The history and success of Keystone Steam Drillers


(Editor’s note: Additional information about the Keystone Driller Company was published in a column in the Dec. 12, 2013, issue.)

Hello again steam enthusiasts. I often talk about inspiration and the various ways it comes to me. In this case it came as a direct question. Have you written anything on the Keystone Driller ?

It was asked by my friend John Mitchell, a former professor at Geneva College. When his question got me to thinking about it, I wondered why I had not made Keystone a topic of some writing.

Clyde Lightfoot was well acquainted with much of their history. I believe his grandad was a molder in their foundry for several years. Many folks in Beaver Falls and surroundings worked there over the years.


Possibly the reason I had not made Keystone a topic was I had concentrated on traction engines and some portables in which the engine and some other machinery was mounted on a locomotive boiler, which served as the frame for the whole unit.

The Keystone units were timber framed with a floor in the middle, and the boiler mounted on the main timbers at the rear and the engine just ahead of it.

Many of the engines were what might be called upside down, with a flange resting on the timber floor and the cylinder hanging below with the crankshaft on top.

So when we see a Driller coming at us the silhouette is very different from a normal traction engine.

We are quite fortunate to know many details of the company and its growth from the very beginning, because a member of the family, J. Vale Downie, wrote a history of the company in 1926, dedicating it to the seven founders of the company. At that time they were all still living and details and statistics were easy to check.


Much of the material I will be using comes from a book titled Where Earth Dissolves Like Snow, The Keystone Driller Story, written by Wayne A. Cole, of Darlington, Pa. Cole is a lifelong railroad enthusiast and retired teacher from Blackhawk High School.

I first came to know him in 1961 when he was a student in the physics class that was part of my student teaching experience at Ellwood City, Pa. His Keystone book uses the 1926 history as pages three to 43 and then supplements it with pictures, data and other information, filling in the history from 1926 to the end of the Beaver Falls operation in 1959.

He had considerable help and encouragement from Rex Downie, a grandson of the founder and later an attorney in Beaver Falls.

One of the things I learned as I read the book Cole wrote, was how intertwined the Driller Works was with the Covenanter church and Geneva College which is, or was, primarily a Covenanter institution. If we were talking about two companies we could almost say they had interlocking directorates.


Getting to the history itself takes us back to the year 1880, when the main protagonist of the story, Robert Magee Downie, pulled together several elements of the primitive drilling methods of the day and added a steam boiler and engine and mounted it all on a heavy wagon, thus creating the first portable drilling machine.

These beginnings were at a place that came to be called ‘Downieville,’ near Valencia, in Butler County, Pa., where the family lived and farmed.

It is obvious to anyone who pays attention to history that a good source of water, be it a well or spring or stream, is a requirement for locating a home or a city or an industry. Look at Pittsburgh, the biggest city in our area, or London, Paris or Rome, especially. The Romans used their famous aqueducts to bring fresh water to the eternal city and the cloaca maxima to carry the overflow and the sewage of the city to the Tiber river. In a sense the city was on a continuous flush system.

Using water

In many areas, especially as populations became more dense, it became necessary to use dug wells to provide the flow of life giving water. There is some discussion in the book of the use of divining rods and ‘water witching’ to tell where to dig, as well digging was hard work and a dry hole could be quite a disappointment.

In this part of the country, a system developed of drilling into the ground to find salt brine, as salt is another necessary item∫ for life. These pioneers developed the best forms for drill bits, drilling rods, and means of driving them into the ground.

Most often the tools, what would come to be called a string of tools in the oil fields, was suspended from a spring pole or sapling that would suspend them over the hole.

Either foot or hand power was used to drop the bit to the bottom of the hole to mix the dirt with water that could be bailed out.


Two problems arise with these hand methods. First, it was limiting as to the depth that could be drilled since the tools became too heavy for the spring pole return to work.

Secondly, it was hard work and more so with greater depth. So it was that the use of a steam engine with a pitman arm to both raise and lower the tools came into use. Steam engines do not get tired.

A company was formed in 1879 in Allegheny City (later Pittsburgh’s North side), styled as R. M. Downie and brother, the brother being John Galbraith Downie. The work of construction seems to have been done at the shops of William Velte Company at 33rd and Penn Ave.

Building a reputation

As several of these non-traction machines went into service and were exhibited at the Pittsburgh Exhibition in the winter of 1880 1881, the word began to get around They also drilled a well for the Harmony Society at their location, called Economy, now Ambridge, and their president Jonathan Lenz was quite pleased. With the great influence of the Harmony Society this was also good publicity.

It was R. M. Downie’s intention that John Galbraith Downie run the works with Velte’s doing the construction, as Robert felt called to the ministry. By then a machine was sold to a W.E. Ross, of Valencia, who managed to drill as much as 50 feet per day with it. He was impressed enough to write a glowing testimonial that was included in the first catalog, published at Fallston, Pa. in 1882.

Merger. Robert Magee Downie’s plans to go to seminary and enter the gospel ministry ran into persuasive suggestion from James D. McAnlis that they meet together and form a company for the manufacture of the drillers in the Beaver Valley.

Also interested were David McAllister and H.H. George, president of Geneva College. That meeting was held Feb. 2 1882, in the back room of McAnlis’ jewelry shop at 8th and Main streets, in Beaver Falls.

With a capital stock of $10,000 subscribed by the seven original charter directors and $10,000 worth of stock allotted to R. M. and J. G. Downie for patents and rights to manufacture the machines, activity and finances moved along with vigor and by 1907 the capital exceeded half a million dollars.

A first plant was set up at Fallston, on the west side of the Beaver river, opposite New Brighton. At that time Fallston was a major manufacturing center, much more so than other nearby towns. It had the advantages of rail service and water power from a falls in the river.


As business prospered more and more capital was invested and more stockholders joined in. It was soon obvious they had entered this new field at a very fortuitous time and were rewarded with growth they had never dreamed of.

In the first nine years of the company they had shown a profit of some 325 percent. John G. Downie had invented and developed a very useful double acting water pump, and when the Keystone Driller bought it up and incorporated it in 1907 the capital rose to over half a million dollars as mentioned above.

The book does not say if they outgrew the Fallston plant or what may have caused the move to Beaver Falls, but at a meeting in the home of H. H. George on Jan 31, 1887, a decision was made to purchase a plot 250 feet by 235 feet from the Economite Society for $2500.

An employee and stockholder named Robert McKinght constructed the new plant and by May 27 some payment was made and by summer the new factory was under at least partial operation.

It should be understood the Economite, or Harmony Society, with headquarters in Economy, later Ambridge, Pa., owned a large section of the land in this part of Beaver County and had been instrumental in bringing Geneva college from Northwood, Ohio to Beaver Falls in what the book calls a “comatose state.” So with hard-working people and talent and the backing of the college and Economite society it is little wonder prosperity came on fast.


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