It’s summertime and visiting a petroleum museum is easy.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Happily, the spring of 2021 has witnessed many community oil and gas museums beginning to reopen — and they now need your support, because Covid-19 put an abrupt end to visits. The links below can help you check any museum’s status for both in-person distance learning programs.
As millions of Americans cautiously begin trekking across the country on summer vacations, among the most educational but less well known stops are community oil and natural gas museums in the 33 producing states. For the many thousands of people who today work (or have worked) in the energy industry, energy education opportunities abound at community festivals.
Oklahoma and Texas alone offer dozens of museums with petroleum related exhibits and events. Meet the dedicated docents – many retired petroleum geologists, engineers, exploration and production executives, oilfield services company (and station) owners, and more. Plan your summer travels to oil museums today!
In Texas, the Petroleum Museum in Midland includes many summer energy education programs for kids, as does an offshore rig museum in Galveston. Other community oil and gas museums and annual “derrick festivals” can be found in California, Illinois, Wyoming, West Virginia, and Ohio. Alabama even has a small county museum in Gilbertown with an “old Hunt oil rig” similar to the one that discovered the first oilfield in Alabama in 1944.
Further, many communities celebrate their petroleum heritage every summer with parades, special events, and museum tours (see Community Oil & Gas Festivals).
For those interested in the industry’s exploration and production history and traveling this summer, check out these petroleum museums with exhibits chronicling the nation’s discoveries.
Western New York boasts a museum in Bolivar with some of the nation’s earliest petroleum artifacts. 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.
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, he dug a 27-foot well and built a “log pipe” to bring gas to nearby houses for lighting.
Hart’s work led to the formation of the Fredonia Gas Light and Water Works Company – the first U.S. natural gas company, according to the American Gas Association, Washington, D.C., which was founded in 1918.
Further, thanks to the region’s oilfield production, L. Frank Baum opened a petroleum products business in Syracuse, N.Y., in 1883. The future author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz once sold buggy wheel axle grease – and oil cans (learn more in Oil in the Land of Oz).
Just to the south of Bolivar, there are many museums and historic attractions in the state where the modern industry began: Pennsylvania.
East of I-79 in northwestern Pennsylvania, the Drake Well Museum in Titusville exhibits “Colonel” Edwin Drake’s famous August 27, 1859, discovery well – today recognized as the first U.S. oil producer. Soon after Drake made his discovery, iron pipelines about two inches in diameter were transporting natural gas more than five miles.
The Drake Well Museum’s outdoor exhibits include a recreation of the original cable-tool derrick Drake used. A popular summer attraction is the “Nitro” well fracturing 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.
America’s 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.
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 petroleum heritage.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2021 Bruce A. Wells.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Summer Travels to Oil Museums” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/energy-education-resources/pennsylvania-petroleum-vacation. Last Updated: May 15, 2021. Original Published Date: May 7, 2013.