Know Your History: World’s First Commercial Oil Well

In 1859 in Titusville, Pennsylvania, Edwin Drake struck oil, captured it, and established the first commercial oil well in the world. Drake’s well. Here it is in August of 2020:

Western Pennsylvania became the oil capital of the world for the next decade. The oil rush was on. Scores of wells dotted the aptly named Oil Creek area between Titusville, Oil City (see a theme here), and the expanded region. Some folks struck it rich fast. Others were not so lucky. Kerosene had been discovered only a few years earlier in 1853. This made oil a suddenly valued commodity. Through the processing of oil, kerosene could be used to light the big cities of the nation, and that it did for the next forty plus years until electricity took over.

It wasn’t long, however, until substantial oil reserves were discovered in Texas and elsewhere which dwarfed the nascent Pennsylvania industry. Pennsylvania didn’t last as the world’s greatest producer, but it did have a lasting effect on the oil industry and the region. Many towns were forever affected by the industry. (Oil City, Petrolia, Petroleum Center) Didn’t you ever wonder why there were so many Pennsylvania-centric brands of oil: Pennzoil, Quaker State, Kendall, etc…

In an interesting twist of fate, Pennsylvania has once again become a major player in the fossil fuel industry through the prolific fracking done over the past ten years to extract natural gas from the massive Marcellus Shale. Yep, Titusville is right in the middle of it.

Here’s a modern-day railroad bridge over Oil Creek a few miles south of Titusville. (I snapped this one on my bike ride at the fantastic Oil Creek Bike Trail.)

Drake’s Well and Museum can be visited (in non-Covid years) through the spring-fall months as part of Pennsylvania’s Oil Creek State Park.

FUN FACT: Did you know that the by-product of making kerosene is this obscure little product called gasoline? Oh, you heard of it. In the past, gasoline was thrown away. It was deemed too combustible and dangerous to be used. However, once the internal combustion engine was invented, it was gasoline which became king and kerosene became more a second thought.

 

 

America in Decline? I Don’t See It.

I’ve been blessed with two months of blissful rest this summer. It’s been wonderful to reconnect with many family members I don’t have the opportunity to visit often. I’ve had the chance to eat some (too much, actually) some culinary delights which I didn’t get often in Asia. And I’ve had ample chances already, with still six weeks ahead of me, to enjoy the wonderful outdoors of an American northeastern summer. The weather has been cooler and wetter than usual, and that has led to week after week of wonderful brisk evening air, vivid green rolling hillsides, and enough fresh produce to make anyone smile. I grew up in America, yet I’m always amazed at what a unique and amazing place it really is. The talk of American decline doesn’t include the green countryside. I swear, there couldn’t be any more trees anywhere in the world than the country realms of Pennsylvania and New York. Endless, for hundreds of miles. Tremendous. No decline there.

The real people in America aren’t caught up in the nasty politics of the day. The banker I met today who helped my son open his first bank account didn’t care a lick about political persuasions or across the aisle name calling. The woman who duplicated two keys for me in her small locksmith shop didn’t bicker about Washington gridlock. We chatted, like human beings, acknowledging the strange indentations on my key. We thanked each other and parted. No decline there.

Streets are lined with businesses and opportunities that pop up over night. I passed a country farm house way in the New York farmlands where one person plopped a food trailer in front of his house, as isolated from humanity as it was, and plastered it with every fast food advertisement you could think of. You could get grilled sandwiches, burgers, dogs, drinks, ice cream, and many other kinds of typical American fare. He didn’t care about the outside world. He sought the passerbyers. It looks like he succeeded.

In my parents country neighborhood, gas company XTO has already drilled 5000 feet into the earth, creating horizontal drills at that depth for miles as they begin the many years process of fracturing the compressed shale and pump out the natural gas which is going to power America into the future. The company is buying up rights, paying out royalties, and is creating a buzz in the neighborhood that hasn’t been there since Western PA’s big oil push way back in the 1870-1890s. This tiny village hasn’t changed in 50 years, yet no signs of decline here.

