Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for September, 2009

    I’m sorry that I haven’t written for a couple of weeks. This last week I’ve been laid up with a kidney stone and haven’t felt up to sitting at this computer until today. If you’ve ever had one, you know why – the pain is tremendous. To keep from writhing on the floor in agony, one has to take rather strong pain medication (which I am very thankful for) and it isn’t good for one’s mental acuity. The stone was the first I’d ever had, and it came upon me suddenly last Friday morning. It wound up being large (12 mm), so this Monday evening I had a laser laproscopy to break up the stone and remove the pieces. I’m still a bit foggy and my concentration isn’t up to par yet, but I’m at least semi-vertical. If this post doesn’t make much sense, please excuse me. 

View along Hwy 24 in Colorado

View along Hwy 24 in Colorad

    At my last post I was still in Colorado on Sunday morning, Sept. 6 at Mueller State Park west of Colorado Springs. I had intended to get to Cripple Creek the evening before, but daylight ran out on me. It was a beautiful morning, and I had to decide once I left the park whether to turn right and go 12 miles to Cripple Creek and spend the day there going through the Molly Kathleen Gold Mine and the visitor’s centers or turn left and head back to Utah. I’d been on the road for six days already, and by this time I just wanted to get home, so I opted for left. Cripple Creek will have to wait for another time when I can spend a whole day there – to give it any less wouldn’t do it justice. I’ve read the book Midas of the Rockies about Winfield Scott Stratton (it’s a bit hard to find – I stumbled across a 1937 edition in our local library) and have wanted to visit Cripple Creek and the Independence Mine ever since. Perhaps next September when the aspens are turning I’ll be back this way with the funds to do it right.

Drilling competition rocks at Leadville, CO

Drilling competition rocks at Leadville, CO

 

    I turned onto CO-24 at Divide and headed west, driving through wonderful country. The few photos here don’t do it justice; once I get my health back I’ll piece together a panoramic shot. I traveled north on 24 from Buena Vista, then stopped at Leadville and took a few photos. Leadville was once the highest incorporated city in the U.S. at over 10,000 feet elevation. It was a major silver mining town and made a fortune for Horace Tabor and others, but when the price fell out of the silver market, Tabor lost his fortune. It’s quite a story, and the town still celebrates its mining heritage with Boom Days each year,

 

Silver mining ruins at Leadville, CO

Silver mining ruins at Leadville, CO

Main St. in Leadville, CO

Main St. in Leadville, CO

which includes a man-mule race to the top of Colorado’s highest peak and a hydraulic drilling competition. I’ve been through the Mining Hall of Fame here before, but didn’t have a functioning camera at the time. I’ll have to stop here as well when I make my next trip out to Colorado.

 

Mining along CO-24

Mining along CO-24

 

 

 

    I continued on the 24 through glacial valleys and around hairpin turns past old mine diggings. Some of the aspens were already beginning to turn. At Minturn I joined I-70 and continued west through Glenwood Springs, Grand Junction, and on into Utah. I stopped at the Book Cliffs to take some spectacular shots (the clouds and lighting were just right), then turned off at Green River and took US-6 through Price and on to Utah Valley and home. It was a long drive, but I managed to get home by about 6:30 to see my wife and two youngest children again after 10 days absence (they had flown back to Utah on Aug. 25).

 

The Book Cliffs, east of Green River, Utah

The Book Cliffs, east of Green River, Utah

 

    Since then I’ve started to capture the footage I took along the way and am beginning to make contacts for an advisory board for this project, which I will work on quite a bit in October. By October 22 I will have put together at least a couple of episodes. Sorry it’s taking so long, but my biggest hang up right now is simply hard drive space. We’ve been waiting for a deposit reimbursement from our Philadelphia apartment so that I can get another hard drive; the 1 TB drive I bought in May is already full, and I can’t do much more editing or capturing without more space. On October 22 I will be presenting at the Utah Museum Association conference and will show some completed episodes and footage of the Tintic Mining Museum while there. I’m also working on footage of my interview with Dr. Eric Scerri that I have promised to send him. It took some time to figure out how to capture from my Canon Vixia HD30 camera; my Final Cut Pro software can capture SD tapes from that camera just fine, but not HD. I finally got it to work by using iMovie to capture the HD tapes instead. In the meantime I also have to make a living, and since I’m not teaching any longer I’m doing some freelance video production work with a friend, and that’s taken up my spare time until this kidney stone knocked me out last weekend. 

