Thursday, October 16, 2008

Oil’s axis mundi: Titusville

I started my day yesterday in Titusville, home of the first oil discovery in the region (and the nation, and the world). It’s this anniversary that the oil and gas industry is celebrating next year with its “Oil 150” commemoration. The heritage signage seems geared more for people coming from the south than from the north, so I missed the Drake Well signs on my first pass through town, and fetched up at the Perry Street Station in a mob of tourists.

The mob turned out to be temporary, as the day’s train ride on the Oil Creek and Titusville Railroad was due to leave shortly and everyone but me seemed to be getting on board. I’ve often wondered what the economics of these train-and-trolley tourist ventures are—there are so many of them, and clearly they provide railroad enthusiasts with a reason to play with their great big toys, but I wonder if most of them manage to pay for themselves as well? However, despite the “modes of transportation” connection, I’m not here to think about trains. Armed with directions, I found the Drake Well on my second try.

This has the feel of an older local commemorative museum lightly overlaid with more recent professionalized historical interpretation. Ironically, the site is there largely because the early oil industry itself was so ephemeral. By the 1890s, all that remained of the original Drake Well site was a derelict pipe, and some preservation-minded local people feared that the knowledge of the location of this origin-point might be lost altogether. The property owner, the widow of an early oil explorer, donated the acre of land to a local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, who put up a sizeable plaque in 1914.

The American Petroleum Institute funded the upgrading of the site in time for the 75th anniversary of oil’s discovery, in 1934, at which point it became a state historic site. The state built a re-creation of Drake’s engine house and derrick, copied from a photograph, in 1945, and constructed a new and much larger limestone museum in 1964 to house its exhibits and its collections of materials donated by its friends in the industry.

There are references to all of these layers in the Drake Well’s interpretive landscape, making this quite a complex heritage palimpsest. The place comes up strikingly short on critical interpretation (the orientation film is a boosterish "look what oil has done for our world" production), and the woman in the gift shop seemed puzzled when I noted a couple of books for sale about peak oil and the politics of oil power and asked her whether the museum was part of any kind of discussion about those issues. The two exhibitionary moments that seemed to connect even remotely to real-world oil politics were in the entry lobby of the museum, where a bulletin board included a selection of editorial cartoons about oil prices and a group of labeled bottles offered visitors an opportunity to take a “sniff test” to compare the “nose” of crude from different parts of the world, including Venezuela, Iraq, Russia, and Canada, as well as such delicacies as whale and lard oil, for the sake of comparison.

The more salient set of meanings at the Drake Well was about technical knowledge, particularly as embodied in the operating equipment in the museum’s “back forty.” Out on the far reaches of the lawn, an incredible Rube Goldberg network of wires and pumps simulates a working oil field of yesteryear, all moving at a stately and deliberate pace and making a weird series of noises (the 20 horsepower gas engine coughs and wheezes, the unlubricated irod rods squeak in their rings, the hinges of the support mechanisms creak). Most heritage sites have these somewhat ghostly presences, for example in the form of video and audio recordings, but these ones seemed particularly numinous, like a machine whose original momentum hasn’t run down yet. I know there’s actually a lot of skill and labor that goes into keeping this stuff moving, particularly the big “hit or miss” engine, but that labor also has a ghostly quality to it, since the workers are (or at least they were today) pretty invisible, older guys retired from the declining-but-not-really-gone oil industry in the area. This is really a site dedicated to local memory, and it very much has that memorial quality to it.

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