Thursday, October 16, 2008

Emlenton (continued): After oil

The final piece of my oil trip was a visit to the Pumping Jack Museum in Emlenton. This offered an interesting “middle way” between the Drake Well’s largely unreflexive exhibits and the Venango Museum’s sharp critical look at oil. “Industrial progress has a way of leaving a clean sweep in its wake,” the Pumping Jack’s website notes thoughtfully. “Sometimes it creates ghost towns, other times it expands over the ashes of its origins. Rarely does a small community retain many vestiges of its vital past, while still remaining alive and well - and small. Emlenton has been unique in the important part it played in early Oil & Gas - without ever really booming - or busting!”

I’m not so convinced that Emlenton has escaped the boom-and-bust cycle of industrialism, but it’s heartening to find a small museum reflecting on its setting and its place in that larger cycle. In an interesting example of adaptive reuse, the museum is located in a former school, along with a day care center, some judicial and municipal offices, and a small restaurant, the Oil Rig Lunch Depot.

The Oil Heritage Region has identified Emlenton as the southern gateway to the oil region, and the entryway and one hallway of the school are lined with professionally-produced exhibits about the town and oil—one side devoted to “Black Gold” (oil) and the other to the “Blue River” (the Allegheny).

The Pumping Jack Museum itself occupies one former classroom, and is essentially a local history museum created from artifacts and information provided by interested residents and friends. I got a soup-to-nuts tour of the exhibits courtesy of museum board member Dick Carr, a retired chemical engineer with deep roots in Emlenton (his father-in-law, also an area native, taught him physics and chemistry in this very school, helping to prompt his later career choice). After working for Standard Oil in New Jersey, Dick returned to Emlenton to run a small company in his home town. He told me about the demolition in the 1990s of the former Quaker State plant upriver from the town, on a site that is currently undergoing an environmental assessment and being considered for a riverfront trail. He also noted that the world’s oldest oil well still producing at its original depth (1867/891 feet) is located in nearby Mineral Springs park; the museum and heritage area worked with the municipality, which actually owns the well, to get it started again this year, and there are hopes of building a Drake-Well-style reproduction structure over it in time for the 150th anniversary celebration next year. (An article about this can be found on pp. 2 and 4 of this recent issue of the Oil 150 newsletter). The municipality actually earns a tiny royalty from this, but its real value to the town is clearly as heritage.

And that’s pretty much my oil sojourn, as I’ve now reached Pittsburgh where I’m attending a board meeting of the National Council of Public History in conjunction with a conference of the Oral History Association. My hotel room window looks out on the confluence of the Monongahela River with the Allegheny, which I’ve been following for much of this trip. There’s plenty of evidence of Pittsburgh’s turn to culture-based redevelopment after the decline of all those ferrous and fossil sources of Pennsylvanian wealth (coal, iron, steel, oil)—the fleet of riverboats just outside the hotel, the pink fountain in Point State Park at the V where the rivers meet (pink, I’m assuming, because of something to do with breast cancer research), and the inevitable waterfront area redevelopments, including the Station Square area where my hotel is (a "playground of historical proportions," according to its website), the Carnegie Science Center, and Heinz Field, home of the Pittsburgh Steelers, with its prominently-displayed ketchup logo.

And there are the cars—speeding or creeping across the bridges, emptying out the city at rush hour and creating a rush of sound at all hours. Unless the train buffs are successful in restoring enough of the rail infrastructure to make tourist excursions to the north country feasible again on a large scale, all of these oil heritage projects remain dependent on automobility (including the use of cars to carry bicycles and kayaks so visitors can access the rivers and the trails made from former railroad beds). It’s an economy with its own logic and its own momentum, and my sense is that it hasn’t fully taken hold yet in Pennsylvania’s oil country. It will be worth watching to see whether oil’s sesquicentennial next year changes that in any substantial way, and what happens with all of this in response to whatever fluctuations in oil prices (whether up or down) we see in the near future. And it will also be worth watching to see if any of the oil heritage sites do make connections with conversations about a possibly less oil-dependent future. When I asked Dick Carr if that was happening at the Pumping Jack Museum, he said, “Well, everybody’s thinking about it, of course, but we haven’t had any conversations about it here yet.” The word yet makes me cautiously optimistic about the future of oil’s past.

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