On May 31, 1940, more than a year before the U.S. entered World War II, Manufacturers Light and Heat Company purchased nine acres of land along Connoquenessing Creek in Ellwood City, Pa., around 40 miles north of its Pittsburgh headquarters.
The plan was to build a 1,000-hp compressor station to support the expansion of two nearby natural gas pipelines. Market demand in the region was growing fast, and the company needed to keep up. As it turned out, the project couldn’t have come at a better time: By the end of 1945, the station’s horsepower had doubled, and a post-war economic boom was on the horizon.
This month, less than a week after Memorial Day, the Ellwood Compressor Station turns 80 years old. Born in the Silent Generation, the workhorse station continues to function as a key cog in the Columbia Gas Transmission system while serving the energy needs of Western Pennsylvania and beyond.
Much has changed during its long and productive life. The station has endured major floods that occurred in 1954 and 2004 as well as several corporate mergers and name changes—from Manufacturers Light and Heat to Columbia Gas Transmission to Columbia Pipeline to TransCanada to TC Energy. Manned 24/7 for years, the station is now staffed with six workers: a team leader, A&E mechanic, transmission mechanic, M&R mechanic, maintenance mechanic and land representative.
Given Ellwood’s ability to stand the test of time, however, several necessary constants have underpinned the station through the years. Among them, its two 500-hp Clark RA-5 units are the oldest compressor units still working in the U.S. Gas Operations East and TC Energy fleets. And, for a significant portion of its existence, its current Team Leader Neil Gourley has had a hand in keeping station operations running smoothly.
May 31 also happens to mark Neil’s 26th anniversary as a full-time employee at Columbia Gas. He joined the station as a part-timer four years after college. Neil has dedicated his professional life to ensuring Ellwood’s safe and reliable function, and in turn, the station has given Neil what seems like a lifetime of friendships and memories.
For that reason, we saw it fitting to catch up with Neil to reflect on his time at Ellwood and its unique history.
Present day: Team Leader Neil Gourley poses for a photo after closing the suction valve on Compressor Unit 2 at the Ellwood Compressor Station in Ellwood City, Pa.
I grew up in the oil field. My dad and I ran a small mom and pop operation of production wells in Western Pennsylvania. It was handed down from my great grandfather. My first temporary job for Columbia Gas Transmission was at the Cross Creek field—at my back door, literally. Some history with the Cross Creek field: It was the location of the first compressor station for Manufacturers Light and Heat.
Ellwood needed a temporary summer helper, and they asked me if I’d be interested going there for the summer of 1993. I said I’m in, wanting to do anything to get a full-time job with Columbia. I drove an hour and 20 minutes one way for $6 an hour. I worked there during the summer, and then went back to the Cross Creek field. A boss from Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania asked around if they knew of anyone interested in a job with them, and a boss from Ellwood gave them my name. I was hired May 31, 1994, out of the Rochester, Pa. shop.
Ellwood’s important to me because a lot of work and sweat went into building the station in the 1940s. A unique feature of the station is a two-ton trolley track mounted above Compressor Units 1 and 2. It’s an “s” curve I-beam for lifting components above the units. I’m not sure if there’s any out there like that.
Seeing pictures and looking at how things were put together back then is amazing because most of the work was done by hand. They did all the pipe threading, lathe work and drill press work in-house at the station. These men knew how to build things and make a quality product to stand the test of time. It’s still here and still running—it amazes me.
Ellwood station is off the beaten path, so to speak. Many locals don’t know it even exists. It’s a quiet station along Connoquenessing Creek with abundant wildlife. Looking at the black and white photos, there would have been many stories told of how they were going to accomplish engineering the station and maintaining it.
Ellwood has celebrated birthdays, marriages, holidays, graduations and funerals all revolving around the men through the years. Like the old saying goes, “If these walls could talk.” Many changes have taken place in society and how work is done, making jobs easier with electronic communications. Charleston can press a button and turn on a compressor day or night, 24/7 at Ellwood. If the old-timers only knew!
The guys I started with are all retired, and now it’s a whole new group of young men and women. There are many good memories from the past to present.
Being a trainer at fire school brought a lot of good memories. We’ve had Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania, contractors, firemen and our own employees go through the training class. It’s fun to see a new employee or even a seasoned employee put out one of the four fires represented in the training. We fight line pressure—it’s hot and noisy walking up on the fire. I’ve received a lot of compliments on how much they’ve enjoyed the training. Some say it’s the best around because of the line pressure we use. Of course, we control the pressure ourselves due to safety.
I think by keeping our history alive, it shows us how far we’ve come and all the changes along the way. Men and women just like us are maintaining stations built before our time. It keeps our legacy going from all the hard work and manhours through the years. To me, that’s why I like Ellwood so much—because it bonds everyone together from the past to the present, all while continuing to provide the public with a resource they depend on every day.
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