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Discovery struck more than oil

Plastic, gasoline, petroleum jelly — Edwin Drake didn’t likely have any of these things in mind when his well struck oil on Aug. 27, 1859 near Titusville.

As a representative of Seneca Oil, Drake was looking to do one thing with the oil he was drilling for.

“Kerosene for cheap and plentiful and safe light (in homes),” said Barbara Zolli, director of the Drake Well Museum. The museum is about a two-hour drive from Kittanning and shows the history of oil, something our modern-day society would be very different without.

“There’s a drop of oil in everybody’s life today,” Zolli said, adding that the museum’s mission is to “make people aware of how relevant it is to you.”

Oil had been known for centuries before Drake (given the title “Colonel” by his company, hoping it would help garner respect from the citizens of Titusville) drilled his well, used mostly Native Americans.

“Oil initially was a medicine,” Zolli said. Unlike animal fats which were used as salves, oil did not carry bacteria like the fats, making it a better medicine.

But after people discovered that refined crude oil could be used as fuel, by refining it into kerosene, demand grew. Oil seeping out of the ground was initially used, and Drake was charged with figuring out how to get it out of the ground faster.

Drake employed a salt well driller named William “Uncle Billy” Smith from Tarentum to help him, and the famous strike was made in the summer of 1859, an event that would change the world.

The museum offers three movies which are related to its famous well, including what Zolli calls the “cult film” on the subject — a 1954 classic starring Vincent Price as Col. Drake. Alan Hale, the skipper from Gilligan’s Island is also in that film.

“It’s a wonderful period piece,” she said.

The process of refining oil for kerosene created a by-product, octane, which no one at the time found useful. Today, we use it to fuel our automobiles.

“They had no use for gasoline,” Zolli said of the original oil men of the area, “they just dumped it in the streams.”

After Drake’s discovery, a boom started in the area, and for the next 10 to 15 years, towns like Pithole, Red Hot and others sprung up. The well museum also manages the site at Pithole.

“There’s nothing left (at Pithole) except the cellar holes (for the buildings),” Zolli said. The town grew overnight during the period — three wells were struck in 10 days — and Pithole went from a field to a town of 15,000 in nine months.

The famous lantern tour at Pithole is scheduled for Oct. 11, and is something worth checking out, Zolli said.

“It’s really fun,” she said. “It’s ghosts coming out of the site telling you the history.”

While the Drake Well Museum and Pithole sites tell history, there are other things to do in the area as well.

On the opposite side of Oil Creek from the museum is a nine-mile bike trail, which leads to Petroleum Centre, where one can catch the Oil Creek and Titusville Railroad back to the museum.

Oil Creek State Park is also nearby, Zolli said, so there are plenty of places to just have fun in the area. The museum site has places to picnic as well.

“You can kill a whole day here in the region,” she said. “You can learn and play and spend money and exercise. It’s great.”


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