Industries come and go. Stores close while others open. Kids grow up. Schools expand and then contract. Churches lose influence and shutter their doors, while new congregations rent mall space or other creative setting to nurture their fledgling congregation. Families enlarge. People move away. Some people find success while other soldier on through hard times. Students struggle between work and school. Some lose hope while others fight on to fulfill their dreams. Many will reach it. Others will settle into something rather unexpected and learn to like it.

Weekends will come and go. Elderly couples will kayak on the lake. Lines of cars will snap up the soft serve. Millions will go to ballgames, from Little League to wacky minor league fields to the majors. They’ll eat hotdogs, yell at the umpires, and chew the fat with their neighbors. Lawns will be mowed, home repairs started, and families will gather in reunions.

All of this happens without the media, without Congress, without the President, without any regard to any Supreme Court ruling, or without any concern about terrorism or foreign battle fields.  This all happens without racist overtones, identity politics, or rioting and looting outside the G20 meetings.

There may be real problems which need to be solved as this country moves into the future, but America is not in decline. It’s as vibrant, resilient, cocky yet tentative as always. It lives and dies with the cycle of life inhabited by its people during their daily routines. I’ve been watching these routines, and they are as hopeful as ever. The American dream is not dead because I’ve seen it alive again and again during these past two weeks. It’s as real as its always been, no thanks to any political parties in Washington.

 

 

 

 

A Railroad Trail

Three hundred yards behind the house where I grew up was a railroad track. Now its a beautiful bike trail.

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The railroad tracks provided an important hub of activity of my childhood. It was a small, rather insignificant line which traveled from Butler PA to Freeport and beyond, but as a young boy, it was as if Commodore Vanderbilt himself had named this line the most important one in the world. The rambunctious young country kids would hang out at the tracks, putting our ear on the steel rails as we tried to listen for the vibration from an oncoming locomotive. I always felt like a Cheerokee warrior when I did that, trying to hear the rumbling of the cowboy posse coming my way. When it did arrive, we would stand on the side banks signaling for the engine to blow its whistle and throwing stones at the freight cars. The best part, however, was when the caboose arrived, we would yell and scream and, invariably, an engineer would poke his head out of the back and throw us candy. Yeah, it was the greatest thing in the world. And it kept getting better.

One summer we heard that Conrail had purchased our tracks. I had no idea what that meant only that Conrail was, at the time, the largest railroad company in the world. That proved the importance of my little track. The largest company in the world ran freight behind my house. I spent hours there. Picking berries along the route. Putting pennies on the track to be amazed at how the train flattened them into smooth oval metal charms. I would use the rails as balancing beams and see how far I could walk on them without touching down. There were certain parts of the tracks which entered the “cliff” sections. We always joshed with each other about how not to get caught in these sections when the train approached or we would have to cling on the rocks hoping the train wouldn’t ever suck us under its weight. It was a real fear of mine. Of course, nothing so dramatic ever happened, but the perceived danger heightened the wonderfulness of it all. Here’s one of those “cliffs”. Yeah, I’m pretty sure I could have figured something out.

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After I went off to college, the line eventually shut down. Years later the tracks were removed and the community was in an uproar as to what would happen to the railroad land. Of course land owners who buttressed up against the tracks wanted it to revert to them. But the community leaders had different plans and they went about creating a bicycling trail. There were lawsuits and many obstacles along the way, but what they have created is a beautiful long bike trail through the charming and beautiful Pennsylvania countryside. Someone got this one right. Now this narrow strip of land is creating new memories for families and kids which will last for another generation.

There’s nothing quite as awesome as a railroad. But a bike trail isn’t a far off second.

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The trees in the background hide the elevated railroad tracks/trail which were built to cut the valley in two.
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A view from the trail. That’s my childhood house nestled between the branches.

 

 

 

 

A Boy from Pennsylvania Weighs In

Pennsylvania did it. It ruthlessly defied the odds and pushed Donald Trump into the White House. Everyone is still in shock. Both Republicans and Democrats. Something was afoot, and everyone (or nearly everyone) missed it.

