Drake Well Museum
Perhaps this is a pilgrimage we should have made when gasoline was still below $2 a gallon.
But back then we took for granted the attractions along America's unofficial Oil Heritage Trail. These days, we're acutely aware of the precious liquid our vehicle slurps to get us to the out-of-way Drake Well Museum -- all the better to aid our appreciation of the boom years. Without the Drake Well there would be no road trips, no freeway vacations -- there might not even be a United States of America. Oil, more than democracy or the DVD region 1 standard, is the slippery knot that binds us. And this is the spot where it first flowed out of a hole that had been poked into the ground to look for it.
Edwin Drake did that poking in 1859. Fifty years later, the Daughters of the American Revolution wanted to mark the spot with a rock. They didn't get around to it until five years later, and one can see why; they picked a very big rock. Thirty years after that, the rock was shoved to one side so that a replica of the derrick and pumping house could be built over the original hole. Visitors today can watch oil being pumped at the well site, and then wander over and admire the rock.
The oil that's pumped at the replica Drake Well is replica Drake Well oil. The Well ran dry years ago, and the oil is now trucked in from the nearby McClintock Well, currently the world's oldest (in operation since 1861). David Harshbarger, who runs the big pumping engine at the Drake Well, obligingly fired it up for us. After a few chuff-chuffs of steam, dark green oil flowed out of the well and into a barrel -- and then out of a hole in the bottom of the barrel and back into the well. "How many barrels a day do you pump?" we asked Dave. "One," he answered. "Over and over and over."
Across the lawn from the Well stands the Drake Well Museum. It was built in 1963 -- the heyday of the gas-guzzling American car -- and its displays fortunately seem to have changed little since then. Wax dummies of Edwin Drake and "Uncle" Billy Smith, his assistant, are set in dioramas depicting Pennsylvania's oil boomtown days. There's an exhibit of pumping jacks, another on the merits of percussion vs. rotary drilling ("Drilling for Oil: to Pound or to Grind?"), and one of the few horse-drawn nitroglycerine wagons that didn't accidentally blow up.
A display case that resembles a small derrick invites visitors to identify the one item within it that contains no oil. Is it the bottle of aspirin? The Burger King paper cup? The tub of ice cream? We guessed that it was the salt shaker made of glass, but we were wrong -- you need oil for the fire to make the glass. With that line of reasoning everything in modern civilization depends on oil, which is the point of the display.
Near the Museum entrance, a participatory exhibit invites visitors to squeeze and sniff small plastic bottles filled with oil from around the world. Can your nose tell the difference? The oil from nasty old Iraq smells like tar, and the Nigeria oil isn't much better -- it reeks of gasoline. But Pennsylvania's "sweet crude" has the scent of a pleasant wax candle. Now we know why America fell in love with oil; ours smelled good.
A display on medicine oil asserts that, "Petroleum creates medicines that lessen suffering and make life more pleasant." Former museum director Barbara Zolli -- she retired in 2012 -- showed us a jar of ugly brown petroleum jelly, just the way it looks when it's scraped off of the rod lines at an oil well. An enterprising businessman, Robert Chesebrough, cleaned it up, distilled off the impurities, and christened it Vaseline.
"Mr. Chesebrough took a teaspoon of it every day of the 94 years that he lived," Barbara said with pride. She then confessed that billionaire John D. Rockefeller, the most hated man in the Pennsylvania oil fields, also lived to be 94 -- and he didn't eat Vaseline.
Out in the gift shop, we purchased little bottles of souvenir oil (from the McClintock Well) and a "Sounds of the Oilfield" CD for its repetitive tonal qualities -- perfect for late night driving (we recommend track 18: "Standard Pumping Jack").
In the field adjacent to the museum and replica well, the museum displays a collection of historic pumps, engines and derricks. Barbara told us that they may soon drill a 6,000-foot-deep hole at the site -- not for oil, but for natural gas to heat the museum buildings. Fossil fuels are the gift that keep on giving in Titusville. If you have to burn a lot of petroleum to visit, you should feel proud.