Rio Bravo Oil Pipeline Pumping Plant

Photos by Bruce Petty

Thirty years ago I would stop at the oil pumping stations along the Chevron Oil Co. pipeline crossing the lower San Joaquin Valley, East of Bakersfield, Ca. Steam power operated these 100 year old National Transit Co. oil pipeline pumping engines. The engineer in charge asked me if I knew how to tune these pumping engines up, nobody has done this for over 40 years that he knew of and they were getting a little off. The stationary engineers and mechanics had no have a clue how or had the tools to do so. So I was hired as a consultant for 3 days to run test and instruct the mechanics of how to operate a Steam Engine Indicator. This was like going back in time a hundred years, when these engines were built in 1885, there were no cars or planes, only wood burning steam Locomotives for trains used for any sort of transportation.

This is the heart of Chevrons pipeline, the Rio Bravo Gathering Station built in 1904. Here the oil is brought in from the Taft and neighboring oilfields and sent to the refineries, ether to Bakersfield or north of the valley to Richmond. Heavy crude was sent over to the coast, near San Luis Obispo, where the oil was boarded onto a tanker and shipped to Los Angeles. This pipeline had four other pumping plants along the line, because the heavy crude had to be reheated about every 20 miles so to flow through the pipeline.
Here at Rio Bravo the Boiler House is on the left (with all the smoke stacks) and the Pipeline Pumps are housed in the building on the right, behind the Boiler House.

First things first, when you pump oil, it has to be heated so as to lower the viscosity and make pumping easier to flow through the pipeline. The three tanks lying on their sides are Heat Exchangers. Exhaust steam from the Pipeline Pumps (in the building behind), is used to heat the the oil flowing through the Heat Exchangers to the Pipeline Pumps. The last use of the steam is to transfer its heat to the oil inside the Exchanger before returning to water in the boilers.

Inside the Boiler House are a bank of boilers suppling steam to the Oil Pumping Engines. Not all the Boilers are working at one time, some are being cleaned or repaired. These boilers supplied about 40 pounds steam pressure to the Pipeline Pumping Engines.

These are the boiler feed pumps, each operating at a different rate of speed to the need of the water supply to the boiler.

This is the National Transit Co., Pipeline Pumping Engines, there are three of them here at Rio Bravo. They are cross compound engines, that is, the steam is used twice. The cylinder box close to the camera has a steam piston 30 inches in diameter with a 36-inch stroke, steam is then transfered to the far side, low-pressure piston through the overhead-insolated pipe. That piston is 52 inches in diameter and is so heavy that it requires a support as seen on the end of the cylinder box. The box is full of insulation to keep the heat inside the piston.

This it a close up view of my Steam Engine Indicator. Not to get complex about its operation, it just allows the steam valves to be set correctly. I had so much fun doing this!

This is the oil pumping end of the engine, three oil plunger pumps, each 6 1/2 inches diameter, each double acting, this making a smooth flow of oil through the pipeline. The two flywheels seen inside the engine are 18 feet in diameter! Now remember, this plant was put together in1904, using mule and one horsepower type horses.


NEW California Oil Fields in Color

Downtown Los Angeles Oil Bulk Plant.

Back to Early California Oil Industry


For those in High School and may be looking for a career in geology. Montana Tech has one of the few Petroleum Engineering programs left in the US, as well as Mining Engineering. Montana Tech's website is www.mtech.edu and this direct link to Professor Diane Wolfgram PHD, Mining Engineering department's web page.

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