    It’s good to be home; the weather has turned cool and rainy today, the maples and oaks on the mountains are blazing and there’s snow on the peaks of the Wasatch. Writing this post has helped me clear my head a bit, so maybe I can get some actual work done now.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

 

Block of halite in the Kansas Salt Mine

Block of halite in the Kansas Salt Mine

    This post describes the sixth day of my journey between Philadelphia and my home in Orem, Utah. I had been in Philadalphia for three months conducting a research fellowship at the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF) under a generous grant from the American Section of the Société de Chimie Industrielle, and my project was to research and collect media for The Elements Unearthed project, which I’ll be turning into a series of video podcasts and other educational materials. So on my way home, I’ve been visiting and videotaping as many related sites as possible. If you’ve been following along, I’ve been to the Drake Oil Well in Titusville, PA; interviewed Theo Gray in Champaign, IL on the periodic table; toured lead mines in Missouri; and visited the Kansas State Oil Museum in El Dorado, KS. Now I’m in Hutchinson, KS and the journey continues . . . .

Salt layers in the Kansas Salt Mine

Salt layers in the Kansas Salt Mine

    On Saturday, September 5 I drove out of Hutchinson to visit the Kansas Underground Salt Mine. Just as there is a large body of oil and natural gas under Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas there is also a huge layer of salt that covers these same states. At Hutchinson, the layer is 650 feet down and extends hundreds of feet further, with some layers more pure than others. The layer the salt miners were after is over 96% pure and shown here as the whiter area at the bottom of the wall, starting under the distinctive dark stripe about 1/3 of the way down. They continue to mine salt here, spreading out in all directions. The old area of the mine is now used for a tour (they even have a gift shop down here) and as a storage facility for documents. Many movie and TV production companies send their original footage here, as well as props and costumes, to be archived. Although Kansas is fairly humid, any humidity that gets into the mine is absorbed by the salt, so that the temperature and humidity are constantly cool and dry: ideal conditions to archive celluloid footage and other types of documents. Some of the props and costumes are on display in a small museum off the gift shop.

Undercutter machine in the Kansas Salt Mine

Undercutter machine in the Kansas Salt Mine

    Although most salt mines today (such as the one near Moab, Utah) use a hot brine extraction method (pumping hot water into the salt deposit to dissolve the salt, then evaporating the brine in ponds on the surface), this mine still uses more traditional methods because of the purity and accessibility of the salt here. First, they use a machine like a large chainsaw to undercut the face, then drill holes using a hydraulic machine that can drill 4-8 holes at once, then they set charges and blow the face, then muck up the halite and transport it to the surface. The salt here isn’t used for human consumption; most of it goes for rock salt to de-ice the roads in Chicago. Some finds its way to livestock (similar to the halite mined near Salina and Redmond, Utah) and some becomes packaged as rock salt for making ice cream.

Wind turbines under construction near Dodge City, Kansas

Wind turbines under construction near Dodge City, Kansas

    After finishing at the Salt Mine, I drove west on US-50 toward Dodge City. About 18 miles east of Dodge City I came across a large wind turbine farm, many already in operation and a large number getting ready for assembly. In the end, perhaps Kansas will create more energy out of its winds than out of its oil. After eating lunch, I got the heck out of Dodge and hit the trail toward Cimarron (yes, the puns are intentional), then crossed into Colorado. I was trying to beat the sun and make it to Cripple Creek before dark to take a few pictures. But since Colorado is on the eastern edge of the Mountain Time Zone, the sun set earlier than I am used to in western Utah and I made it to Mueller State Park west of Colorado Springs well after dark.

