Northwestern Pennsylvania holds a special place in the story of America’s energy usage. Today, much of the Oil Creek Valley — which extends from Titusville to Oil City — is contained in Oil Creek State Park, where you not only find four seasons of outdoor recreation, but also many interpretive signs about the area’s unique legacy as the birthplace of the petroleum industry. Weathered oilfield equipment offers a visible throwback to a more industrious time and blends past and present along the Oil Creek's banks.
The earliest French maps of this the area labeled this waterway “Oyl Creek,” referencing the natural seepage of deep green, crude petroleum that oozed to its surface. Settlers, like the Seneca Indians, would use blankets or other fabric to scoop the floating petroleum and then wring the oil into waiting containers. The oil was used for medicinal purposes (not so different from Chapstick® or Vaseline® today), waterproofing canoes, cooking utensils and ceremonial purposes.
When Edwin Drake, under contract with the Seneca Rock Oil Company, experimented in 1859 with various techniques to gather larger quantities of the oil, he focused on the Watson Flats slightly downstream from Titusville. After unsuccessfully attempting strategies similar to drilling a water well, he and his crew emulated the salt drillers’ methods and added a steam engine to increase the drilling bit’s thrust and repetition. In August 1859, at the shallow depth of 59 feet, his facility became the world’s first successful commercial oil well. Chemists tested this increasingly available commodity, and soon its uses broadened to also include illumination, fuel, lubrication and specialty by-products leading to materials such as plastic, pharmaceuticals and neoprene, to name a few.
As oil deposits, and then their second cousins, natural gas deposits, were found in surrounding counties and then other states, speculators moved on to the newer fields. While most of the boomtown buildings were of such temporary construction that they were either disassembled or lost to fires, Oil Creek State Park and the rest of Oil Creek Valley still contain active pumpjacks operating “stripper” wells yielding less than five barrels of oil per day. Remnants of engine houses, flywheels, pipelines galore — and in recent years a few full-size replica derricks — make hiking and biking the trails of this park an interesting study in contrasts among the mixed hardwood forest throughout Oil Creek Valley.
Today, a series of recreational and historical treasures lie along Oil Creek Valley’s green banks, including kayak launches, the Drake Well Museum, excellent asphalt bike trails, rebuilt loading platforms for the excursions on the Oil Creek & Titusville Railroad, the restored Coal Oil Johnny House, towns with abundant Victorian architecture and other glimpses into the area’s distinctive past. Visitor services are concentrated in Titusville and Oil City along Oil Creek, plus Franklin and Emlenton further downstream on the Allegheny River. Check out www.oilregion.org for attractions, hospitality services, special events and educational opportunities in “The Valley That Changed the World.”