Bill Huber engages the clutch on a century-old flywheel engine in a shed north of Oil City, Pa. (pop. 11,504), activating a dozen pumps that extract crude oil from 1,000 feet below the Allegheny foothills.
"I get about a barrel a day from these wells," says Huber, 68, as he watches a stream of dark liquid pour from a cast-iron pipe into a metal tank.
A third-generation oilman, Huber is one of several hundred independent oil producers in northwestern Pennsylvania carrying on a tradition that began when Edwin L. Drake drilled the world's first commercial oil well on Aug. 27, 1859150 years ago this weekin nearby Titusville, Pa. (pop. 6,146).
"He was an agent of the Seneca Oil Co., and he came specifically to find and produce commercial quantities of oil," says Barbara Zolli, 66, director of the Drake Well Museum in Titusville.
Drake's discovery sparked the nation's first oil boom and marked the beginning of the modern petroleum era. Subsequent gushers fueled the Industrial Revolution and propelled the United States into being the world's manufacturing powerhouse.
Within weeks of Drake's discovery, investors and speculators flooded into Oil Creek Valley, leasing farmland and drilling wells as fast as they could to tap the odorous fluid that the Seneca Indians had been collecting for centuries from seeps along the creek to use as ointment and body paint.
Pennsylvania crude was distilled to illuminate kerosene lamps, and refined to lubricate machinery and fuel engines. High demand for the products gave rise to oil boomtowns and companies such as Standard Oil, Pennzoil and Quaker State, and turned hundreds of fortune-seeking oilmen into self-made millionaires.
"Pennsylvania was the oil industry in the early days," says Neil McElwee, 66, author of Oil Creek . . . the Beginning: A History and Guide to the Early Oil Industry in Pennsylvania. "Every aspect of the industry from production and transportation to refining and marketing was centered here."
After the Drake well discovery, Pennsylvania pumped more than half a billion barrels of crude through the remainder of the 19th century, producing half of the world's supply before the eastern Texas oil boom of 1901.
Today, the Pennsylvania oil bonanza is a distant memory, the large refineries are gone, and the state's 18,000 operating oil wells produce only about 2 percent of the nation's supply. Yet, pride in petroleum remains strong in Oil Creek Valley, the place that changed the world a century and a half ago.
Oil City is home to the Oil City High School Oilers, The Derrick newspaper and the Oil Heritage Festival each July. Titusville will host its Oil Festival on Aug. 29, and the Drake Well Museum will commemorate the sesquicentennial of the world's first commercial oil well Aug. 27. The museum chronicles the history of the state's oil industry with drilling, pumping and transportation exhibits, and features a full-scale replica of the derrick and engine house built to shelter the Drake well.
"It's the heart of the site," Zolli says. "It's a board-for-board reproduction of the original."
While geologists say millions of barrels of crude oil remain below the Allegheny Plateau, the latest hopes in Oil Creek Valley are with enormous reserves of natural gas trapped in shale 6,000 feet under ground.
"If developed, it would be the biggest find of natural gas in the nation," says Dale Flockerzi, 67, co-owner of Cougar Energy Corp. in Oil City.
Natural gas wells in Pennsylvania now outnumber oil wells by more than 3-to-1, and thousands more will be drilled if natural gas prices rebound, meaning longtime oilmen such as Bill Huber could witness another boom in the birthplace of the petroleum industrywhile helping feed the nation's insatiable appetite for energy.