Read Full Post »

    After leaving the Missouri Mines State Historic Site on Thursday, Aug. 3, I headed west on MO-8 through rolling hills, trees, and meadows until I picked up I-44 heading southwest. After staying on it for about 60 miles, I exited and headed north, then west, to Bennett Springs State Park and camped for the night. I was behind schedule again (I spent too much time at the lead mine museum, but it was worth it) so the next morning I wasted no time in getting up and on the way. I continued west from Bennett Springs State Park about 15 miles, then headed north and picked up US-54 and turned west and on into Kansas. I discovered that I should have gassed up in Missouri, it was a good 15 cents per gallon cheaper there, but I eventually found a place in the town of Gas, Kansas that wasn’t too expensive (it seemed a good place to get gas . . . ) then continued on west on US-54. In El Dorado I made a wrong turn and stayed on the 54 which turned south toward Wichita, but should have continued west. My goal was to pick up US-50 and stay on it most of the way home (I grew up in Deseret, Utah which is just three miles south of US-50). Once I discovered my mistake, I turned around and went back to El Dorado.

Photo from the Kansas Oil Museum

Photo from the Kansas Oil Museum

    I had noticed a large oil refinery to the southwest of town along with oil pumps (“jacks”) in the fields nearby, and had seen a sign for the Kansas Oil Museum in El Dorado. I hadn’t known there was oil or gas in Kansas, and hadn’t known about this museum. Once I got back to town, I reconsidered and decided to visit the  museum even though it wasn’t on my itinerary. I thought I’d spend an hour or so, then still have time to get to Hutchinson, Kansas and the Salt Mine Tour there. Three hours later they had to kick me out because it was closing time. This is one of those gems of a museum that not only tells the story of the oil business in Butler County, Kansas but also the ways in which it effected the culture and economy of the region. There was both an excellent interior display and a good collection of equipment outside, including a complete steel oil derrick, various portable drilling machines, and restored vehicles such as a nitroglycerine torpedo explosives truck. 

 

Oil well fire near El Dorado, KS in the 1920s

Oil well fire near El Dorado, KS in the 1920s

 

Rotary drilling rig for oil wells

Rotary drilling rig for oil wells

Nitroglycerine torpedo truck for shooting wells

Nitroglycerine torpedo truck for shooting wells

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

      On my way out of town I stopped to photograph and videotape some more oil jacks in operation. They are scattered around the fields all over this part of Kansas, with several jacks pumping into a series of small tanks where oil trucks can load up the petroleum and take it to the refinery. This oil field is an extension of the well-known oil fields of Texas and Oklahoma. I had never known it continued this far north.

Oil jacks northwest of El Dorado, KS

Oil jacks northwest of El Dorado, KS

    This was one of those serendipitous discoveries that often happen when you’re mind is open to possibilities and you’re not in too much of a hurry. Many of my best experiences and accomplishments have come from just being ready (prepared) in the right place with an open mind when a chance opportunity came my way. Of course, if I am so busy or hurried that I can’t even see the nose in front of my eyes, then I often miss these chances. So I’m glad I turned around and went back to El Dorado even if it did put me behind schedule. Since the oil discoveries here were made in the 1920s, it allows me to tell another chapter in the story of petroleum that started at the Drake Well several days before.

    I picked up US-50 as planned and drove the few miles to Hutchinson where I was too late to take the salt mine tour. I had planned to stay at Sand Dunes State Park, but discovered that there aren’t any camping facilities there, just walking and riding trails. So I found a hotel in Hutchinson and crashed for the night.

Read Full Post »

 

Electric speeder engine for pulling lead ore cars

Electric speeder engine for pulling lead ore cars

    The third section of my journey home to Utah from Philadelphia revolved around the lead mines of Missouri. On Thursday morning, Aug. 3, I was at St. Francois State Park near Bonne Terre, Missouri in the Old Lead Belt, and I toured the Bonne Terre Lead Mine as well as the Missouri Mines State Historic Site in Leadington.