I grew up in Butler County, western Pennsylvania, just north of Pittsburgh. It has a series of small towns, rolling lush countryside and a lot of good people. Friendly, helpful, giving. They sit on front porches in the summer. They talk to their neighbors. They invite people in for dinner. They keep their lawns cut beautifully, drive an assortment of pick-up trucks, and have impeccable vegetable gardens out back. They go to church on Sunday, and tend, in many ways, to actually heed the precepts they hear. They are good people. I know. I grew up with them.

These are the people, hard-working folks from Butler County to central Ohio to western Wisconsin who won this election for Trump. The elite media may want to call them backward, uneducated, and dare I say it, slightly bigoted? But they are none of those.  And that’s what the media and Belt-Way pundits don’t get. These are not deplorables. They are hard-working, honest people.

And they have a voice. And they have spoken.

In a dramatic, historic way.

I hate to say it, but Obama was not the president of these people. They have felt marginalized by a series of decisions which eschewed their traditional ways, had eaten away at their way of living, and have watched their voices being drowned out by glib Hollywood actors and stuffy corporate Wall Streeters who have lobbied Washington for all kinds of perks and desires. Using Obama’s  own words, he wanted to “fundamentally change America” but he did so in a way that cast aside a large swath of voters.

But no more. We have an election for the record books, for the history books. We’ll be studying about this election for the next one hundred years and beyond.

What we learn from it remains unclear. But my hope is that President Trump (that still sounds strange saying that) will not cast aside a whole segment of the population as he begins to govern.

 

 

 

 

My Story: I Stand Out in an Asian Crowd

I wrote this for another website a while back. It sums me up well, though, so I thought I’d post it here.

I stand out in a crowd in Asia.

That may seem like a strange place to start in telling my story, but it has been the one constant truth in my life for the better part of 20 years.  I’m a strange site, indeed.

I’ve gotten used to the stares and comments, but at first, it was quite a change for a shy, country boy from Western Pennsylvania.

That’s where I grew up, playing baseball, following my beloved Pirates, and knowing near nothing of Asia. Strangely enough, one of the very few novels I read during my high school years was Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth.  I also remember loving the children’s book we had at our house about a boy in China and the flock of ducks that followed him around. But that was about it, for me. I didn’t even like rice.

I went to college and majored in English, because I didn’t know what else to do. I married my lovely wife a week after college graduation and settled into normal American life. But it was not to be. I spent the summer of 1992 in China teaching English, and that experience changed everything for me. I couldn’t wait to get back to Asia. I didn’t have to wait long.

In 1994, my wife and I moved to Vietnam with our 15-month-old daughter. We stayed for ten years. Then in 2006 we moved to Malaysia, where we currently reside.

What does all of this have to do with my writing? Everything.

My overseas experiences have become the fodder for all of my stories. I am inspired by diverse cultures, and I have become a completely different person – and a completely different writer.

My first novel, Beauty Rising, rose out of my experiences in Vietnam. My second novel, The Recluse Storyteller, is also partially set in Vietnam. My third, yet to be published novel, The Reach of the Banyan Tree, is my epic story about my love for Vietnam, set in two different time periods; it’s a story I can’t wait to publish. (It’s coming in July 2014!)

My time in Malaysia, living on the beautiful, tropical island of Penang, has been my muse. Since I moved here nearly 8 years ago, I’ve rekindled my love for writing. I’ve written and produced 11 full-length stage plays, and I’m working on my fourth novel.

And more importantly, I get to daily eat some of the best food in the world. Trust me, Penang is a food paradise.

I’m a lucky man; I know that. I have a wonderful family, and I love to tell stories about the human experience from my uniquely formed Asian worldview.

I’m also tall and white and stand out in an Asian crowd, yet I fit right at home at a roadside stall or a small dive-of-a-cafe.

I hope you’ll give one of my stories a try.