, 1978. Doris was left with a declining oil lease. She disposed of it wisely by offering the engine, compressor and eccentric from the 1916 power to Drake Well Museum. The Museum had already received a $20,000 American Petroleum Institute (API) grant for construction of a Central Power Exhibit, 1976.

Quaker State Oil Refining Corporation / Quaker State Corporation (Titusville Production Office) helped the Museum move machinery from Sand Hill; and by donating equipment and building materials from three other oil leases in Crawford, Venango and Warren counties. Replicas of a central power - compressor house and tractor shed were constructed, 1979. The following year six pumping jacks, separator tanks, rodlines, corner swings, overhead / underground crossings and a “pressure well manifold” were installed.

Other leases (owned by Quaker State) that supplied materials for the exhibit included the Church Run Oil Company / Cozy Oil Company (Oil Creek Township, Crawford County), the Benedict & Wilson lease (Allegheny Township, Venango County), and the Clinger Oil & Gas Company / A.V. Clinger property (Southwest Township, Warren County). The last - named site, formerly owned by Sand Hill Oil Company partner Andrew Vern Clinger (1872 - 1976), was very similar in setup to the Oil Lease Exhibit.

This elaborate exhibit was dedicated August 27, 1980 - the 121st anniversary of the Drake Well’s completion. Clanking of the rodlines and banging and gasping of the Olin engine (equipped with a “barker”) now welcome visitors to Drake Well Museum and Park.

Since 1980 many additions have been made to the Oil Lease Exhibit. Other machinery; including Milton and Iron King portable well pulling masts, a McCormick tractor (with Myers winch), Wolfe portable drilling rig and a complete National Transit field pipeline pump station; have been added to the display.
Drake Well Museum’s gas engine collection (containing power units made in Titusville, Oil City, Warren, Butler, etc.) has been expanded and improved.

Within the past ten years a blacksmith shop has been added to the Tractor / Tool Shed. Local smiths demonstrate their craft here, on the last Saturday of the month, from March through November. Part of the Lease Exhibit now contains space for the Nitro Shows, which educate school tours on how nitroglycerine was used by the oil industry.

Drake Well Museum’s Oil Lease Exhibit has been a source of inspiration for new programs and activities. Acquisition and installation of the machinery coincided with the Titusville Community History Project, 1980 - 1983. These nearly simultaneous happenings led to Drake Well Museum’s Oral History Project, in which over one hundred people (many of whom were oil field workers) were interviewed on audio tape, 1982 - 1995. Other activities stemming from the Oil Lease Exhibit and Oral History Project include an annual Fall Gas Engine Show (September), a Women’s History Project (c. 1992) and “Lease Life” school tours.

More additions and changes to the Oil Lease Exhibit have been planned (including installation of a set of natural gasoline extraction coils and relocation of pumping jacks), but nothing definite has taken place. These will be made after completion of the Drake Well Museum rebuilding / expansion project.

The 1916 Olin Gas Engine wore out during the 1990s. This historic unit has been replaced by a 20 H.P. Olin bed from the Haskell Brothers (Ralph Vail) oil lease near Enterprise, Warren County; with an Olin cylinder from the South Penn Oil Company lease on Bully Hill, near Franklin. A compressed air starting system and automatic feed lubricating oil pump have been added to the Central Power House‘s Olin Engine, making its operation (and maintenance) easier for Museum staff.

Although the Sand Hill Lease came from Tidioute, similar operations were once found in (or near) Oil Creek Valley. Combination central power - compressor houses were used on leases at Boughton, Dutch Hill, Windy Hill, Pioneer, Bull Run, Petroleum Centre, Rynd Farm, Titusville (Church Run), Pleasantville, Shamburg, Rattlesnake Corners and Rouseville.

An exact duplicate of the Drake Well Museum Oil Lease Exhibit was used on the McCormick lease at Bull Run, Oil Creek Valley. Remains of this lease are visible along the Oil Creek & Titusville Railroad tracks, between Miller Farm and the famed Noble & Delamater Well site. Central powers combined with vacuum - compressor plants (and in some cases, waterflood recovery systems), were once common in oil fields where wells had to be pumped 24 hours per day. Most sand formations in Oil Creek Valley were accidentally flooded with water, hence the constant pumping.

The entire Oil Lease Exhibit at Drake Well Museum can be seen from the train. This display gives riders a good idea of what parts of Oil Creek Valley looked like during the 1920s and 1930s. A somewhat different oil lease arrangement, where the air / gas injection plant and the central power house were in separate buildings, can be seen abandoned on the Columbia Farm (Brundred & Corse - Brundred Oil Corporation - Quaker State Oil Refining Corporation).

McClintock Well No. 1, world’s oldest producing oil well (McClintockville, Cornplanter Townsihip, Venango County), is now part of the Drake Well Museum (Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission) complex (since 2000). This site contains a central power house with a 12 H.P. Reid Type A gas engine and Reid Type P eccentric power. Robinson Oil Company installed the power house early in the 20th Century (later Brundred Oil Corporation, then Quaker State after 1952). McClintock No. 1 power house is somewhat different in appearance (and much less elaborate) than the Drake Well Museum and Park Oil Lease Exhibit.