Shovel built by the St. Joseph Lead Company

Shovel built by the St. Joseph Lead Company

    When French explorers made their way up the Mississippi River they came to a place where shiny, heavy rocks were scattered over the surface. This was rich galena ore, or lead sulfide, which forms shiny, dark-gray cubic crystals. They named the area Bonne Terre, meaning “Good Earth” and did some surface mining beginning about 1720. Later settlers took up the mining operations in the late 1800s and sunk shafts into the richest ore bodies, which extended in a rough line from just west of St. Louis southeasterly about 100 miles along the Mississippi River toward the toe of Missouri. This area, known as the Old Lead Belt, and 1000 miles of tunnels and chambers and 300 miles of railroad tracks were cut out of the native limestone. Another band of rich lead ore, called the Viburnum Trend, is still being mined further west. This is the richest lead deposit in the world, and supplied demand for lead for over 60 years.

Mule trail into the Bonne Terre lead mine

Mule trail into the Bonne Terre lead mine

    As the miners dug into the rocks at Bonne Terre, their first chamber, nearest the surface, didn’t have very much good ore. So they sunk further shafts and started a new level, this one much richer. It extended for hundreds of yards under the town of Bonne Terre, and used a chamber and pillar method of mining. The limestone rock there was solid enough that huge chambers over 40 feet high were eventually dug, with supporting pillars. When they had reached the edges of the ore body all around, they delved even deeper, sinking new shafts and creating a new level under the first two, with pillars carefully lined up on top of each other to keep the weight supported. This went on for a total of five levels, each one extending further out on the sides as the ore body widened, forming a huge pyramid of levels. Other lead mines in the Old Lead Belt did the same thing, and most of them interconnected so that when the mines were active you could travel through hundreds of miles of underground chambers and tunnels. Being in this mine reminded me very much of the Mines of Moria in the Lord of the Rings. I kept looking out for orcs . . .

 

Pillars and chambers in the Bonne Terre mine

Pillars and chambers in the Bonne Terre mine

    Once mining ended at Bonne Terrre, the lower levels began to flood with water since it was no longer being pumped out. Eventually the bottom three levels all flooded and part of the second level. The tour takes you down through the first and into the second level along the old mule trail, and for an additional fee, you can take a pontoon boat out on this billion gallon underground lake. It sounds like the perfect setting for a horror movie, but the only living thing in all this water is a large-mouthed bass named Bonnie that has to live off of worms the tour guides bring in. She was transplanted here ten years ago and still survives in this deep lake. She isn’t too lonely, however. Between the tours, cave divers come here regularly, and some TV programs have been here as well, including a season of Nickelodeon that was kicked off here and an underground wakeboarding contest sponsored by Red Bull drinks. I’m not sure how they managed to get the boats in and out – they can only come in through the shafts that lead to the surface. They must have been taken apart and reassembled in the chambers.

Shaft leading to the surface in the Bonne Terre lead mine

Shaft leading to the surface in the Bonne Terre lead mine

    After a very interesting tour, I traveled south ten miles to Leadington and Park Hills and went through the Missouri Mines State Historic Site. Built in an old lead mine/concentration plant building of the St. Joseph Lead Company, this museum has equipment on display as well as a world-class collection of rocks and minerals from Missouri and around the world. Some of their samples rival those at the Smithsonian.

Missouri Mines State Historic Site. Art Hebrank is on the left.

Missouri Mines State Historic Site. Art Hebrank is on the left.

 

 

 

 

 

They have been collected and the site is administered by Art Hebrank, who has been a geologist for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and really knows his stuff. I had a very enjoyable talk with him, and he discussed some of the plans they have for renovating the site and expanding the museum. Right now, the museum is housed in the old power house while the rest of the site is a rusting ruin (but very fascinating for those of us who get into such things). I took a lot of photos and panoramic video there.

