“Thank you for riding our train through ‘the valley that changed the world.’”
That’s the final announcement passengers on the Oil Creek & Titusville Railroad excursion train through Pennsylvania’s Oil Creek State Park will hear just before deboarding after a three-hour, 27-mile roundtrip through the valley where the oil industry got its start.
For my Labor Day weekend road trip, I ventured out of Ohio and into the historic oil region of northwest Pennsylvania, where the industry was born in 1859, when Edward Drake drilled the first commercially successful well.
It was a trip back in time, and will remain for a long time as one of the most memorable in my series of road trips. The history is as rich as the oil produced there for much of the second half of the 1800s.
After Drake discovered oil 69 1/2 feet down in the ground along what became known as Oil Creek, thousands of people came from afar to try their luck at becoming very wealthy, and hundreds of derricks popped up within a 20-mile radius.
Many of the prospectors did reach millionaire status, and magnificent old homes in Titusville, Oil City, Franklin and Emlenton remain to illustrate the boom that occurred there.
Unfortunately, the valley’s oil supply didn’t last, and the industry faded out by the late 1800s / early 1900s. Some major refineries such as Pennzoil, Quaker City and Wolf’s Head continued to operate into the late 1900s, but they are gone now.
A strip of land along the Route 8 corridor north of Oil City once was home to some of the thriving refineries, but much of those complexes have been leveled, with small factories occupying some of the remaining buildings.
One company operating there is Merisol USA, which manufactures meta cresol, a coal tar-based compound used in making agrochemicals, synthetic menthol, thermal sensitive papers, synthetic vitamins, antioxidants and fragrances, plus BHT, an additive used in the production of cereal boxes and other packaging materials.
The Merisol plant originally was built by the U.S. government to process 100-octane gasoline for U.S. Navy airplanes and PT boats during World War II, and after the war was operated by Pennzoil and Koppers.
In 1944, an explosion at the high-octane plant killed 10 people. The incident received little national attention because it happened on the same day as the Ringling Brothers Circus tent fire in Hartford, Conn., which killed 169 people.
Titusville (5,600 residents), Oil City (10,500) and Franklin (6,500) all are considerably smaller than what they were during their heyday. For example, Oil City once had 22,000 residents.
DRAKE WELL MUSEUM
The 290-acre Drake Well Museum and Park, a couple miles outside of Titusville, is one of several places in the region where tourists can learn about oil and the region’s oil boom. The train passes it shortly after leaving the Perry Street Station.
The highlight of the park is a replica of the engine house at Drake’s original well. A working old-fashioned pumping rig is inside, powered by a steam engine.
On the grounds are several pieces of oil producing equipment — a 1920s steel derrick with drilling equipment inside, a large steam engine inside a powerhouse and a variety of pumping jacks (the grasshopper-looking devices one still sees pumping oil from wells today).
One building focuses on modes of oil transportation — from horses to oil trucks to railroad tank cars. Some other items are a spring-pole drilling rig, yo-yo drilling rig, replica of an old oil company office and an actual wooden pumping station from 1896.
Inside the large museum building, the evolution of oil technology is depicted through many exhibits. Tons of oldtime photos are displayed, showing dozens of derricks on hillsides in the 1860s and 1870s. Many of the early oil boom photos were taken by Titusville photographer John Mather.
There are antique oil vehicles, including a 1912 Hatfield truck which transported oil products; a gas pump from the 1930s, steam firefighting apparatus from 1868, mannequin of Edward Drake, timelines of famous oil companies such as John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Co. and even a toothbrush used by Drake.
At the edge of the park are ancient oil pits from which Native Americans gathered oil in the 1400s. Archaeological exploration in the 1970s revealed the pits were lined with wooden cribbing, thought to be part of a hydraulic system that increased production.
OC&T, OIL CREEK PARK
The Oil Creek & Titusville Railroad runs on the same line that has been there since the 1860s-70s. As the excursion train rolls along, a tour guide talks about many historical aspects of the valley over a public address system.
There are about eight vintage passenger cars, plus an open-air gondola car.
The train passes several former farms on which oil drilling took place, owned back then by families such as the Millers, Shaffers, Hunts, Benninhoffs, Bloods, Eberts and Rynds.
On a hillside on the old Benninhoff farm are six 35-foot high replica derricks. The Hunt farm features a tableau of an engine house, pumping jacks and stock tanks. Tableaus, by the way, are three-dimensional landscapes with buildings, machinery and materials that replicate the historic landscape.
The train tracks wind along Oil Creek, affording views of wildlife, heavy forests and the mountainous landscape. This part of Pennsylvania is very hilly. Hiking and biking trails run on the other side of the creek and sometimes cross the rail line.
The train passes through Petroleum Center, a former boomtown where the first oil well was drilled in 1860. The town grew to 3,000 residents in 1866, but was largely abandoned by 1873. A small visitors center is about all that remains. It contains some displays and old photos from the 1860-70s.
Also along the line between the tracks and Oil Creek is a multi-ton boulder which rolled down a steep hill in the late 1800s and blocked the tracks. Crews were able to push it off the tracks with a locomotive, and it now rests at the edge of the creek.
At the end of the line is the Rynd farm station, where passengers deboard for a 20-minute layover and can get refreshments, including ice cream.
Also at Rynd farm is the boyhood home of a legendary fellow who became known as Coal Oil Johnny. He inherited a large fortune that his family made from oil, but piddled it away with a reckless lifestyle and died a penniless man.
The Perry Street Station itself is a former freighthouse built in 1892, used to store freight until 1964 and renovated in 1988. It’s about 200 feet long and contains a food area, gift shop from which I bought an OC&T Railroad hat and several old photos of the oil boom days. Boom days photos are abundant in the oil region.
The OC&T Railroad also hauls freight from Titusville industries past the Rynd farm station to an interchange point with Norfork Southern.
THE CABOOSE MOTEL
One of the neatest parts of my trip was staying Friday night at the Caboose Motel, which is adjacent to the Perry Street Station.
There are 21 vintage colorful railroad cabooses — each painted in the livery and lettering of a famous past railroad — lined up on two inactive tracks. Each caboose has been converted into a beautiful motel room.
Some of the railroads depicted are the Chesapeake & Ohio, Baltimore& Ohio, Reading, Conrail, Pennsylvania, Oil Creek & Titusville, Bessemer & Lake Erie, Norfork & Western and Penn Central.
On the wall inside each caboose, which has all the necessities of any other motel room, are brief descriptions of the railroad in whose caboose you’re staying.
I picked the silver Nickel Plate Road caboose with the slogan “Nickel Plate high speed service” on the side, which has a cupola on top. Some of the cabooses have bay windows on the side instead of cupolas.
The cupola cabooses feature king beds, while the bay window ones feature two double beds.
The cupolas have eight small windows — two on each side — and the flat-screen TV is mounted on one wall of the cupola so guests can lay back on the bed, relax and watch shows.
The Caboose Motel, which is owned by the OC&T Railroad, is probably the most unique place I’ve stayed — right up there with the passenger train cars in Sugarcreek and the Stockport Mill Inn along the Muskingum River in Morgan County.
It’s one of two caboose motels I’ve heard about in Pennsylvania; the other being the Red Caboose Motel in Amish country’s Lancaster County, which features 40 cabooses and railroad passenger cars.
Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4189