Park recalls Drake's wells at Oil Creek Heritage: All of the derricks are gone, but history remains in the Pennsylvania 'valley that changed the world' in 1859.

March 02, 1997|By Randy Kraft | Randy Kraft,ALLENTOWN MORNING CALL Additional research for this article provided by Sun librarian Bobby Schrott

PETROLEUM CENTER, Pa. -- The world changed here on Aug. 27, 1859, when Edwin L. Drake struck oil at a depth of 69.5 feet.

Drake did not discover oil. People already knew about oil, but Drake was the first to find commercially viable quantities and spur an entirely new industry. He is called the founder of the modern petroleum industry.

Thousands followed Drake into this valley, especially after the Civil War, building large oil boom towns, some of which are now ghost towns. By 1875, the oil field began to go dry.

Folks at the Drake Well Museum in Pennsylvania's Oil Heritage Region maintain that what happened here did indeed change the world, far more than wars or revolutions, and that is why this area in northwestern Pennsylvania has been designated a Pennsylvania Heritage Park.

The area's official name, Oil Heritage Region, is appropriate, because it's more than a park. It includes Venango County as well as Titusville just across the northern boundary in Crawford County.

An environmental disaster

Traveling through the peaceful "valley that changed the world," it's hard to imagine this beautiful wilderness once was a &L sprawling industrial site that became an environmental disaster.

About 125 years ago, this valley was "wall-to-wall oil derricks." All the trees were chopped down to build derricks and provide fuel for noisy engines that operated oil well pumps. Steam locomotives rumbled up and down both sides of the creek. Smoke spewed from small refineries dotting the landscape.

The lack of trees caused soil erosion, turning the area into a sea of mud. When oil prices dropped too low, oil was allowed to flow into the wide stream. At least once, Oil Creek caught fire and burned for miles.

Now all of the derricks are gone, and the valley is once more covered with forests, much the same as before the oil boom of the 1860s and early 1870s. In winter, when leaves are off the trees, pump jacks, pipes and storage tanks can still be seen scattered in the woods of Oil Creek State Park. In warm weather, a diesel-powered tourist train chugs up and down the other rail line across the stream.

The region's best-known landmark is a replica of Drake's oil well at Drake Well Museum, a state historic site just south of Titusville.

The 7,026-acre Oil Creek State Park preserves nearly 14 miles of the Oil Creek Gorge. People fish for bass and trout in the once-lifeless stream.

"Nature has done a fabulous job of recovering here," said Barbara Zolli, site administrator at Drake Museum, at the north end of the state park. "You never see a slick of oil on Oil Creek."

But at a historic site named Boughton in the park, she added, you can still smell sulfur and see spots where vegetation doesn't grow, because sulfuric acid was poured on the ground.

A sulfuric acid recycling operation was in that spot, said Carolyn Worley, the state park's environmental education specialist.

She added: "It will be at least another 100 years before it recovers."

Petroleum Center, where the state park office is located, was an oil boom town with as many as 5,000 residents. It had the reputation of being "the wickedest town east of Gold Rush California." Although still on state highway maps, now it has only one resident.

An even bigger boom town was Pithole, where oil was discovered in January 1865. Pithole grew to more than 15,000 residents in just nine months. It had 57 hotels, some three stories tall. It even had suburbs, but by 1867 the boom town was deserted.

Zolli said Pithole, now a state historic site, is the largest ghost town in Pennsylvania. There is nothing on the site of Pithole today except a rolling meadow of grasses and wildflowers and a visitors center.

The Drake Well Museum includes much more than the familiar wooden derrick and engine house building, a replica of his second well. With indoor and outdoor exhibits, including a much taller oil derrick and portable drilling rigs, the museum covers 219 acres along Oil Creek.

In the replica wellhouse is a drilling rig and a steam engine that operates it. "Everything around you is a reproduction except the hole in the ground," said Zolli. "The hole in the ground is the real thing." Outside, rusty steel bars, called rod lines, stretch across the grounds from another engine house to operate pumping jacks. One engine could be used to power pumping jacks on six wells, Zolli said.

No drilling now

Visitors are surprised to learn no actual drilling is done on museum grounds. "We don't own the mineral rights," said Zolli, adding a New York family owns those rights, but the state does not allow drilling on the site.

The museum building is across the lawn from, and much larger than, Drake's wellhouse. Zolli wants to revamp indoor exhibits, saying they were state of the art when installed in the late 1960s. She wants to create a simulated oil field environment. "We've taken some hits as a museum that we are too clean and too pretty. We're going to make it more authentic," she said.

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