Specimens of copper minerals at Missouri Mines State Historic Site

Specimens of copper minerals at Missouri Mines State Historic Site

 

A ball mill for crushing lead ore

A ball mill for crushing lead ore

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

    I highly recommend that if you are interested in the history of Missouri or of mining or, like me, you want to know where the elements come from, then you should take the Bonne Terre mine tour and visit the Missouri Mines State Historic Site. It was definitely worth my time. Between the mine tour and the museum, I now have a the footage and photos I need to create an excellent podcast episode or two on Missouri lead mining.

Read Full Post »

 

Interactive Periodic Table at DePauw University

Interactive Periodic Table at DePauw University

    As I mentioned yesterday, my journey back to Utah from my fellowship in Philadelphia was eventful and too much to write about in a single blog post, so this is about the second phase of my journey. This part mostly revolved around the Periodic Table of the Elements, as I stopped at DePauw University at the Percy Julian Science Center to photograph and videotape an interactive periodic table display created by Max Whitby and Theo Gray, then traveled to Champaign, Illinois to interview Theo himself.

    After visiting the Drake Oil Well on Monday, Aug. 31, I ditched my plans to travel northwest to Lake Erie and Kirtland, Ohio and instead traveled due south on PA 8 through Oil City to I-80, then west to Youngstown and I-76, then west to Akron, Ohio and I-71, then southwest to Columbus (which I skirted around on the belt route), then west on I-70 past Dayton and finally found a cheap motel just east of Indianapolis. The next morning I traveled north around Indianapolis and was going to take I-74 directly to Champaign, but decided to visit the DePauw University installation first (I remembered I had gained an hour passing through the time zone change to Central time). So I exited immediately, zig-zagged through a couple of small towns west of Indianapolis, then caught US 40 heading southwest, then PA 240 into Greencastle, IN. 

Part of the Interactive Periodic Table at DePauw University

Part of the Interactive Periodic Table at DePauw University

    DePauw University is fairly compact, but considering its size and location in a smallish farming town, it boasts some impressive alumni, including Percy Julian, one of the foremost black chemists of his day. A documentary about him recently aired on PBS, and the Chemical Heritage Foundation helped with the research as they hold his personal papers. DePauw has named their new science center after him, and have installed a wooden interactive periodic table display overlooking the fourth floor atrium. Each element of the table is a cube with a sample of that element (as far as that is possible – obviously, the radioactive elements and the synthetic elements can’t be displayed). A computer is installed in the table with touch controls that allow the selection of an element and information and videos about it to be displayed as well. I photographed the table and used my motorized pan-tilt head to videotape panning across the table, but this was interrupted by a class change and hordes of students tromping past my camera. Once things had calmed down again, I finished the pan, packed up, and drove up to I-74 and on to Champaigne, IL. 

Periodic Table, designed by Theo Gray

Periodic Table, designed by Theo Gray

    I had set up an interview with Theo Gray, who is the co-founder of Wolfram Research, Inc. – the company that makes Mathematica software, which I have greatly desired to have a copy of ever since I saw it demonstrated at teacher conferences back when I taught science and math classes. He got into collecting elements accidentally. He’s always been interested in chemistry, and even started out majoring in it in college before he got into computer programming. When his company reshuffled their office space to make room for a conference area, he realized they would need a conference table and thought it would be fun to make a literal periodic table of the elements. As he was building it (he is an excellent carpenter as well), he realized that using different types of wood to represent the families of elements would be a problem in Illinois’ humid climate; different woods would expand at different rates and cause the table to crack. So he left the tiles of each element unattached. Then he got the idea – since the tiles can be removed, he should make a sample area under each one to contain a sample of the element. Then he had to go out and collect the samples.

Gold samples underneath the gold tile

Gold samples underneath the gold tile

    Well, years later he is now an expert at collecting the elements and writes a column about it in Popular Science magazine called Gray Matters, and has developed a series of outrageous chemical demonstrations (such as heating his hot tub with quicklime) that have been videotaped. He has created photographic periodic table charts, a book, etc. In addition to his table, he has displays in his office of some of the more interesting objects that contain various elements in them and that use properties of those elements.

