Flywheel logo

May 2014

Windy City

By Paul Harvey

Nestled deep in the Allegheny National Forest was a little community named Windy City.  Don't bother to find it now for it no longer exists.  Southwest of Kane, Pennsylvania, and through the town of James City, one finds a lonely forest service road that leads on a few miles to an open, grassy site with a space big enough to turn around, as shown in Photo 1.  My last visit to the site was in 2009 and the wind seemed to whine in the pines, recalling much happier days. Alone with the ghosts of days gone by, I could again see the few houses and buildings and hear the loud exhaust of the Blaisdell engines from the air plant echoing across the valley floor. This is Windy City and this is its story.

I first stumbled upon Windy City in the late 1960s while driving some desolate back roads in search of old engines.  Suddenly I found myself in a forest of ancient steam engines, each rigged to pump an oil well.  At one stop I could definitely hear the bark of  large gas engines, so I headed in that direction.  Driving on for about two miles, I came upon a green building, standing open, with two large Blaisdell combination gas engine-air compressor units in full operation.  I had never seen such a sight!  After wandering around a bit, I was greeted by Harold "Jim" McCauley who was station operator, well pumper, and maintenance crew all rolled into one.  Jim was the sole resident of the town and the total work force that kept the lease pumping for Kendall Refining of Bradford, Pennsylvania.  Photo 2 is a 1972 topographical map that shows the buildings of the community as well as the air plant location.

Over the years Jim and I became very good friends, and he explained much of the history and technology to me.  He taught me how to operate the Blaisdells and how to know when an oil well was "pumped off."  He thought that Windy City was probably born in the 1880s when the oil wells were drilled with the steam engines that still pumped them.  The community was always small and focused on the oil and timber industries.  The lease, consisting of 44 oil wells, was known as "The Griffith" and was operated by Kendall.  As the wells gradually declined and the boilers deteriorated, a new method of pumping was needed.  In 1916, an air plant containing the two Blaisdell engine-air compressors was erected to provide compressed air to operate the steam engines, replacing the aged boilers.   This proved very successful and many other plants were erected in the neighboring areas. Only four wells were still in operation on the plant's final day of operation,  July 12, 1989.

One lazy afternoon, I asked Jim why he had chosen to stay at Windy City.  He just replied, "It's a good life."  He continued to explain that he loved to hunt, so during the autumn and winter he could take his gun with him, get the plant running and some wells pumping, then hunt for a couple of hours to get some fresh meat for supper.  During his later years there, he bought "Big Red," a four wheeler, to save walking to all the well sites.  Loving to keep the well sites and station area well mowed, he always carried his faithful scythe on Big Red, stopping to trim a bit here and there. His scythe, which he pronounced as "sigh," still hangs in our Windy City air plant exactly where he kept it.

Photo 3 shows the museum's Blaisdell, still on location and operating, in the early 1980s.  The Blaisdell engines were manufactured in Bradford, Pennsylvania, and the firm still exists today making Zippo lighters!   One engine could pump two oil wells and both engines together could pump five wells.  Perhaps not very efficient but definitely better than the individual boilers.   Sometimes, if Jim was not in town when I visited, I would just make myself at home (I knew where he kept the key) and start this engine to relax a couple of hours in his rocking chair, falling asleep to the rhythm of the exhaust and the motion of the engine.  I would then replenish the starting air, wipe everything clean, drain and shut off the water, and leave without a trace.  At least I thought I left without a trace!  Later, Jim told me that he was aware of my visits!

The Windy City air plant in operation is illustrated in Photo 4.  Note the old boiler to the right which served as the first air receiver and the long pipes laying near the ground which allowed the air to cool and the moisture to condense before being distributed to the steam engines on the wells. The plume of steam behind the boiler was rising from the water cooled engine exhaust which belched out over a small stream.  The compressed air, maintained at 80 psi, operated the individual steam engines as shown in Photo 5.  The gear reduction was known as the "cog wheel" and operated the walking beam at 24 strokes per minute.  Crude oil produced from each well gravitated to a large tank in the valley where it would be transported by truck to the refinery.

When the Windy City air plant finally closed its doors in the summer of 1989, Coolspring Power Museum acquired the complete building,  its contents, and one of the Blaisdell engines.  During its final few years of operation, Windy City had been under Pennzoil management.  The structure was dismantled and all the interior pipe work,  parts, and equipment were photographed so that assembly would be an exact duplication of the original.  With everything moved to the museum, the project of installation and reassembly began. Two changes were made as the project unfolded.  First, we decided to widen the building five feet to accommodate our visitors' safety by providing more observation space.  Second, since we had only one of the Blaisdells, we decided to add our Flickinger gas engine-air compressor, removed from a similar air plant  in Bradford, Pennsylvania, to replace the other Blaisdell.  Both changes proved to work well.

During the Museum's 2005 June show, we had a delightful visit from Jim, his last to see his beloved air plant as reconstructed at CPM.  The Blaisdell was running and the gas lights were lit as Jay, our engineer, chatted with Jim.  Jay then asked Jim if he could still start the engine, and proceeded to stop it.  Jim just said, "Course I can!" and proceeded to go through the entire procedure and had it running much easier than we ever did.  See Photo 6.  He then proceeded to instruct us on some fine points of operation to ease the starting procedure which we have used ever since.   He passed away the following winter at the age of 90 or so.

