Summer Fun at Pennsylvania Oil Museums
Summer brings millions of Americans trekking across the country on vacation. In 2016 many are geologist and petroleum engineers, who have more free time on their hands. Among the more unusual stops for others, if less well known, are community petroleum museums with exhibits chronicling the nation’s discoveries.
There are several historic attractions in the state where it all started, Pennsylvania.
East of I-79 in northwestern Pennsylvania, the Drake Well Museum in Titusville exhibits “Colonel” Edwin Drake’s famous Aug. 27, 1859, discovery well – today recognized as the first commercial oil producer.
Soon after Drake made his discovery, iron pipelines about two inches in diameter were transporting natural gas more than five miles.
The museum’s outdoor exhibits include a recreation of the original cable-tool derrick Drake used. A popular summer attraction is the “Nitro” reenactment that demonstrates the use of “go-devils” for fracturing a well.
Visit the museum gift shop to find a reprint of the Early Days of Oil, by Dr. Paul Giddens, a book considered to be the “Bible” of information about the birth of the U.S. petroleum industry. Many images are from originals made by photographer John A. Mather and today housed at the museum.
Located on 270 Seneca Street in Oil City – in a Beaux Arts building listed in the National Register of Historic Places – the Venango Museum of Art, Science & Industry preserves the oil region’s industrial heritage. Its exhibits include a 1928 Wurlitzer Theater Organ.
Another must-see visit, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s Historic Pithole Visitors Center – site of a vanished 1865 oil boom town today managed by Drake Well Museum. The ghost town is in Oil Creek State Park.
A dedicated group of railroad enthusiasts maintain the Oil Creek & Titusville Railroad, a nonprofit group that offers trips through the historic oil region. Near the railroad is the refurbished home of “Coal Oil” Johnny. Read his fascinating tale in the Legend of “Coal Oil Johnny.”
In nearby by Oil City is a center dedicated to the study of the oil heritage region at Clarion University – Venango Campus.
The Barbara Morgan Harvey Center for the Study of Oil Heritage contains hundreds of rare books that document the history of the region, newspaper clippings from the early 1900s, minutes from the meetings of early companies from the late 1800s, maps and photographs.
The First Billion Dollar Oilfield
A few hours drive to the east of Titusville, the Penn-Brad Oil Museum (and historical oil well park), near Bradford, takes visitors back to the early boom times of “The First Billion Dollar Oil Field.”
Guided tours are conducted by retired geologists or petroleum engineers who volunteer their time to relate exciting first-hand experiences. The museum is located three miles south of Bradford, along Rt. 219, near Custer City.
Nearby is the 125-year-old refinery of the American Refining Group – reportedly the oldest continuously operating refinery in the country.
Before leaving Pennsylvania, visit one of the world’s largest collections of oilfield engines. Century old “hit and miss” gas engines, vintage oilfield equipment, and early electric generators are among the permanent exhibits at a unique “power museum” in Coolspring.
With perhaps the largest 19th century engine collection in the world, the museum is housed in 13 buildings with about 250 engines – many of them operational.
The Coolspring Power Museum is located east of Pittsburgh just off Route 36 midway between Punxsutawney to the south and Brookville to the north.
According to Director Paul E. Harvey, the collection presents an illuminating history of the evolution of internal combustion technology that put an end to the steam powered era.
Twice a year engine collectors from around the country gather on the extensive grounds – and the “barking” of hundreds of antique engines lasts several days.
Although not in Pennsylvania, but just across the New York border, the Pioneer Oil Museum is located in the Village of Bolivar, Allegany County.
While dairying and livestock have become the cash crops, the region still produces a small amount of very high quality oil and natural gas, says Director Kelly Lounsberry. This museum tells the story of oil and natural gas production in the region.
Most petroleum history sources agree that the first U.S. well specifically intended to obtain natural gas was dug near Fredonia by William Hart, who had noticed gas bubbles on the surface of a creek.
In 1821, Hart dug a 27-foot well to bring a larger flow of natural gas to the surface. Hart succeeded and a “log pipe” was used to bring gas to nearby houses for lighting.
Regarded by many as the father of natural gas in America, Hart’s work led to the formation of the Fredonia Gas Light and Water Works Company – the first U.S. natural gas company.
Community oil and gas museums are linked to the AOGHS website. Museum events and K-12 education efforts are featured alongside stories of America’s E&P heritage.
Editor’s Note – This article adapted from an American Oil & Gas HIstorical Society article that first appeared in American Gas, official magazine of the American Gas Association, Washington, D.C., founded in 1918.
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