 

Samples of the elements on display in Theo Gray's office

Samples of the elements on display in Theo Gray's office

    Theo was very gracious in letting me, an amateur, invade his office for a couple of hours in the middle of a busy work day. After finishing the interview, I traveled south from Champaign and picked up I-70 again, then traveled west and crossed the Mississippi at St. Louis (right at sunset again), then headed south for about an hour to the old lead belt and camped at St. Francois State Park. Although I had used the interstates for most of the day, I got off them enough in Indiana to get a feel for the countryside. From here on, I would be staying mostly on the back roads.

 

Samples of silicon and bismuth in Theo Gray's office

Samples of silicon and bismuth in Theo Gray's office

 

Different woods used to represent families of elements

Different woods used to represent families of elements

Read Full Post »

    I am now safely back in Utah after seven days on the road from Philadelphia. I planned the journey to visit as many sites related to The Elements Unearthed project as possible, and to also take as many back roads as I could (you can’t see much of the real America if you’re driving past at 70 mph on a freeway). My trip was extremely successful, and I have acquired even more photos and video footage. In fact, I was able to do so much that it would be impossibly long to write about it in just one blog post, so I am going to break it up by the sites I visited. If you get the chance, I recommend visiting some of these sites yourself if you are interested in knowing where the elements come from and how they are mined and refined (which is the purpose of this project). I don’t want this to be too much of a travel log, but I saw some wonderful scenery on the way and you might want to take the same roads some day.

Monument at Cemetery Ridge, Gettysburg

Monument at Cemetery Ridge, Gettysburg

    I left Drexel Hill in west Philly on Sunday, Aug. 30 at about 3:00 p.m. and drove up I-476 to I-76 west, then drove past Harrisburg and took PA 15 (the Gettysburg Turnpike) south to Gettysburg, which I had never visited before. It’s not related to this project, so I won’t go into much detail, but I arrived at the new visitor’s center about 5:50 and they close at 7:00. I had enough time to see the movie (excellently done by the History Channel and narrated by Morgan Freeman) and the cyclorama, a 360 degree painting done a few years after the battle depicting the main events at Cemetery Ridge on July 3, 1863. It’s been moved to this new facility and restored and has only been open for less than a year. 

 

View from Little Round Top, Gettysburg

View from Little Round Top, Gettysburg

 

 

 

 

    After that, I decided to visit the battlefield itself and parked at the cemetery and walked over. The sun was setting and the colors were amazing and just kept getting better – one of the best sunsets I’ve ever seen. The stone fences which the Union soldiers used for cover are still there, as is the Angle where the fiercest fighting occurred, with cannons lined up according to where they were during the battle. Each regiment from each state has a marker or statue there, ranging from simple plaques to the ornate Pennsylvania memorial.

Gettysburg Address at Visitors Center Museum

Gettysburg Address at Visitors Center Museum

    Since I got there so late, I decided to camp at Gettysburg instead of traveling on to where I had planned. The next day (Aug. 31, Monday) I traveled back to the battlefield and drove around the outer loop road, hiked to the top of Big Round Top, and visited Little Round Top as well, then saw the museum portion of the visitor’s center. I especially like this window with the Gettysburg Address framed by trees from outside.

    After Gettysburg, I headed west on US 30 through Chambersburg over the Tuscarora Pass (beautiful countryside and quite a view from the pass) and picked up I-76 again for about 15 miles, then exited onto I-99 north toward Altoona. I then exited onto PA 22 to Indiana, PA, then north on PA 219 to Punxsutawney. Yes, that’s right, the official home of Punxsutawney Phil, the Seer of Seers and Prognosticator of Prognosticators. The Official Groundhog of Groundhog’s Day . . . .