Photo 7 depicts the front view of our re-erected Windy City air plant as seen a few weeks ago.  It has been in operation for over ten years now, and the exhaust report of the Blaisdell can still be heard over two miles away.  Photo 8  shows one of the original steam engines, a 12 hp Farrar & Trefts, made in Buffalo, New York.  We installed it next to the Windy City air plant in 2013. It again operates on compressed air, and we plan to include the walking beam and well head to the display this year.

Our Blaisdell gas engine-air compressor unit is shown in Photo 9.  These units are massive with seven foot diameter flywheels and weighing twelve tons.  It is rated at 65 horsepower with an operating speed of 180 rpm.  The same cylinder is used for both the engine and the compressor, having a bore of 16 inches and a stroke of 20 inches.  The head end of the cylinder is the gas engine, which has a side mounted valve chest containing the power operated intake and exhaust valves.  This is easily seen in the photo.  Engine speed is controlled by a small pendulum governor carried on the intake valve pushrod.  In event of over-speed, the pendulum fails to open a small fuel valve.  The rear end of the cylinder toward the flywheels is the air compressor.  Sealing this on the piston rod is a "stuffing box," or packing gland, so the rod can end in a sliding cross head.  The intake to the compressor is accomplished by a rotary "corliss" valve that is power operated.  Compressor discharge uses pressure actuated poppet valves.  It is a magnificent machine to see in motion!

As supplied from the factory, Blaisdell provided a diminutive version to provide starting air for the larger machine. The unit, noted in Photo 10, was intended only to run when needed to replenish the starting air tank.  Having a five inch bore and six inch stroke, it operates at 400 rpm.  Interestingly, it does not have timing gears but employs an unusual "wig-wag" cam to impart four-cycle operation.  Note, to the right of the starting engine, the vertical piece of well casing pipe with a lid and skillet on top.  Having a gas burner inside, this is one of the devices that Jim used to heat the building as well as to cook his lunch.  It is exactly as he left it.

The museum tried to duplicate exactly the lay-out of the air plant as it appeared in its days of operation.  Photo 11 shows the interior,  just beside the big Blaisdell,  as it appears today.  Jim loved to sit in his rocking chair while eating fried bologna sandwiches cooked on the heating stove.  The work bench has his vise and all the spare parts and pipe fittings.  One can see the spare piston and rod stored under the bench.  Looking at Photo 12, one will travel back to the late 1970s and view a remarkably similar scene.  Note the favorite rocking chair, the work bench, the vise, all the parts including the piston underneath.  History has been preserved for all to appreciate.

Photo 13 shows the 50 horsepower Flickinger gas engine-air compressor that we installed in our Windy City display.  Like the Blaisdell, it was also built in Bradford, Pennsylvania, and served a similar purpose within the city limits of Bradford.  Its home was on West Washington Street where it pumped a small group of oil wells with compressed air.  The overall principal is the same as the Blaisdell's, but it features several interesting design differences.  Most noticeable is the side shaft and vertical governor head. Having some significant problems, it is finally going back together and will be running in the near future.

Flickinger also supplied small gas engine-air compressor units for filling the starting air receiver tank.   These were the most attractive, and probably the most serviceable, of the several small engine-compressor units manufactured in BradfordPhoto 14 shows the one we have added to our display to compliment the big Flickinger.  These little units were marketed for many applications where compressed air was needed.  Beside the engine is a vertical air storage tank capable of being filled by either of our starting engine-compressors and storing enough air to provide several "starts" of the big Blaisdell. A monkey wrench hanging on the small pipe leading to the pressure gauge is difficult to see in the photo.  Jim used it to securely turn off the air tank so the pressure would not leak away, and we continue to do the same.

For additional photos of both air plants as well as patent drawings of the engines, please see our website, coolspringpowermuseum.org.  On the home page, click on the "Exhibits" tab then scroll down to Windy City.  Click on "Tour" for a detailed trip to the air plant, both in the days gone by as well as today.  You will have a great tour.

After the Windy City air plant officially ceased production of crude oil, the museum did a video of a special operation.  On July 12, 1989, Jim hosted a museum and filming crew, starting the Blaisdell and operating a steam engine.  He dictated an excellent documentary of all his thoughts and actions, and this was recorded.  "Windy City Air Lease...Its Last Run," a 45 minute DVD that relives the by-gone days of Windy City, can be purchased at the museum gift shop.

Visit Coolspring Power Museum during any of its events to see Windy City in operation.  Our volunteer engineer will be happy to chat with you and explain the details.  For a complete list of museum functions, please see our website:  coolspringpowermuseum.org or call 814-849-6883.  See you then!

Windy City 2009

Photo 1: The location of Windy City as seen in 2009

Topographical Map 1972

Photo 2: Topographical map of Windy City in 1972

CPM Blaisdell in the 1980s

Photo 3: The museum's Blaisdell in its original location in the 1980s

Windy City Running

Photo 4: The air plant in operation

Steam Pumping Engine

Photo 5: One of the steam pumping engines

Jim at CPM 2005

Photo 6: Jim operating the Blaisdell again in June 2005

Windy City at CPM

Photo 7: Windy City at the museum

Steam Engine

Photo 8: Farrar & Trefts steam engine

Blaisdell Engine

Photo 9: Blaisdell engine at the museum

Blaisdell Starting Air Compressor

Photo 10: Blaisdell starting air compressor

Rocking Chair

Photo 11: Jim's rocking chair in the museum exhibit

Rocking Chair Original

Photo 12: The rocking chair in the original air plant in the late 1970s

50 hp Flickinger Engine

Photo 13: The 50 hp Flickinger

Flickinger Starting Air Compressor

Photo 14: The Flickinger starting air compressor and air tank

 

Copyright 2017 by Coolspring Power Museum