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Present effort is restoring Springfield’s past excellence

Thirty years of rust have bonded the pistons to the cylinder walls of both the engine and compressor units.

But Mike Murphy, an old hand in restoring old engines, has seen worse.

It may take a hydraulic press with 300 tons of pressure to free up the parts of the 1936 Superior engine now sitting at Palmer Manufacturing, said Murphy, but “I think we’ll get them apart.”

If they do, the half dozen former Superior and Cooper Energy employees will be well on their way to restoring more than a version of the longest-lived Springfield designed engine; they will be paying lasting tribute to a company that lived here for 112 years and helped bring challenge and purpose to their lives.

Getting wind that the discarded engine was at a local scrap yard, Superior and Cooper retiree Roger Vaglia contacted his former colleagues and asked whether they’d be interested in contributing time and money to get the engine up and running again.

When Murphy, Gary Pope, Tom Flach, Bill Bicknell, Bruce Chrisman and Mike Thompson all said yes, Vaglia moved like a well-tuned engine: He didn’t hesitate.

With the help of local manufacturer Jack Palmer, son of a former Superior/Cooper supervisor, Vaglia rescued the engine’s body from a scrap yard, then then outbid a competitor for the two one-ton flywheels that had been separated from it in the junking process.

The story of the rescue actually goes back to the Ireland of Feb. 1, 1863, and the birth of Patrick J. Shouvlin, who was 3 years old when his family came to the United States and 9 when father Daniel was killed in a steel mill accident at Bethlehem, Pa.

Mother Bridget joined relatives in Springfield, and P.J. was apprenticed out as a railroad maintenance shop worker. After returning to Springfield in 1883, he became a master mechanic on the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad.

He returned from that as a mechanical engineer to set up a small shop in 1889, when an Ohio and Pennsylvania oil boom was running short on fuel.

Operations like Findlay’s Ohio (now Marathon) Oil Company had cut and fed the nearby trees into the fire boxes of steam engines that provided off-grid oil fields with their pumping power.

“Around 1892,” writes Murphy, Shouvlin renamed his business “the Superior Gas Engine Co. and development began on what would become the trademark Superior oil field engine.”

The engine had two key attributes.

One: It was powered by the natural gas which, until then, had merely been burned off on the oil fields. That meant the fuel for pumping was essentially free to oil drillers and pumpers.

Later, when natural gas was then seen as a product, the relationship became poetry in motion.

Said Murphy, “You take the natural gas off the wellhead and compress it into the pipeline and pump it to the city.”

The second key attribute was the engine’s two-cycle low pressure design, which was simple, easy on parts and ultra-low maintenance.

The horizontal designs like the 1936 were also efficient.

With the pistons of the engine and compressor lined up like two bicycle pumps placed next to one another on the ground, when the engine fired, its piston traveled down the cylinder and pushed the piston of the compressor to compress the gas.

Said Murphy, “You get more power.”

Chrisman said the Superior approach was so superior that “this basic design has been successful in gas compression operations for 85 years.”

At work 24 hours a day, 365 or 366 days a year, later models required maintenance at 35,000 hours of operation, a couple of days short of four years.

In its various forms and under its various names, Superior Gas and Engine, National Supply, Ajax/Superior, White Motor and Cooper Energy Services built many more things: Award-winning marine engines for World War II, diesels that powered missile silos and defense radar posts and communications systems; and back-up generators for municipal power plants when the electric grid was less well-developed.

But of all those products, Murphy said, “The only thing left that they make today (of Superior origin) is that engine,” which bears the Ajax name because Superior sold the rights to the engine to another company.

The engine’s staying power is the reason Pennsylvania’s Coolspring Power Museum has promised a spot for the restored engine, which will be one of its most modern.

But it’s not the entire reason the former Superior and Cooper workers are pursuing the project.

That is powered by how Superior machines interacted with the working parts of its former employee’s lives.

Bicknell, who spent 20 years at Superior in Springfield, almost 20 more consulting, and now consults with Cameron, which produces the great-grandfather of P.J. Shouvlin’s compressor, loves machines.

“To me engines don’t just start, they come to life. And they have personalities. They will even communicate with you if you will listen to them,” he said.

Murphy said the work place, too, had personality.

“It was an old-style company where you were treated like a human being. It wasn’t easy. There were problems because it was so thinly staffed.”

But that thinness both stretched the people working there and created an inner dependence not unlike the aligned cylinders of a horizontal engine.

“There seemed to be a bond,” said Pope, who spent 26 years with the company.

“I traveled the world with this equipment, and I knew I could trust the guys in the Springfield plant to back me … My boss was more like a father.”

Chrisman, who did the math, calculated that those involved in the project spent a cumulative 175 years with the company and more than 200 years tinkering with, working with and designing engines.

Those combined years of rewarding experience may be the second most-enduring product of the company’s 112-year history. It’s what’s powering the effort to bring at least one old Superior engine back to life.

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