Drills still thrill first oil town

SUN JOURNAL

Outsider: Edwin Drake's invention, still used a century and a half later, transformed Pennsylvania and the world.

September 09, 2001|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

TITUSVILLE, Pa. - To think of the oil business is to think of such places as Saudi Arabia, the Caspian Sea, Alaska's arctic refuge, Texas and the Gulf of Mexico. It is probably not to think of this little town 40 miles southeast of Erie, where it happens that the whole enterprise began.

This is where Edwin Drake struck oil in August 1859, using a previously ridiculed technique he invented, now known as drilling a well. At a mere 69.5 feet, it was the world's first commercially successful oil well, and was instantly copied as speculators and inventors poured into the region and boomtowns sprang up all across the valley.

The wells, shallow as oil wells go, began to dry up by the 1870s. The boomtowns vanished almost as suddenly as they emerged, leaving only Victorian mansions, photographs, oil field families and their stories as vestiges of the region's glory days.

But Drake's invention, the drive pipe that drilled into bedrock to keep gravel and water from filling the hole, lived on, as did the pipeline, the rotary drilling bit and other technologies that emerged in the wake of his discovery - and are still used in the most sophisticated oil fields today.

"It took mankind from horses to spaceships and, yeah, I'm proud of that," said Jack Master, a third-generation independent oil producer in nearby Venango County who hopes to pump 1,000 barrels this year while working as a logger two days a week. "You can't deny what happened in Oil Creek Valley. It definitely changed the world."

More than 140 years later, the juxtaposition of a verdant, placid landscape with its bold, bustling and bawdy past gives the town of Titusville, population 6,000, and its environs a haunting beauty.

Though the local economy long ago returned to its pre-oil roots in timber, now supplemented by plastics, a small steel industry and machine shops, several families still pump oil. Some work backyard wells; others tap a scattering of dozens of wells that date to oil boom days.

Family tradition

Not that it offers particularly steady income, said Bill Huber, 60, of Plumer, a third-generation oilman who pumps about 100 barrels a month from 80 wells in two counties. While high prices in the 1980s made him a more than comfortable living, low prices through the 1990s forced the family to rely largely on his wife's dog kennel for income.

The oil business is picking up now, he said, but he can produce only about half his capacity because he was forced to shut down so many wells over the past decade. For Huber, the draw has more to do with his lineage, his grandfather who built the kind of wooden oil rigs you see in the old photographs, and who drilled wells in the early 1900s that produced as much as 200 barrels a day, he said.

"It's something that if you grow up with it, you can't leave it alone," said Huber, who lives on 26 acres thick with 80-foot oak trees, land passed down from his grandfather, William Huber Jr.

"Walk with me in the morning, when the dew is on, and you can't hardly miss the smell of crude oil," he said.

The Oil Creek Valley, as the former boom region here is known, has maintained its ties to the now-vanished oil bonanza through the Drake Well Museum and Park, which chronicles the rise and fall of the local industry and features a board-for-board replica of Drake's original well, derrick and steam engine. Yes, it pumps real oil.

Visitors can watch a 1959 movie starring Vincent Price as Drake - an Abraham Lincoln look-alike - produced by the American Petroleum Institute. Nearby, 7,000 acres that bubbled with oil commerce are now a leafy state park with walking and biking trails and a boardwalk lined with photographs and plaques describing life in the midst of an oil bonanza.

`Shrine of the oil industry'

"This is the shrine of the oil industry," said museum director Barbara Zolli. "People come from all over the world to learn about how the tools they use were developed. Most of those tools have not changed much over time."

One of many historic buildings here is the girlhood home of Ida Tarbell, whose book, The History of the Standard Oil Company, helped lead to the breakup of the company.

The story of the Oil Creek Valley begins in 1857, when the Seneca Oil Co. of New Haven sent Drake, then a retired railroad conductor on the New Haven line, to the Titusville area to find a way of increasing the output of a disappointing oil spring that the company had leased.

At the time, lumber was the main industry, though the presence of crude oil was well known: Native Americans had been collecting it from creek surfaces for centuries, using it as skin cream and face paint and to line baskets. The trouble was getting oil in large quantities. What could be extracted was used by sawmills to lubricate machines or was refined into kerosene for lamps.

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