Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

They Remember It Well a Reconstructed Oil Field Takes Visitors Back to the Time When Pennsylvania Was the Center of the Country's Petroleum Industry

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

They Remember It Well a Reconstructed Oil Field Takes Visitors Back to the Time When Pennsylvania Was the Center of the Country's Petroleum Industry

Article excerpt

When Darrell Morrow was a boy, his father, an oil field manager, would give him only one chance to kick-start the engines that pumped crude oil from the depths of Butler County.

That was because after more than one unsuccessful attempt to get the machine running, the balky engine's flywheel was likely to catch an unwary operator and fling him into the air or onto the ground, said Morrow, 77. The result could be a broken arm or leg. So when volunteers began rebuilding an 85-year-old oil-pumping engine at Moraine State Park, they added an electric starter to reduce the danger.

Visitors will be able to see -- and hear -- the results of their reconstruction efforts this weekend at the park's Muddy Creek Oil Field exhibit.

Guides will explain the century-old technology that made Pennsylvania the first and one of the most important oil-producing states.

"The oil industry began about 80 miles north of here in Titusville," said Chet Loch, 83, of Slippery Rock Township, Lawrence County. He was one of a handful of volunteers who in 1995 launched the effort to re-create an early 20th century oil field in Moraine State Park, Butler County.

They could not have picked a better spot.

The parcels of land assembled to create the state park were once home to 242 oil and natural gas wells, according to Ned Stokes, 82, a retired mechanical engineer and author of a history of the oil field. Stokes, 82, lives in the Meridian section of Butler Township.

Edwin Drake drilled the nation's first commercial oil well in Venango County in 1859. Western Pennsylvania soon became the center of the nation's first petroleum boom, with thousands of derricks, rail lines, pipelines and new towns springing up in the next few decades.

In 1890, the first petroleum deposits were discovered on land that is now part of Moraine State Park. That tract, about two miles north of Prospect, was owned by farmer Dan Shanor, and is west of the Marshall-Barr tract, where the Muddy Creek Field has been re- created.

Oil and natural gas wells were operated in the area until 1964, when the state capped the last of the wells as part of its creation of Lake Arthur and development of Moraine State Park. Pumping jacks, telegraph sheds, half-buried pipelines and five-foot-tall wooden collection barrels were abandoned to the elements.

"It was rubble," Loch said of the abandoned engine house. He and another volunteer, Steve Martin, had to cut down saplings growing up through the structure before they could even think about restoring the engine inside.

Those first volunteers had to be careful when they ventured into the engine house. "Animals were living in it," Stokes said. "There is still a six-foot black snake around here somewhere."

Loch, a retired machinist, approached park superintendent Obie Derr about getting state assistance to restore the site. "We helped out when we could," Derr said. "But almost all the work was done by volunteers."

They often worked with whatever materials they could scrounge up or obtain via donations. Home Depot, for example, donated the split- rail fence that keeps visitors from getting too close to the moving metal cables that crisscross the oil field.

The volunteers also sought technical assistance and advice from the Northwest Pennsylvania Steam Engine & Old Equipment Association. The nonprofit group maintains a collection of 19th and 20th century industrial and farm equipment on 20 acres near Portersville, where the organization is based.

"It wasn't the worst job we ever came across," said Tom Downing, a past president of the association. "But it was a lot of work."

Members, however, recognized the historical and economic importance of the petroleum industry to the region.

"Thousands of people worked in the oil business in 1900," Downing said. A retired physics teacher, he also likes the educational value of a re-created oil field. …

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