Acres of Historic Engines in Jefferson County

    Coolspring10-MAIN-Overview2

    Pittsburghers and other residents of Western Pennsylvania may be tempted each February to revel in the festivities at one of our area’s most renowned towns, Punxsutawney, to see what groundhog Phil has to say about the end of winter. If you are making such a trip—or just enjoying the bucolic wonders of this region at any other time—you might want to look for signs for the sleepy village of Coolspring, in anticipation of a spring or summer visit just 15 minutes north to a unique museum, a campus of mechanical history.

    The Coolspring Power Museum is located along scenic Route 36 about midway between Punxsutawney to the south and Brookville to the north. Coolspring village is in Oliver Township, Jefferson County. Easily reached from Allegheny County via interstates 79 and 80, Coolspring is also about an hour’s drive from beautiful Moraine State Park and Lake Arthur.

    ding stands a 65-hp  Blaisdell combination gas engine and air compressor, made in  Bradford, PA.

    ding stands a 65-hp Blaisdell combination gas engine and air compressor, made in
    Bradford, PA.

    The story of the museum’s genesis is charming. In the mid-1950s two private collectors—from Columbus, Ohio, and Coolspring—began accumulating historically significant internal-combustion engines. Ohio’s Dr. John Wilcox was a consulting mechanical engineer who aimed to collect the “biggest of everything” in this field; he passed away about seven years ago. In 1985 Dr. Paul Harvey and Dr. Wilcox got together to start a “museum” of these engines in the Harvey backyard in Coolspring; Dr. Harvey still lives in the village and remains one of the museum’s 14 directors. The museum’s land parallels the main street of the village—an old lumber and coal-mining town that today retains many of its original residences, a general store 140 years old, three churches, an antique shop, and a community center.

    In the beginning there was one 10×12-foot building on this backyard property. Now, six decades later, the Coolspring Power Museum’s 35-acre campus has 30-plus buildings housing 300 internal-combustion stationary industrial engines dating from the 1880s to the post-World War II era. Major highlights include two of the largest vintage engines on earth; a circa-1925 175-hp Otto single-cylinder engine; and a 140-ton Snow engine (made in Buffalo, NY, by the Snow-Holly Pump Works), a 600-hp natural-gas compressor.

    The Susong Building’s “Gearless” Olds gasoline engine, circa 1900. Made by Ransom Eli Olds, a pioneer of the American automobile industry, builder of Oldsmobile cars, Reo cars, Reo trucks, and after World War II, Reo lawnmowers.

    The Susong Building’s “Gearless” Olds gasoline engine, circa 1900. Made by Ransom Eli Olds, a pioneer of the American automobile industry, builder of Oldsmobile cars, Reo cars, Reo trucks, and after World War II, Reo lawnmowers.

    The museum’s stationary industrial engines are mostly very large, with enormous flywheels. In addition to a focus on the oil-and-gas industry, the collection also includes internal-combustion engines once used in factories, municipal waterworks, machine and print shops, agriculture, and electric-power generation. Most of the antique engines are in working condition and can be seen in operation by visitors. The History and Heritage Landmarks Program of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) in 2001 designated the Coolspring Power Museum as a Mechanical Engineering Heritage Collection.

    Clark Colby, the nonprofit corporation’s vice president, filled in some details and historic background: “All of the machines in our collection are internal-combustion engines, many operating like those in modern automobiles. Most operate on gas, which is not gasoline. The very earliest engines were designed to operate on manufactured gas (aka town gas or coal gas), which was used for street lighting in the period 1800 to 1890; simply put, they operated on a gaseous nonliquid fuel. Mainly, the museum’s engines are of the kinds never in a vehicle, but were bolted to foundations—stationary engines, perhaps attached to other machinery with belts.

    Coolspring village’s General Store (still standing today), circa 1900.

    Coolspring village’s General Store (still standing today), circa 1900.

    “The natural gas period—a slight variation—for stationary engines was about 1890 to 1930. As a comparison, liquid gasoline was the preferred fuel for portable engines. Gasoline stationary engines were mostly used on farms after the 1920s.

    “Here at Coolspring, we actually manufacture nonliquid gas to imitate the ‘town’ variety and best operate the oldest stationary engines; we make our own mix of 15 percent propane and 85 percent hydrogen.”

    Detailed directions to the Coolspring Power Museum from Pittsburgh and other areas are on the website, which also lists the many special events and weekends during which the grounds are open to the public. However, those interested in touring outside of the official Event or Open Days may call 814-849-6883 to inquire whether an alternate visiting time can be arranged.

    In general, the grounds are open to the public at least one weekend a month, April through October (as listed on coolspringpowermuseum.org). The museum hosts several Special Events during the year, including: an Exposition and Flea Market in June; an Antique Car, Truck, and Tractor Show, combined with History Day, in July; and a Fall Exposition and Swap Meet in October. Upcoming Open Days are Saturday and Sunday, September 16 and 17, 2017. Held this year on October 19, 20, and 21 (Thursday, Friday, and Saturday) is the Fall Exposition—single-day adult admission, $7.00; children under 12, members, and volunteers are free. Special admission pricing is offered for student groups, scout groups, and youth groups.

    The museum entrance is located along the village’s main street. Before (and after) touring the many individual buildings of the museum campus via its trails, visitors should stop at the gift shop, where tickets, books, and a variety of gift items are available.

    Coolspring Power Museum, 179 Coolspring Road (off Route 36), Coolspring, PA 15730 (Oliver Township). Contact/information (all year long): 814-849-6883, cpm@coolspringpowermuseum.org.

    Greg Suriano  is the editor of The Strip! and author of seven books. He teaches at Robert Morris University and often writes on cultural and historical topics. Thanks to Clark Colby for his valuable contributions to this article.
    Photos courtesy of Coolspring Power Museum