Lots To Do in This Oily Playground
by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, July 11, 2009.)
If I lived in Alaska it would be odd if I’d never paid Denali a visit. If I lived in South Dakota, people would raise eyebrows if I’d never seen Mount Rushmore. If I lived in Arizona and had never witnessed the Grand Canyon, people would wonder what I was waiting for.
My usual scribbles are about hunting,
shooting and a tiny bit of fishing, but
that's not all we have to do around here.
But I live in northwest Pennsylvania, and it’s a minor embarrassment to admit that I haven’t yet visited some of the attractions here. Lots of us haven’t. I suppose that is odd. I’m not surprised people would raise eyebrows. And I don’t know what I’m waiting for.
My usual scribbles are about hunting, shooting and a tiny bit of fishing, but that's not all we have to do around here – especially remembering the fact that northwest Pennsylvania is where the oil industry got its start.
It was 150 years ago (August 27, 1859) that Colonel Edwin Drake drilled a well near Titusville, PA and “discovered” oil only 69½ feet deep. Today, even with the environmentalist movement’s hatred of all things oil, that event is properly a source of pride for the people of Titusville and the region.
The truth is, however, that Drake wasn’t the first to bring oil to the earth’s surface. Two years earlier, a successful 49-foot well was dug by hand in Ontario, and it produced 150 gallons per hour using a hand pump. In 100 B.C. the Chinese had a rudimentary oil and gas industry. They actually drilled wells and even had a distribution network through bamboo pipelines. And, going back as far as 4000 years, petroleum products were in use by the ancient Egyptians, Sumerians, Persians and others.
Here in North America, natives of the “new world” had also discovered oil, and commonly used it. With oil in some places less than 50 feet from the surface, we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that it sometimes actually seeped from the ground. American Indians (always the pragmatists) gathered it and found uses for it.
So, thousands of years before the gasoline engine, civilizations found many and varied uses for petroleum from waterproofing to lubricants to medicinal purposes – even mortar for masonry.
What made northwest Pennsylvania the birthplace of the oil industry? More than anything else, it was the readiness of entrepreneurs to exploit petroleum. So, Drake wasn’t the first to discover oil – rather, he drilled the first successful commercial oil well. And that fact brings us to today.
This summer is the peak of activities celebrating our region’s oil heritage. In preparation for this event, President George W. Bush in 2004 signed a bill designating Pennsylvania's oil region as a National Heritage Area. The Oil Region Alliance was formed to plan and promote the 150th anniversary of Drake’s success.
Events have been going on all year, but plenty more are on tap. Here are just a few upcoming that will help cultivate an appreciation for the region’s key place in oil history:
July 17-18, Dramatic production: Melba, The Toast of Pithole (Oil City)
July 23-26, Oil Heritage Festival (Oil City)
July 24-25, Queen Cutlery Collector’s Knife Show (Titusville)
August 26, Oil Man’s BBQ & Bluegrass Band (Cross Creek Resort, Titusville)
August 29, Taste of the Oil Region Brewfest (Titusville)
October 22, Lecture: Edwin Drake, a Reintroduction (Venango Campus of Clarion University, Oil City)
If you go online to www.oilregion.org and www.oil150.com, you’ll find plenty more to do in our oily playground. Or, call 1-800-483-6264 for more information about events.
Me? I might start at the old oil boomtown of Pithole, which accelerated from zero to a thriving city of 15,000 in nine months, complete with plenty of unsavory fortune-seekers (including John Wilkes Booth.) It’s now nothing but a ghost town, having died as quickly as it was born, but what a place to let your imagination off its leash!
And, since this is an outdoor column, I can’t fail to mention the Allegheny River Bass Tournament on September 13. The Allegheny is an underappreciated smallmouth fishery. This might be your opportunity to discover it – and maybe, if you’re a fortune-seeking type, win the $1000 cash prize.