 

Punxsutawney Phil in the Groundhog Zoo

Punxsutawney Phil in the Groundhog Zoo

 

    I had noticed that Punxsutawney was pretty much on my route to Titusville in northwest Pennsylvania, so I planned the route to get there. It was near sunset, and I had to stop and find a place to lie down because I had developed a bad earache and needed to put some ear drops in, so I found a small park and laid down on one of the benches. I started noticing a lot of groundhog statues around, and one at the park itself was in front of the library. Then I noticed the sign saying “Groundhog Zoo” and realized that I had accidentally stumbled upon the Real Phil. He was curled up in the window fast asleep (you can see a furry ball in the lower right of the half-moon shaped window – that’s Phil). Fortunately, there was a sign on the wall to his left showing a map to Gobbler’s Knob, which, contrary to how it appears in the movie, is located about two miles out of town on a shady, grass-covered hill. In fact, not much of the movie appears to have been filmed here. Punxsutawney has far more hills than is apparent in the movie.

Replica of the original Drake Oil Well

Replica of the original Drake Oil Well

    After checking out the Knob, I drove up PA 36 past I-80 and on to Sigel, PA where I turned off for Clear Creek State Park to camp for the night. The next morning was quite chilly and mist was curling up off of the river. I drove north on PA 36 to Titusville, arriving about 10:00 and visited the Drake Oil Well site. This was the first commercially successful oil well, drilled in 1859. Last week was the 150th anniversary. Edwin Drake had been sent to see if the puddles of oil that collected on the local stream (Oil Creek) could be made into a commercial venture, since kerosene was just becoming popular (it was a lot more efficient and cheaper than whale oil, which had been used up to this time for lamps). Skimming oil off the surface of the ponds was too slow, so Drake decided to drill. Using a steam engine for power, he constructed a drilling derrick that allowed the rotary motion of the engine to be translated into up and down motion using a rocking arm. A cable with a chisel at the end was suspended from the arm and it was used to punch a hole down into the rock. They soon hit an aquifer and Drake came up with the idea of encasing the hole with pipe to prevent the water from seeping in until they hit bedrock. After weeks of effort, and just as his financial backers were about to pull out, he struck oil at 69 1/2 feet. He was lucky – the oil-bearing sand bar he struck only existed in that one small area. The other oil deposits were much deeper. 

Diorama of Pithole, Pennsylvania

Diorama of Pithole, Pennsylvania

     The news of his success brought on the first oil boom. People poured into the area, and after all the good sites along Oil Creek were claimed, they started drilling away from the creek on local farms and struck oil there, too. One such strike led to the forming of a new town, called Pithole (what a name!) which grew so rapidly that within 30 days there were hotels, saloons, and other establishments common to a boom town. About 1/3 of the people in the town were teamsters and mule skinners; they were used to transport the oil in barrels from Pithole down to the river where it could be freighted to a refinery. These teamsters charged such high fees (it wasn’t easy transporting oil over the muddy roads) that a local businessman came up with an idea to build a pipeline directly from the oil fields to the river. He had to hire Pinkerton detectives to protect the pipeline from the enraged teamsters. Once the oil got to the Allegheny River, it was loaded into barrels onto barges, but the river was too shallow to transport the heavy barges, so a large reservoir was built upstream and when the barges were ready, the water was released suddenly and the wave would float the barges downstream. This technique is called a “pond freshet” and at one point when a barge hit a bridge sideways, all the other barges piled up behind it in a huge mess. Local children would wait with buckets to scoop up any spilled oil so they could sell it. Finally, after the teamsters moved away just over 500 days of existence, Pithole was doomed by the wells drying up (even using nitroglycerin torpedos to shoot the wells wasn’t working). The people moved on, the buildings were dismantled, and Pithole became a farm once more.

Transmitting power to the walking arm in an oil derrick

Transmitting power to the walking arm in an oil derrick

    The petroleum industry had to learn as it went along; this was a new technology. Fires were an ever-present danger. A major disaster struck Oil City, Titusville, and surrounding towns along the rivers when a reservoir upstream was swollen by heavy rains, and the dam washed out, flooding Oil City and Titusville. The oil tanks breached and the petroleum floated on the water. Somehow, it ignited and a wall of flame engulfed the towns. Between the flood and the fire, at least 125 died. 

    The museum and the grounds at Drake Well were well worth the detour to northwest Pennsylvania. It was here that a major industry was born. But as my journey progressed, I was able to discover a later chapter in this story.

Read Full Post »