In the Middle of One Boom, Looking Back at Another

The Allegheny Front's Reid Frazier went to Titusville for an up-close look at the Drake Well Museum, which tries to connect our energy past to our energy present and future.

In 1859, the country's first commercial oil well was drilled by Colonel Edwin Drake, near Titusville, north of Pittsburgh. Soon the countryís first oil rush ensued. With another kind of drilling boom at hand, this time for natural gas, the Drake Well Museum is trying to connect our energy past to our energy present and future.

The early oil boom was a swashbuckling time, filled with stories of rags to riches -- and riches to rags. One story recounted in the exhibit, the world's first oil millionaire, Jonathan Watson. He owned the land around Drake's find, but later died penniless at a sanitorium from a foot infection.

It all started when Drake, a former railroad conductor came west to Pennsylvania, says Barbara Zolli, director of the Drake.

"Drake was an agent of a Connecticut company who came to the area specifically to provide the missing piece of the petroleum industry."

That missing piece was oil. Petroleum was an alternative fuel to whale blubber during the 19th century. Oil actually saved diminishing whale populations when it became commercialized.

By the 1850s, there was a petroleum refinery in Pittsburgh but no steady source of oil to supply it--until Drake found black crude 70 feet below what's now called Oil Creek. A new industry was born, bringing with it new cities and towns, and new wealth. Though Drake never got rich, one company sure did, and it's the focus of the exhibit.

Standard Oil was founded by John D. Rockefeller, and it was among the first to exploit Drakeís discovery.

"Standard Oil pretty much developed the business models that we use today. They developed it in a time when there was much less regulation," Zolli said.

Standard absorbed its competitors, creating a virtual monopoly over the industry. The business made gobs of money; Rockefeller became the richest man on Earth. The company was a model of efficiency and pioneered many concepts--like vertical integration--still favored by corporate America.

"There are questions of ethics, but I think you need to view them in context. So if it were legal to spy on your competitors, it was the common business practice in the 19th century."

But in the early 20th century, the company's practices came under scrutiny.

Muckracking reporter Ida Tarbell uncovered the most aggressive of these practices, leading to the creation of federal antitrust laws.

Visitors to the museum can watch a debate between Tarbell and Rockefeller--or at least actors portraying them--on a pair of video screens at the exhibit. It's a little like watching a latter-day version of a debate between Aubrey McClendon--the brash CEO of Chesapeake energy--squaring off with anti-fracking filmmaker Josh Fox.

The Drake is a state-run museum, and used no industry money for the $9 million renovation, which included an exhibit, improvements to the museumís collections, and installation of a geothermal heating system.

But it's the exhibit that most visitors will notice, including displays of the tools that made the industryóold hammers, wooden barrels to transport crude oil, and, of course, the drills.

One glass panel holds what looks like a big chisel. Press a button and you can lift and lower it. Next to it is something that looks like a gigantic version of a drill bit youíd find at Home Depot.

The exhibit pays homage to modern oil and gas drilling techniques with videos on fracking and samples of the geologic strata like the Marcellus where all this oil and gas originate. You wonít find much on the environmental impacts of the early oil boom--like the lingering impact of abandoned wells in Pennsylvania--but old photos do show a denuded landscape littered with dozens of oil derricks. Instead, Zolli says the exhibit focuses on how much we use petroleum, in things like soap, medicine, and styrofoam, and promotes recycling of these objects.

Zolli points to a group of see-through canisters. They are crammed with all kinds of things we use everyday--toys, shampoo, a tube of lipstick. Only one of the items--a balsa-wood stirring spoon--is NOT made from oil.

It's an example of how much we depend on oil, a limited resource we're going farther and farther to find.

"We've been raised with freedom, we've had mobility we've had inexpensive, to a point, energy--we're going to have to make some trades," Zolli says.

In the Marcellus shale, Pennsylvania sits on the largest natural gas field in the country. For a glimpse of what this Marcellus drilling will bear, Zolli says, we'd do well to examine the past.