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Road Trip Guide: Drake Well

This is the well near Titusville, which pumped the petroleum industry into existence. The picture was taken four years after Col. Edwin L. Drake struck oil on Aug. 27, 1859. Seated in the foreground is “Uncle” Billy Smith, Drake’s drilling foreman, who was first to notice the oil.
This is the well near Titusville, which pumped the petroleum industry into existence. The picture was taken four years after Col. Edwin L. Drake struck oil on Aug. 27, 1859. Seated in the foreground is “Uncle” Billy Smith, Drake’s drilling foreman, who was first to notice the oil. AP file photo

You probably fill your car with gasoline. Heating oil might fuel your furnace, keeping you warm at home. Even those who try to avoid it are likely touched in some way by the petroleum industry, which makes everything from plastics to chemicals possible.

But you might not know that a quiet northwestern Pennsylvania valley was at the epicenter of the start of the oil industry.

It was there that the county’s first commercial oil well, a steam-powered machine that was the first of its kind anywhere in the world, drilled down and struck oil, starting a boom that evolved into the modern oil industry.

The smell of petroleum still hangs in the air at the site of that well, in Venango County, a few hours north of Pittsburgh.

An exact replica of the well, drilled in 1859 by Col. Edwin Drake, greets visitors today to “the valley that changed the world,” as locals know it.

A working reproduction steam engine pumps recirculated petroleum inside the well between May and October at the Drake Well Museum, just outside Titusville.

The museum recently received an $8 million renovation. It boasts a modern facility and hands-on exhibits that should appeal to children, parents and anyone interested in learning more about the oil industry’s roots.

Drake Well Museum tells the story of the beginning of the modern oil industry with orientation videos, exhibits, operating oil field machinery and historic buildings in a park setting, according to its website.

While in the area, check out the many nearby recreational opportunities, including hiking or biking on the Oil Creek State park bike trail or canoeing on Oil Creek.

Step back in time ...

History is all around in the Oil Region — from the childhood home of Ida Tarbell, the muckraking journalist remembered for standing up to the giant Standard Oil, in Titusville to the historic Victorian architecture of Oil City and Franklin.

The McClintock No. 1, the world’s oldest continually producing oil well, is located on Route 8 between Titusville and Oil City, which are about 15 miles apart.

The Oil Creek and Titusville Railroad runs between the communities, and allows guests to hop on board a vintage train, take in the scenery along Oil Creek and listen to tales of the oil boom.

The wealth that the oil boom brought can still be seen in the architecture of towns such as Oil City. But for a different perspective, families can visit nearby Pithole, once a thriving oil boom town, now a ghost town.

Established in 1868, Pithole quickly surged to a population of 15,000 but within just three years was virtually empty. At its peak, the community boasted a daily newspaper, more than a dozen hotels and even an opera house. Now, all that remains are a few foundations.

The Drake Well Museum operates a visitors center at the site.

While you’re there ...

July 24-27: Oil Heritage Festival, Oil City, celebrates the area’s rich heritage from the discovery of petroleum and the resulting boom, www.venangochamber.org/visit/oil-heritage-festival

Aug. 8-9: Oil Festival, Titusville celebrates the town’s role as birthplace of the oil industry with arts, entertainment and more. www.titusvillechamber.com/tourism/of2014.html

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